Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 3, January 2003



Florian Grandena


Realism, Politics, and Melodrama:

Jacob Leigh's _The Cinema of Ken Loach_



Jacob Leigh

_The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People_

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2002

ISBN 1-903364-31-0

211 pp.


Involved in the filmmaking business for almost forty years, Ken Loach has become one of the most prominent British filmmakers. Stamped with political commitment and artistic integrity, his films have taken many forms and have dealt with a wide range of issues: indeed, Loach has produced a body of high quality and ambitious work that has gained praise and recognition from film professionals, critics, and the public. Thus, that a scholar such as Jacob Leigh dedicates an entire book to the richness and pertinence of Loach's works is more than welcome.


In the Introduction to _The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People_, Leigh immediately states his aims: 'to describe the thematic and stylistic consistencies in the work of Ken Loach and to provide an account of the development of his career' (1). Indeed, the whole book is dedicated to the evolution of Loach's career, both in formal and topical terms, and places much emphasis on the director's various collaborations with, for example, writer Jim Allen and director of photography Chris Menges.


In the first chapter, 'Clear Notes in the Concert', Leigh chooses to discuss the key themes of his book (realism, politics, and melodrama) through the analysis of two scenes from _Carla's Song_ (1996). The chapter almost bluntly starts with an illustration of the problem that has confronted Loach throughout his career: plausibility, or more precisely, how 'to inform *and* to entertain audiences' (11). Leigh's whole book is enriched by interesting in-depth analyses of well-chosen scenes, and Chapter 1 is no exception. Here the author focuses on acting style in two scenes. In the first scene, the reader is told that mannered, hesitating acting leads to spectatorial alienation. In another scene, not unlike in documentaries, the camera captures 'authentic' emotions and behaviour. Leigh's reflection is thus informed by critical appraisals of Loach's films in terms of realism. Similarly, he ponders over the possibility of incorporating politics into films without being too overt.


In Chapter 2 ('What to Do with a Camera'), the author analyses the aesthetic strategies in Loach's early works and lays emphasis on the evolution of the director's style and his collaborations. The three films discussed in this chapter concentrate on the struggle of working class women. They also all share a desire to stay away from naturalism by applying some Brechtian techniques. The main films discussed in this chapter are _Up the Junction_ (1965), _Cathy Come Home_ (1966), and _Poor Cow_ (1967). Typically, the chapter is divided in three sections, each dedicated to the analysis of a film.


_Up the Junction_ was adapted from Nell Dunn's novel of the same name. Here, it is mostly the Brechtian use of songs and music that is analysed: Leigh underlines the spectatorial emotional disruption that is provoked by sound/song juxtapositions or interruptions. The author also pays attention to other Brechtian and Godardian influences, such as the combination of individual drama, social analysis, fractured narratives, and some non-naturalist acting techniques (such as addressing the camera).


_Cathy Come Home_ was filmed on location and used the interview format. Indeed, formally speaking, Loach's film suggests a documentary report. Leigh discusses Loach's use of documentary traditions such as montage sequences of observational shots. Much attention is paid to voice-overs, which are used in a journalistic manner: for example, a voice-over gives a personal account of the film story (homelessness) whereas another 'clinically' delivers statistics and directly asks the government to act. The film links an individual drama to a problem facing many people. Here, the principles of association and juxtaposition prevail over integration.


Another adaptation from a Dunn novel, _Poor Cow_ was Loach's first film destined for cinema release. This work shows the effect of environment on the socialisation of a child. As in the previous two films, the causality between scenes is not obvious. Meaning is constructed through associations. When songs are used, they seem to have a political significance, or express something very specific about their era. Once again, voice-overs offer and juxtapose different perspectives.


In the first paragraph of Chapter 3 ('Sympathetic observation'), the author announces that he will discuss the evolution of Loach's works of the late 1960s, but focuses almost uniquely on _Kes_ (1969). That said, the chapter provides the reader with a lengthy and excellent discussion of the film. _Kes_ shows Loach's willingness to depart from Brechtian influence and allowed the director to develop his own photographic style (largely thanks to his collaboration with director of photography Chris Menges). The film also helped him to refine his technique of character development and point of view. In _Kes_, Leigh explains, a political critique is made possible through metaphors and by showing a private side of its main character: political comments are implied, not overt. There are fewer disruptions in _Kes_ than in previous films: indeed, Loach establishes a connection between his film and the classical narrative film by using mainly one point of view (this also allows the director to assert the realism of the film). Loach also started to experiment with the 'documenting the actor' type of filming (actors are filmed even when they have stopped performing).


