Tim Thomas has been attending the Ken Loach retrospective at the British Film Institute marking Loach’s 75th birthday. He begins a series of short reviews.
The first film shown was the one Save The Children banned in 1969. “Save The Children”, quoting from the BFI press handout, “were unhappy with the content of the film and were determined not to allow it to be screened, successfully persuading London Weekend Television not to broadcast it. However Loach and Garnett (Loach’s producer) refused to hand over the negative to Save the Children.”
The dispute went to court where it was decided that the film should not be destroyed but sent to the National Film Archive on condition that it would not be shown without “written approval”.
What was all the fuss about? Why had it been disappeared for 42 years? The film shows the methods adopted by Save The Children to “help” children from Manchester and Nairobi — all heavily paternalistic, snobbish and with the intention, in the case of the African project, of eliminating African cultural perspectives and installing English school uniforms and ways of life including an unhealthy concentration on literature such as What Katy Did.
African children tend to give this text a perplexed look. In Manchester the children seemed happy and energetic but the voices over from the Save The Children staff suggest they are infected by the “laziness” of their parents and inherently inferior.
Afterward the showing there was a Q&A session with Loach and a member of Save The Children who gave the impression of falling into the same trap as his predecessors so many years previously. Not that it was quite his fault. No doubt he was as earnest and sincere in his compassion and belief that this sort of charity did good but, following the comments of African Marxists on the film, it did seem as if Save The Children always were, and always would be, the victims of self-serving British government aid programmes… the unchanging face of neo-colonialism.
These Kenyan Marxists, plus the opposition leader (then in exile), Oginga Odinga, emphasised the burden of aid. Deals were done to supply often unwanted agricultural equipment in London, so the money went straight from the government to the British manufacturers who made a profit and left Kenya impotent and with a debt.
This was a look at the Loach of the 60s: uncompromisingly socialist, shot in beautiful inky B&W. It is a rarity, uncut, and bundled away to avoid ruling-class embarrassments.
In 1980, after a 13 week national strike in the iron and steel industry, Loach brought together a dozen or so militant trade unionists from various private sector unions to discuss what went wrong.
The result is a powerful documentary whose style is echoed in some of Loach’s dramas, especially “Land and Freedom” and “Days of Hope”. People here are not afraid of swimming against the tide, of expressing their anger towards the industrial bosses and the mealy-mouthed union representatives.
The film was withdrawn by ATV on the grounds that it “lacked balance” . Cuts were made and it was shown only in the ATV region a year later.
Here are men and women rooted in their communities and prepared to suffer hardship for the sake of a cause. The union leaders are all too keen to see the battle fade away as quickly as possible by encouraging individual redundancy packages at £10,000 a piece which, as a striker explains to the camera, means the loss of a job “that belongs to the community here” (in this case, Llanwern, 60% of whose population worked for steel). Militants from car manufacturing, coal, and the docks point out that at the moment when there was a unanimous vote for a national stoppage in solidarity (British Leyland voted 2:1), the union leaders tail-ended the dispute and the demoralised workforce were forced back.
Thatcher had been in office for one year and her method is clearly defined: get the unions, if necessary by closing down whole workplaces and therefore whole communities. You can see the result if you pass through Port Talbot or Corby today.
It makes for essential viewing by all socialists and trades union members. You can watch it at Mediatheque, British Film Institute for free. Book it!
• For more, see the BFI website.