Ken Loach on his final film ‘The Old Oak’: “Every aspect of our civil society is collapsing”

The screenwriter Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach sit down with HUNGER to discuss everything from politics, immigration and activism to their 30-year partnership and the great British director’s final film.

All auteurs must eventually hang up their boots, but at 87, Ken Loach is making it clear that he will not be retiring quietly. In a career that has lasted more than 50 years, he has established himself as one of the UK’s most respected, prolific and radical directors. Someone whose anti-establishment ethos has not wavered since his early masterpiece Kes, which skewered a punitive educational system and remains as relevant today as it was in 1969. This resolve has garnered him and his longtime writing partner, the screenwriter Paul Laverty, immense praise. Together they are among the select few to have won the Palme d’Or twice, for The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake. The latter is the beginning of a loose trilogy comprising Sorry We Missed You, and Loach’s final film, The Old Oak.

I, Daniel Blake exposed the deadly reality of Britain’s unemployment benefits system, while Sorry We Missed You delved into the effects of a merciless gig economy on an indebted family. They’re broadly tragic, but with The Old Oak, Loach chooses to leave us with a sense of optimism. It tells the story of TJ Ballantyne, who is struggling to hold onto his pub in a formerly thriving mining town in the northeast. Mirroring current Tory policy, the government places a group of Syrian refugees in empty houses in the community, to the chagrin of the locals. While tensions begin to rise, Ballantyne strikes up an unlikely friendship with Yara, a young Syrian who uses her camera to document the hostility and kindness she encounters.

It’s a deeply hopeful film, proffering the belief that people are inherently good and that together they can create meaningful change. It is this unity that is so needed in Britain today, they say – a country that has seen incredible fallout after 13 years of Tory rule. As Loach tells me: “I think that if hope exists, it is in the fact that we care for each other. If you are lying on the road, I will come and help you and you will come and help me.” Here, the filmmakers speak about the conception of The Old Oak and reflect on a creative partnership that has lasted three decades.

Kris Hitchen as Ricky Turner and Katie Proctor as Liza Jane Turner in Sorry We Missed You.

Nessa Humayun: Paul, out of the 30-plus years you’ve worked with Ken, you’ve described The Old Oak as the hardest film to make. I found that surprising, because as tough as it can be in moments, it’s also incredibly heartening.

Paul Laverty: Film takes immense energy, people forget that. [Ken] doesn’t delegate any- thing. It looks like a simple film to watch, but you’ve got to find Syrian refugees close by and you have to find the community – that’s a lot of graft. It’s six months of digging around, going to schools, noting down the names of 40 children and coming back at 11 o’clock at night. Most people would have hung their boots up for this thing by now, but he’s always found the determination to do it.

Ken Loach: What also made it difficult was that I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You both had very simple premises. There’s a man who is told he is too ill to work, he is forced to keep looking for it and it kills him in the end. In the latter, there’s a good family who are working in a gig economy where they have no rights. They’re simple stories, but here we have a village community that’s been destroyed by losing its main source of income – the mines, which housed the old tradition of solidarity. People are feeling so distressed and abandoned that they’ve lost all hope or sense of possible progress in their lives. Then you add into the mix the Syrian refugees, who have the trauma of war. It’s so complex, and that’s what made it so difficult for Paul to write, because it mustn’t look forced. It can’t look as if the characters are there to represent what we think, particularly TJ. He began as a miner, came from the solidarity strikes, he was a committee organiser himself, but over the decades he’s lost his belief in the people. He now runs a pub and we see the racism that he hears every day. He can’t say anything to piss people off because he needs to protect his business, but something happens that makes him think, “Wow, there’s still a possibility.” You have to create that moment without it seeming oversimplified.

PL: It’s a really difficult thing to wrestle with, because as Ken mentioned, there’s so much trauma in the world. Most of the Syrian community we met with either had family that had been tortured or they’d gone through it themselves. That leaves wounds, not just physically, but to the spirit. There were endless stories we could have told, and we only had two hours to play with, so to try and melt that all together was a real puzzle.

NH: Unlike I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, The Old Oak is so hopeful. Was it a conscious decision to leave a resounding sense of optimism in your last film, Ken?

