Ken Loach, the most modest of directors, would probably say he had a lot to be modest about – that his team deserves as much praise as he does. And it is certainly true that you don’t look for visually imaginative work from Loach – though a writer in Sight and Sound who suggested not long ago that Loach couldn’t even frame a shot properly was talking through the wrong hole. In fact, Loach has always said that if you notice the camerawork, there’s something wrong with the story.
What he struggles to find is the truth of any given situation through good casting, scripts that often seem improvised but are not, and the courage of his strong and unwavering left-leaning convictions. In his best movies, Loach is able to turn the particular into the universal and to appeal to audiences the world over. Kes was such a film, as were Riff-Raff and Raining Stones.
Kes is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable films about education, or the lack of it, ever made. Its main theme is perhaps naive – that if you give a so-called dunce some kind of chance, the result can surprise him and certainly his teachers. The film’s incidentals are as good as its main thrust, which is never sentimentalised and maintains the right to be angry as well as touching and funny.
Kes is the kestrel found and trained by a young Barnsley boy from a broken home. The boy, marvellously played by David Bradley, virtually refuses education at the local school, which, though inadequate, is never shown as wholly awful. Encouraged by a sympathetic teacher, he finds some sort of hope in his new interest, even though social deprivation is always likely to stamp it out.
What adds immeasurably to the film’s power are the incidental scenes of school life. There are two I’ll never forget. One has a tiny boy lining up outside the head’s study, probably for a beating, and crying his excuses. The tenderness displayed here mixes with hilarity in a way very few directors could even begin to achieve. The other has the ex-wrestler Brian Glover as sports master taking his boys out on to the field and, to the strains of the BBC’s old Sports Night signature tune, acting out a football fantasy that has him behaving more like a child than his charges.
It’s this sort of thing that proclaims Loach a nearly great and certainly cherishable director, since it does so much more than merely leaven his political points with humour. Who, for instance, can forget Ricky Tomlinson as a building worker in Riff-Raff, climbing naked from a bath in a new building to face a posse of surprised clients brought in by one of the besuited developers?
This is not to downgrade the serious – some say over-earnest – side of Loach’s work, which invariably deals with the injustice of uncaring capitalism and invokes a properly socialist alternative. It’s just to emphasise what a very good film-maker he is when encouraged by good writers such as Barry Hines (Kes) or Bill Jesse (Riff-Raff).
He is a director admired, and often loved, all over the world. I remember once presiding over the International Critics’ Jury at Cannes and, as the British representative, gingerly suggesting that one of Loach’s films should at least be on the shortlist. “What?” said several members of the jury in unison. “On the shortlist? He’s got to win!” One of them, a Latin American, added, “Who else can make you laugh and then cry in the space of two minutes?”