Interview: Ken Loach, Paul Laverty and the cast chat The Old Oak

the old oak interview
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Beloved director Ken Loach has made potentially his last film with The Old Oak and we chat to him about making it. 

“Hang on a moment while I try to get you on speakerphone,” veteran director Ken Loach laughs as we begin our interview call: it’s the second chat we’ve had in as many days. “Pensioners and technology”, he laughs, as he struggles on his “very old phone” to find the loudspeaker button.

“Okay, where did we get up to? Ah yes, politics.”

At the age of 87, Loach might be forgiven for not liking smartphones, but his use of a camera and command of a film set is as strong as ever – as is his voice, which has spoken up for the working classes more than most politicians. His 1966 BBC drama Cathy Come Home brought the plight of homelessness to the masses and even resulted in a change of law so homeless fathers could stay with their families in hostels. His masterpiece, Kes, arrived four years later in 1970 and followed the story of Billy Casper – a young boy whose pet kestrel gives him a momentary escape from the bleak, abject poverty he finds himself in.

There have been many more career highlights since then. Riff-Raff and Raining Stones offered portraits of working class life rarely seen on big screens, while the Cillian Murphy-starring The Wind That Shakes the Barley won him Cannes’ Palme d’Or in 2006. Ten years later, he won it again for I, Daniel Blake, the first in a trilogy of films exploring the impact of brutal austerity policies on the working classes.

the old oak dave turner ebla mari

Credit: Studio Canal

The third film in that trilogy, following on from 2019’s Sorry We Missed You – a film about the poor gig economy in the UK – arrives in cinemas this week. The Oak Oak is set in the North East of England, in a community decimated by the miner’s strikes in the 1980s and years of continued underfunding since.

“The mining communities were left to rot under Thatcher,” Loach begins, as we get back to the politics of inequality that have driven his near seven-decade career. “The mining unions were the strongest unions and Thatcher obviously knew that at the time. That’s why she launched an attack on so many of them. She wanted to destroy them, because she knew they were the homes of robust political systems. She knew exactly what she was doing.

“Thatcher was determined to beat the miners into submission to destroy the mining communities because that’s where the political heartland was – what used to be called the aristocrats of labour,” he continues, rolling off an encyclopaedic knowledge of Britain’s class history.

“If you could destroy them as communities, as political centres, as a political union, then that’s a massive victory for the ruling class and that’s what she did. She closed the pits, the villages began to deteriorate and no investment went in. The destruction of these communities was not an accident: it was a conscious political decision and the legacy of that is there for all to see.”

Loach and long-term writing partner Paul Laverty visited the North East with the leading star of his new film, Dave Turner, who has also appeared in Loach’s last two films. Turner is not a trained actor, but a retired fireman and trade union rep; at the time the call from Loach came, he was managing in a pub in a former mining community in County Durham. I meet Turner in Manchester with Laverty and Ebla Mari, his co-star, a few days before speaking to Loach.

“I spoke to Ken and Paul about what was happening to the villages and how they’ve just been left to rot,” Turner explains. “I drove them around the former pit communities in County Durham and showed them just how [decimated] they were.”

The Old Oak, which rivals I, Daniel Blake in powerful, raw and emotive storytelling, doesn’t just focus on the poverty in these villages. It also explores race divisions when refugees from Syria arrived in the UK in 2016 and were placed into these already struggling communities.

“The refugees had come from situations we can’t even comprehend,” Turner continues. “Terrible situations where they’ve lost everything. We’ve put them in environments that are completely foreign to them in places that are already struggling and told them to just get on with it. It was inhuman and immoral.”

In the film, Turner plays pub landlord T.J. Ballentine. The Old Oak is a run-down pub in an even more run-down area where unemployment and poverty abound. Syrian refugees are rehomed there by the government and tensions run high. “There’s so many things in the UK falling apart right now,” writer Laverty says.

“There’s seven million people on NHS waiting lists, the courts are all bunged up. Prisoners are in their cells 23 hours a day. We have the biggest standard of living crisis since the Napoleon War in 1798 but suddenly it’s the small boats that’s the entire problem. It’s 0.54 percent of the population.”

the old oak community

Credit: Studio Canal

Laverty spent months in the communities speaking to residents who’d lived there “all their lives” and refugees who’d been placed there “with little preparation.” He witnessed the divisions the arrival of the refugees caused: one scene in the film, which shows a Syrian family arriving on a bus to racist abuse from the locals, was based on a true story he’d heard about first hand from residents. Another shows the hurt when poor communities see refugees being given charity donations when they themselves are accessing food banks. Laverty says the divisions were “palpable” and “fraught” because there had been no attempt to explain “what was happening here and why.”

“There was an incident last year when a registration place for asylum seekers was firebombed. The following day she talked about the invasion of small boats. It was racist and was clearly inciting hatred,” Laverty says.

Turner agrees: “It’s not about small boats; it’s about people. The people that are coming here are coming from places in the world that the West has bombed – we must remember that. You’ve got to be in a really bad position to think about putting your child in a boat across the Channel. There needs to be more humanity; politicians use this language and we’re [subsequently] seeing [right-wing] rallies, people standing outside hostels. We need to change that narrative somehow.”

Loach is, unsurprisingly, equally as appalled by the government’s rhetoric on refugees. “The film is set in 2016 but what’s happened in the years following endorses what we try to say in the film. The hostility is engendered…the government have been feeding racism and their own language is evidence of that, talking of ‘invasions’ and ‘swarms.’”