KL: It absolutely was, because if we have a society without hope, then we can’t progress. Unless it’s a daydream, hope has to be based on a realistic possibility of how we can make things better. If we cross our fingers in hope, it does no good, it doesn’t mean anything. We’ve always said that hope is a political cause, because if you believe you can change something, then you know there’s a viable path to getting there. So we went to Paul to write something that has hope but isn’t fantasy. I mean he couldn’t write something fantastical in the situation we’re in today where every aspect of our civil society is collapsing – health, education, housing… This collapse has been presided over by the Tories who instigated it, the Labour party that colluded with it, as well as the worst, most cynical, opportunist, unprincipled Labour leadership we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Where on earth can you find hope? And to add to that we’ve got a climate crisis coming where there will be migration on a scale that we can’t even imagine. So I think that if hope exists, it is in the fact that we care for each other. If you are lying on the road, I will come and help you and you will come and help me – and that’s what we see in these two different communities [in The Old Oak]. Neither side has got anything – one has been through the trauma of war and the other has been left behind. But that old solidarity of the pit village comes through in the end – and it’s real because that is actually happening in that area right now. The people making the migrants welcome are the same ones who have been shunted by the government themselves, so the working class has got a long memory, you know.

Dave Johns as Danile Blake and Hayley Squires as Katie in I, Daniel Blake (2018)

NH: As you’ve said, the UK is on the brink of collapse. There’s little semblance of a welfare state, we barely own any of our utilities and now we’re in the midst of a housing and cost of living crisis. When Cathy Come Home, about homelessness, came out in 1966, there was such an outcry that the charity Shelter brought forward its launch. How has the reaction to your films changed? Have people become more apathetic?

PL: It’s interesting because with I, Daniel Blake there was a huge outcry, but I think [the Tories] learnt from that. There were several announcements about it in parliament, but cleverly they started calling it “a work of fiction”, even though there were real cases going on that were more extreme than our story. But there has been some outcry, [the film] has been turned into a wonderful play by Dave Johns that’s been having standing ovations over the past few weeks. Still, on the ground, the Tories are continuing to dish out sanctions. Someone came up to us on the streets of Durham recently, saying that she was on DWP and struggling. That reality is ongoing, and we’re also seeing cruelty transferred to scapegoat- ing another group, immigrants. [The minister for immigration] Robert Jenrick even painted over Disney [murals] at a reception centre for migrant children! What we see now is great state cruelty, and we have an opposition that isn’t going to change it. So what can happen in this vacuum? We both have a great fear that if there is not proper, progressive political representation, the right will come in and harness hatred and fury as everything collapses, and then find scapegoats. I was watching Sky News this morning and it was all about the migrants in boats, and meanwhile there’s a crisis in housing and mental health that has been totally ignored. Compared to other countries like Germany, we took in a tiny little number of refugees, and they’ve been turned into a great big scary monster. That’s not an accident and we’re allowing it to happen.

KL: The difference between these recent films and Cathy Come Home is that in the Sixties, there was a whole new left and much more apparent revolutionary activity. Society was sustaining itself within the welfare state that still existed, and there wasn’t the same level of deep poverty that there is now. By and large I got a good reception when Cathy Come Home came out, and now we get abuse at a level of viciousness you can’t imagine. Cathy Come Home was also seen by 12 million peo- ple, and now we’re in cinemas with much smaller audiences. Still, I believe there is real possibility because we are in such a moment of crisis – something has to change.

Ebla Mari as Yara in The Old Oak (2023)

NH: How have you been able to keep your morale up throughout the years?

KL: The people we meet making every film are just knock-out. They’re just brilliant. Making the films is easy compared to the lives they’ve lived and still live. The people who struggle on the ground in grassroots organisations are not doing interviews in nice pubs in Covent Garden. They’re doing it every single day, you feel very humble in comparison to them. If they can keep fighting, why on earth can’t we?

NH: In your work, you often cover young people and how important it is that they get access to the arts. Why do you value this access so highly?

KL: The arts must be an essential part of any political manifesto, like they were in the 1945 one, just out of the war. We made a film called Bread and Roses, because you may need bread, but you need roses too, roses being the good things in life. It’s through music and plays that children can express themselves and feel empowered to take part in the world as if they own it, rather than simply being told that educa- tion is there to enable them to earn a basic living at the most exploited level the gov- ernment can impose on them. That’s the Tories’ mechanical attitude to education – “Let business tell us what business needs and we’ll educate you to that level.” They’re forever talking about how employers can’t get the skills they need, but bugger that. The 1945 manifesto had a great line about hiring educators who could develop inde- pendent thinkers, and that’s our responsibility as parents, we must allow kids to be who they are capable of being.

