By Tony Williams.
Two years before the disastrous election in England that gave the Conservatives a majority to complete the Thatcher Revolution of the 1980s, The Spirit of ’45 appeared theatrically. This was Loach’s documentary on the stunning 1945 General Election that put the Labour Party into power reflecting a popular working-class mood that did not want to see the return of a Conservative Government associated with the ravages of the Great Depression. One of the most revealing clips is of Winston Churchill being booed at an election meeting by a crowd composed of returning veterans and working class voters. The old bull-dog is clearly shaken. This would be akin to ice-water thrown on an American’s face, trapped within the ideological comfort zones of The Great War Leader, oblivious to the fact that he had sent the military against striking miners in the 1920s, a memory never forgotten as I witnessed one morning in Swansea during 1965 when a charity poster with Winnie’s face was covered with black paint.
In his documentary, Loach includes archive footage of a time when all essential British industries were nationalized and the National Health Service created interspersed with interviews involving those who remembered the pre-war “bad old days” of poverty and neo-starvation and a younger generation of academics and health workers who see privatization of the Health Service as the last stage in the total victory of the Thatcher project aided by a Labour Party transformed and perverted by Blair and his allies. The Spirit of ’45 reveals a marked contrast between then and now with the present characterized by the victories of Global Economic Fascism as seen in the case of Greece and the devastation of once powerful industries such as manufacture and mining. With the introduction of tuition fees by Blair in the first year of New Labour and the lack of satisfactory employment for young people, the situation in England is grim unless a popular uprising unfettered by the Labour Party and the trade union movement emerges. Despite flaws in the original Old Labour project, The Spirit of ’45 shows what was possible then but far from being nostalgic contains a Thatcherite postscript revealing what has been lost since that era.
The two disc DVD contains detailed additional supplementary information such as an interview with Loach, his 1985 miner’s film Which Side Are You On? documenting many instances of police brutality against the striking miners that are only now being openly admitted, and extra footage of those interviewed in the theatrical version that appears to run some three hours. Among the most poignant segment is an interview with a female South Wales social worker despairing at young girls attracted by occupations such as “lap dancing” and “pole dancing”, promoted by the false ideology of “female empowerment” when no other opportunities exist for them. Would they take up such occupations if there were other means of employment? Those academics who support the role of sex workers but who deny issues of class and economic entrapment are also guilty of supporting this form of enslavement. Had Loach’s film been made after Cameron’s victory in May 2015 we would obviously have seen footage of an unemployed dying cancer patient attempting to claim a legitimate benefit and being asked by a Job Centre representative when he expects to die! The Spirit of ‘45 is a film relevant not just to Britain but any country when things were different in the past such as Sweden now affected by the virus of neo-liberalism.
The six disc Ken Loach at the BBC reveals what we have lost on the level of television drama as well. Containing key examples of Loach’s BBC work up to and including his two part 1977 The Price of Coal before the electoral victory of Thatcherism and the dilution of a once creative television drama, it is not surprising that these plays were released by Loach’s company Sixteen Films and not the BBC. In addition to well-known but relatively unseen work such as Three Clear Sundays (1965), Up the Junction (1965), In Two Minds (1967), and Cathy Come Home (1969), the set includes the Loach-Garnett-Jim Allen collaborations of The Big Flame (1969), The Rank and File (1971), and the four-part 1974 series Days of Hope dealing with the history of England from World War One to the 1926 General Strike that was defeated not by the Tory Government of Stanley Baldwin but by the combined reactionary alliance of the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement. Baldwin used plans that the previous Labour Government had drawn up in case of a strike. Played by Leo Britt, Churchill makes a brief appearance in the final part looking little better than an upper-class thug. The Big Flame and The Rank and File are agit-prop dramas in their own right, informed by Allen’s working-class Trotskyist sensibilities unthinkable in an era of British television’s bland escapism of Downton Abbey (2010– ) and Poldark (2015– ), to say nothing about the next Agatha Christie series featuring another version of Tommy and Tuppence!
Yet British drama could be fun as seen in the little known The End of Arthur’s Marriage (1965). It begins as a comedic kitchen sink manner but movies into a collision of different styles with voice-over musical chorus making Brecht into a television circus. Comedian John Fortune appears as a snotty salesman selling his product by chanting musical rhymes. Before its pessimistic end, the play moves into a swinging sixties carnivalesque number on a barge with well-known children’s television Crackerjack (1968–1969) singer and presenter Christine Holmes stripping to her bra and slacks, engaging the hero in a musical pirouette. The play often does not cohere but it does reveal a time when anything was possible and creatively encouraged before the micro-management characteristic of today’s BBC took over and made such ventures, whether in the realm of entertainment or political drama, totally impossible.
In his interview on the last disk, Loach mentions the importance of collaborators. He emphasizes the role of sympathetic producers such as Tony Garnett and James MacTaggart, as well as writers such as Jimmy O’Connor (who scripted the powerful anti-capital punishment Three Clear Sundays), David Mercer of In Two Minds, and Jim Allen ,whose vision was always direct and hardcore as his first (non-Loach) television drama about exploitation in the building trade The Lump (1967) revealed. Yet the role of actors was also crucial as seen in the casting of early Coronation Street (1960–1963) actress Christine Hargreaves (1939–1984) as the elder sister of Anna Cropper (one of Britain’s unsung veteran character actresses) in In Two Minds, Tony Selby as the helpless innocent victim of the hangman in Three Clear Sundays (who also appears in Up the Junction), as well as Carol White, the title victim in Cathy Come Home, and as working-class factory girl from Up the Junction who appears alongside Geraldine Sherman and Vickery Turner, married briefly to Warren Oates. Familiar British character actors such as George Sewell, Toni Palmer, George Tovey, and Charles Leno also appear elsewhere. Mixing drama with documentary to the consternation of rigid BBC officials, Cathy Come Home depicted the plight of the homeless in Britain, led to much needed changes and the creation of Shelter a homeless organization. Yet, as Loach admits, its main flaw was in not sketching the broader context of low pay, lack of housing, and unequal property ownership. Today, on any British street, the homeless still with us are now victimized by an even less compassionate society than within the 1960s Labour Government.
These are all essential viewing. Perhaps other important works could be re-issued such as the second David Mercer trilogy that began with On the Eve of Publication (1968)? It ends with Emma’s Time (1970) containing that poignant last scene when Michelle Dotrice’s young mistress of a deceased failed socialist writer meets Sladek (Peter Vaughn) who appears in The Cellar and the Almond Tree (1970) before facing torture by Stalinists after brutalization by Nazis. Older and younger generations begin collaborating on a history of the Czech Communist Party to reveal a new vision for a better world. The credits show with footage of Lenin and the sounds of The International suggesting continuation of a still valid tradition, Jim Allen’s The Big Flame and Land and Freedom (1995) conclude with similar images of younger generations learning from the past and hopefully moving forward. These Loach DVDs embody their own versions of future days of hope.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is currently reading the novels of Sir Walter Scott and enjoying the films of Wheeler and Woolsey.