The fruitful collaboration of Loach with writer Jim Allen constitutes the core of Chapter 4, 'The Experience of History'. Loach collaborated six times with writer Jim Allen, and three of their contributions for television are also discussed by Leigh: _The Big Flame_ (1969), _The Rank and File_ (1971), and _Days of Hope_ (1975). The 1970s work marks Loach's diminishing interest in disruptive techniques, such as unspecified voice-overs, and the beginning of his exploration of different ways of dramatizing collective experience. It is indeed through the latter explorations that Loach expresses his political philosophy (which was very influenced by Allen's interest in anti-Stalinist socialism). _The Big Flame_ is the first example of such politically committed films in Loach's career. _The Rank and File_ constitute Loach and Allen's first attempt at dramatising a historical event (a strike in Lancashire in the late 1960s). The four episode series _Days of Hope_ deals with a lockout in Durham in the early 1920s: however, the series aims to deal with political issues retaining great social pertinence in the specific context of the mid-1970s, and establish a continuity between past events and the present.


Chapter 5 ('Significance and Objectivity') continues the discussion of realism started in Chapter 1: in effect, it deals with the connection between Loach's feature films and documentaries, that is the relationship between fiction and non-fiction. The director's interest in documentary can be explained by his willingness to document the life of everyday people. However, the chapter deals primarily with Loach's feature film _The Gamekeeper_ (1980), a collaboration with writer Barry Hines and Menges. This work is Loach's only 1980s fiction film that acknowledged the importance of individual drama. The rest of the decade is described as 'artistic dormancy' (120). In his discussion of _The Gamekeeper_, Leigh also stresses the importance of the long shot, and restrained lighting and camera movement. These techniques are also to be found in another feature film, _Looks and Smiles_ (1982). Between 1981 and 1986 Loach almost exclusively made documentaries that are all explicit about politics, and it is with these non-fiction works that the author concludes Chapter 5: Loach's documentaries of the 1980s show everyday people presenting themselves with their own voices through the use of interviews, discussions, and explanatory voice-overs.


In the first paragraph of the final chapter ('Cutting to the Core of what's Happening') Leigh explains that, in the early 1990s, Loach finally succeeded in establishing a secure relationship with a producer (Parallax). This collaboration led to the production of _Riff-Raff_ (1991), _Raining Stones_ (1993), and _Ladybird, Ladybird_ (1994). These three films form a post-Thatcher Britain trilogy, but, unfortunately, the author does not analyse the films in relation to each other. (In fact _Riff-Raff_ is only referred to in a passing reference.) In this chapter, much attention is paid to _Raining Stones_, _Ladybird, Ladybird_, and _Land and Freedom_ (1995).


_Raining Stones_ is another collaboration with Allen and recalls the episodic linearity that is representative of Italian neo-realism. The film alternates between comedy and melodrama: the changes of mood are enhanced by the music of Stewart Copeland, who had collaborated twice with Loach before (the author does not inform us which other films Copeland has worked on). _Raining Stones_ differs from other collaborations with Allen in that digressions are integrated in the film narrative; moreover, the film develops its political theme by contrasting a minor character's view with the hero's.


Whereas the photography and locations of _Labybird, Ladybird_ are similar to the ones used in _Raining Stones_, the storyline relies mainly on melodrama and its tendency to excess and narrative disproportion. Here, the storyline develops out of a character's experience. Allen and Loach take this method further in _Land and Freedom_, making a narrative emerge from different versions of history (the Spanish Civil War). Aiming at a large audience, their target was to 'balance a sense of events, institutions and policies with a story about individuals whose emotions and experiences are engaging' (166). Leigh stresses the way that the Civil War acts as an eye-opener for the main character, helping him to enlarge his own perceptions of the conflict and the people taking part in it.


In the Introduction, _The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People_ promises the reader an overview of the evolution of Loach's career. However, the author focuses on only a selection of Loach's films, without justifying the omission of others. For example, only passing references are made to important works such as _Hidden Agenda_ (1990), _My Name is Joe_ (1998), _Bread and Roses_ (2000) and _The Navigators_ (2001), all of which are listed in the filmography. These unjustified omissions make Leigh's project somewhat un-clear and incomplete. In order to map the evolution of Loach's films, a more strictly chronological discussion of the director's works would have been more pertinent and productive.


Moreover, the author unfortunately digresses from his own project as early as the first chapter: in effect, Leigh introduces the key themes of his books through a discussion of _Carla's Song_ (1996), contradicting from the beginning his central project of discussing films in the continuity of Loach's career. Although the analysis of the film is irreproachable, one may wonder why, in this introductory chapter, the author has not concentrated on a more thorough theoretical presentation of the central themes of his book. The central choice of _Carla's Song_ is not justified. Nor does the author provide the reader with a synopsis, a drawback for those unfamiliar with the film. Also, Leigh's often convoluted prose does not help the reader in his grasp of this somehow fragmented presentation.


That said, the qualities of Leigh's book are many. The book is extremely well-researched and contains rare and useful contributions by Loach himself. It also provides the reader with in-depth and illuminating film analyses, and successfully underlines the productive relationship between Loach and his various collaborators. In other words, _The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People_ is a must for those interested in Loach's career and European politically committed cinema.


Notttingham Trent University, England



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004.



Florian Grandena, 'Realism, Politics, and Melodrama: Jacob Leigh's _The Cinema of Ken Loach_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 3, January 2004 <>.



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