Ebla Mari as Tara and Dave Turner as TJ Ballantyne in The Old Oak

NH: So many parents are scared to let that happen given the current economic environment.

PL: We’re steeped in resentment, it’s just philistines that they really want. How many schools now don’t have musical instruments or playing fields?

KL: Cricket is dying because the bloody Tories and Labour sold our playing fields. It’s unbelievable. It’s a child’s birthright to have space to play and learn – unless you go to Eton or Harrow, then you have as much land as you want.

PL: Of course, the irony is that Harrow and Eton have lots of people going into the arts. We have to protect that space for [working-class children] and give them the option. Every individual should be able to be who they want to be, regardless of their class. The Tories are cutting down choices and reinforcing a lack of agency.

NH: Back to The Old Oak. You set it in 2016, but it could have easily been set now with everything that’s going on. Why did you choose that particular point in time?

PL: [In 2016] there was a particular programme in place for vulnerable people in camps and Britain took in approximately 20,000 Syrians. So we imagined the film being set right at the beginning of that and wanted to be truthful to those migrants. It was a very small number compared to how many people other countries in Europe took in. And per capita, more went to the northeast and Scotland than anywhere else, so we wanted to place it in that reality, but the ideas behind it could just as easily be now.

KL: Another key reason was because the local authorities are now much more wel- coming to refugees. They’ve got people in place who understand and who know how to make it work. At the beginning of the film, when the bus of migrants arrives and they’re treated with hostility, that’s based on a real event that happened. The first wave of immigrants from Syria had it tougher than what migrants are facing now.

NH: You consulted with a number of real-life Syrian refugees to make the film – how are they find- ing life in the UK now?

PL: We always show the film to the people who made the film first. It was lovely to see them and hear how their children are getting on. Their English was much better and many of them now have good jobs. Immigrant families work very hard and they’ve also been traumatised by their experiences. There are families where the men especially are struggling, they miss home and feel disconnected and alienated. It’s very hard for them to not have the agency that they had back in Syria – it’s never black or white. What’s heartbreaking too is that many of them believe that they will never go back to their own country.

KL: When you work together, it’s quite an intense relationship, it has to be. You get to know each other well and you can’t just walk away from that – it falsifies what you’ve done if you say, “OK, I’ll do another job now.” You do end up with a lot of friends over the years.

Dave Turner as TJ Ballantyne in The Old Oak

NH: Ken, you’ve previously faced censorship – Which Side Are You On?, featuring the songs and po- ems of the miners’ strike, was never broadcast, as well as A Question of Leadership, about Thatcher’s impact on the trade unions. Were you ever tempted to dial back being so vocal?

KL: No, you couldn’t. You couldn’t work. You’ve got to go for the core of it. The other thing about filming is that it’s always a partnership, and I think you can only work together if you see the world in the same way. You care about the same things, you laugh about the same things and you get angry about the same things. [Paul and I] have shared a basic idea of what is important, and that is what has kept us going. If one were tempted to take it easy, the other would say, “Fuck no, remember why we’re doing this.”

NH: You’ve worked together for 30 years now and it’s been a beautiful and prolific partnership. What do you admire most about each other after all this time?

KL: I’ve suggested several times that he could get a hair transplant and he’s rejected it, so I have to admire his courage. A lesser man would be wearing a crown top.

PL: Cheeky bastard, isn’t he [Laughs.]? Don’t worry, I’ll bring up his false teeth then.

NH: Both of you have spoken about the need to agitate, educate and organise. Now as your film career comes to an end, Ken, who do you want to see doing the organising?

KL: Organisation comes out of political resistance and the need for people to step forward and say, “I’ll have a go!” We need to come with the men and women.

PL: Many people are contributing. There are those who care about the environment, and look at all the people who run the food banks, despite despising the need for them. They’re making contact and they want to enact change, but if you’re really going to change the grand scheme of things, you have to get access to the levers of power.

KL: Oddly enough, the more Labour moves to the right, the more it expels the activists and people who really fought for it over the years, and in doing so, it trades a body of people who know how to organise. That’s the challenge for us, we can’t split. The challenge is to transcend that and say, “Here are the principles that unite us.” The political necessity to organise has never been greater. We need to organise on the basis of our principles and take back ownership of our utilities, like the NHS, as a priority.

WriterNessa Humayun