In the film, Loach gives a powerful snapshot of what refugees are fleeing from via the character of Yara, played by newcomer Ebla Mari who is from Majdal Shams in a village that borders Syria. Yara’s father is missing after the war and her family have lost everything; they have been placed in the North East village where T.J lives.

the old oak ebla mari

Credit: Studio Canal

While they face hostility from the locals initially, T.J’s befriending of Yara leads to a community coming together in the same way they did in the eighties – to feed one another during the strikes: “eat together, stick together” is the motto printed underneath an old picture in the pub of the mining village combining resources to eat in the eighties while the government tried to starve them.

Loach says he and Laverty saw evidence of people in the communities working hard to end divisions. “The old tradition of solidarity in the villages was still there,” Loach says. “It comes from the days of the strike and the massive solidarity, mutual support and interdependence that was always there. People we saw were rediscovering that when people in even greater need were living alongside them.”

Loach thinks Claire Rodgerson, who plays the part of community volunteer Laura in the film, was a good example of the type of individuals who were working against the government’s discriminatory narrative.

“She’s a community worker and activist and her job in real life is to combat the influence of the far right in young people. Dave managed a pub and was often sat in the place hearing the language of the regulars, which was probably even worse than we show in the film. You hear it every day – on phone ins, everywhere,” he explains, saying it shows what people in Claire’s position are up against daily.

“We saw so many activists putting on events that brought people together, helping Syrian families adapt to life here and become a part of the community. They’ve worked hard but are up against very little help from the government who are actually working against them. They’re generating friction, looking for scapegoats…which is undermining the work people like Claire are trying to do.”

Mari spent time with the Syrian refugees ahead of filming. Like most of Loach’s films, the majority of the parts are played by non-trained actors, but Mari is an actor and drama teacher. She said she drew on the stories told to her by Syrian refugees and her own experiences from real life to help her inhabit the character of Yara.

“Speaking to so many refugees was very emotional,” Mari explains. “I am from an occupied place; my village is on the road to Syria so I’m really close and I can see Syria from my window. I have family there I have never met and I can hear the bombs in the distance. I can also see Palestine from where I live so I grew up surrounded by this life.

“In many ways I’m privileged because I didn’t lose anyone but what is happening is really close to me both physically and emotionally. I could feel what Yaya feels in that film and very much know what it’s like to feel not a part of a place.” She says she heard “terrible” stories of the refugees suffering. “I’ve no idea how many of them cope after what they’ve seen: it’s devastating.”

A key theme of the film is the lack of hope that comes with not feeling a part of a place – even when that’s been your home for a lifetime. The character of T.J. appears to have lost all hope after living, like so many of his counterparts in the village, in poverty for years. In one deeply emotional scene, the impact of this on the character’s mental health is explored as he recounts feeling suicidal at how fractured
his life, and that of his community post mine-closure, has become.

While Loach famously doesn’t show his cast their scripts long before filming begins, with The Old Oak, Turner says he received the script well in advance.

the old oak yara

Credit: Studio Canal

“On the set, Ken and the crew create an atmosphere when you feel so safe. It allows you to show your vulnerability and you’re not fearful of any mocking or ridicule. They talked me through it; they helped me afterwards. After one scene, I was inconsolable. We were meant to be filming another scene soon after, but Ken said ‘no’. I couldn’t stop crying. It wasn’t easy for me because I’ve got no experience or skill set to fall back on, but Ken made it okay to show those emotions and that vulnerability.”

Loach says he doesn’t consider such a supportive set up “remarkable’, even though many actors report feeling under pressure in similar situations on some film sets.

“One of the most important elements of a director’s job is allowing people in the film to be as good as they possibly can be: I mean, it’s common sense, isn’t it?” he says wisely, matter-of-factly. “You arrange the shoot in such a way that you make it an easy path for them to go on, not one full of obstacles…all the technology disappears as much as possible. The camera should be tucked away. It’s down to the
bare minimum. It becomes private.

“It means people don’t feel like they’re on display; they don’t have to perform for anyone else – they just live the experience. There’s a supportive atmosphere. If something goes wrong, it’s only a bit of film going through a camera. If you forget where you are, we just go again. It isn’t theatre. You can’t fail, really. The experience should always give people confidence.”

There is talk that this might be Loach’s last film, and he confirms this when we speak. “I think it will be, yes,” he says. “I mean when you get to a certain age, you’ve got to realise your limitations. I don’t think I can get around the court again. I mean you’re away from home a lot, and you’ve got to be in good health because it’s a fairly rigorous job. I like standing, I don’t like sitting a lot but you’re on your feet 14 hours a day and you have to have so much emotional energy for everyone.”

He describes shooting the film’s last busy, emotive scene when both communities unite. “Gathering everyone together from all the different places and making a scene like that work requires a lot of running around. I don’t see a shortcut to it being physically active.”

I ask him if this means he will be retiring and he balks at the suggestion. “I shan’t be retired, I can promise you that,” he laughs. “There’s political projects, there’s trade union issues, there’ll be screenings.”

The Old Oak seems to put Loach and Laverty’s faith firmly in the working classes to bring about long-overdue change. While the film begins in division, it ends with powerful unity. “If only the workers knew how strong they were,” Turner’s character says in the film. “We didn’t want to give a false fist in the air at the end,” Laverty says, “but we did find hope in those communities. We saw them over one summer organising events to bring everyone together, feeding people who were hungry, playing football together. So it’s all to play for here.”

Loach agrees. “Solidarity is the one necessary requirement we need if we’re going to
make any kind of political progress. In that solidarity is where hope, and change, is
ultimately to be found.”

The Old Oak is in cinemas now.

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