Ken Loach’s rally cry for social justice is as loud as ever

Ken Loach at Phoenix Cinema

Ken Loach at Phoenix Cinema - Credit: Archant

On my way into East Finchley’s Phoenix Cinema, a man handed me a leaflet demanding No More Austerity; once inside the doors, the small foyer was packed with people, there wasn’t even any space on the stairs.

A Ken Loach Q&A is something more than the promotional puff that is the mainstay of the film festival and the independent cinema chain. Loach may be the last remaining high-profile credible figure of the British Left; he is certainly the only one with any kind of media access.

The first thing to say is that Loach is value for money. He’s there before the film starts to give us a little introduction and, just under two hours later, he’s back on stage to chat with Time Out’s Dave Calhoun and take questions from the audience. In between is his latest/maybe last film Jimmy’s Hall. The idea was floated around the time of its Cannes screening that, with his 78th birthday coming up this month, this might be Loach’s final film, but the line now is that he’s going to watch the World Cup and see how he feels.

Tonight he doesn’t look like a man presenting his swansong or sound like a man who is looking back. He seems to be in robust shape physically – he could pass for 15 years younger – and his receding hairline gives him passing resemblance to Sven-Göran Eriksson. The passion for social justice is undimmed and he is still full of fight. Not that he needs that tonight: here at the Phoenix he is met with nothing but total love from the audience.

Jimmy’s Hall is a story that shouldn’t be any kind of story at all. A man returns to his home country after 10 years away travelling and living in New York and decides to reopen the dance hall he used to run before he left a decade previously – a place where the locals can dance or do classes in literary appreciation, boxing and art. But this is Ireland in 1932 and Jimmy Gralton’s (Barry Ward) modest, co-operative venture is seen as a threat by the Catholic Church who demand that all education be under their control. When the hall hosts Republican courts that adjudicate over property disputes, the landowners become its enemy too and Jimmy and the people who use the hall are denounced as communists and the anti-Christ.

Contemporary resonance

After his 2006 movie The Wind That Shakes The Barley, about two brothers on either side of the Civil War in the early 20s, Loach says he didn’t expect to tackle Ireland on film again. But then his usual collaborator Paul Laverty brought him the Jimmy Gralton story and it struck him as a perfect meshing of his usual themes as well as being an historical drama with plenty of contemporary resonance: “The new orthodoxy isn’t the Catholic Church but the IMF.” The hall itself was “an emblem of resistance… (and) … a second lead character.” It was also prompted by a line in The Wind That Shakes The Barley: “If you lot (Republicans) win, Ireland will become nothing but a priest-ridden backwater.”

Most Read

The result is a film bursting with the great Loach assets. It is passionate and committed but with plenty of humour. Though he’d doubtless hate the word, he is a slick film-maker. This effortlessness doesn’t come easily; anyone can point their handheld digital camera at the world and call it naturalism. Despite its low budget, Jimmy’s Hall has decent production values but with a spontaneity and vitality to it that gives it a fly-on-the-wall intimacy. You can feel the love with which he draws out fine performances from actors and non-professionals.

Amusingly, the evil priest of the story, Father Sheridan, is played by Jim Norton, who will forever be recognised as the evil Bishop Brennan in Father Ted. Initially, the casting seems a miscalculation, but this layer of recognition actually deepens the role, gives a chilling insight into how close the caricature monster of Father Ted is to real-life basis. Loach revealed that the figure of Father Sheridan in the script was lightened up from his real-life inspiration who, from transcripts of his sermons, was “pure fire and brimstone”.

It seems that most of the film is conjecture. For example, scriptwriter Laverty fleshed out the character of Jimmy by giving him a fictitious love interest, Oonagh (Simone Kirby). Of course, their research was further hampered by the discovery that all the official records about what happened to Gralton at the end of the film had mysteriously disappeared.

The questions for Ken from the audience at the end seemed to go off at wild tangents. One lady asked about the difficulty of seeing foreign films in cinemas and asked if this was censorship; another said of the film that she took out the Catholic Church, took out Ireland and said the film was about the struggles with the council in Barnet. At the end, Loach said how much he loved the Phoenix Cinema because it was genuinely independent and a break from the dominance of multiplexes and asked us to remember Jimmy Gralton by going out and organising.