This box set of Ken Loach films comes out the same week he made some controversial statements in lieu accusations of Anti-Semitism within The Labour Party. It features the three films Loach made after his comeback with Hidden Agenda in 1990. His first run of films was in the 60s with his TV films (especially Cathy Come Home) and cinematic offerings like Kes and Poor Cow. Throughout the 70s and 80s he had real struggles getting films made—although he did a lot of television work during that time, he was only able to make four feature films during that time, not much compared to his almost Woody Allen-level of production since the ’90s.
Riff Raff, Raining Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird are very much what you would expect from Loach: they are good documents of what he was about during that period politically and socially. They are concerned with working-class people in London and Manchester, not necessarily the happiest stories or the most pleasant watches. Surprisingly the least well known is also the best: Ladybird, Ladybird is kind of an update of Cathy Come Home, and predates the similar scenes in his most recent film, I, Daniel Blake (which has been his most successful film to date and one of his weakest). It’s the only one of the three that’s based on a true story. A young woman is in a series of abusive relationships that leave her with children. She is befriended by a South American political refugee who she starts a romantic relationship with. She and he faces social services and eventually immigration departments that lack understanding. It doesn’t pull punches – you come to understand why her children are placed at risk and why social services reacts as they do. The characters are well-rounded and avoid the simplistic take of I, Daniel Blake on the benefits system and social service programmes.
Riff-Raff was his first film after Hidden Agenda. It’s about Stevie (Robert Carlyle), a Glasgewian who has moved to London after his release from prison. He finds work in construction, but finds himself facing corruption in the construction industry and it’s set against the backdrop of the Thatcherite gentrification of London. It’s also a love story between Stevie and Susan, a hippy free-spirit type that he meets who also has a drug addiction problem. Stevie and most of the other workers on the site are squatting, so there’s a look into the era of mass squatting in London as well. Susan disappears at one point, and the film ends a little abruptly for my liking.
Raining Stones is set in Manchester and stars Bruce Jones as Bob, the lead character alongside Ricky Tomlinson. Tomlinson also appeared in Riff-Raff as a left-leaning construction worker (a role that being a union activist and member of the Shrewsbury Two prepared him well for). It’s probably the weakest of three, following Bob as he tries to come up with money for his daughter’s communion dress for his daughter. Things don’t work out, and as he gets desperate everything starts to go wrong. Probably the most interesting character, Nat, is the local priest. Given his well-known support for Irish Republicanism, he tends to write sympathetic Catholic characters.
Riff-Raff and Raining Stones had already been released on Blu-Ray in the US, and the BFI has restored Ladybird, Ladybird in a high-def transfer approved by Loach. Special features include Loach’s Guardian lecture at the NFT in 1992, around the release of Raining Stones; an episode of Face to Face with Jeremy Isaacs, the former head of Channel 4 (which was a big supporter of Loach’s work over the years-all of these films were partly funded by Film4); and a documentary called Carry On Ken, which was made around the time of The Wind That Shakes the Barley. In addition, there is a booklet with new and old writing on Loach’s work. Let’s hope that in the near future the BFI can get the rights to Land and Freedom, which is also due for a re-release; the BFI archive should have some archival footage of Spanish Civil War that would really enhance it as part of a new package.