Culture

The Old Oak: Director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty on changing the conversation and challenging cruelty

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty joined Adrian Lobb in the pub ahead of The Old Oak's release on 29 September. The new film explores humanity's instinct for solidarity; and asks how we find hope in a hostile environment

Image: Sixteen Films - Joss Barratt

Ken Loach is in the pub. He’s sitting at a table with Paul Laverty, writer and collaborator on most of his recent output, and The Big Issue. We are in the Prince of Wales on Drury Lane in Central London, considering the big question posed by their latest film, The Old Oak.

This film might even be Loach’s final work. It completes a trilogy of films set in the north-east, tackling big issues. In 2016, Loach and Laverty tackled the brutality of benefits sanctions and the desperation fuelling the rapid expansion of food banks in I, Daniel Blake – changing the conversation, if not the government’s cruelty.

Three years later, with Loach now into his 80s, Sorry We Missed You highlighted the devastating impact of the gig economy and its erosion of workers’ rights. Again, it highlighted and humanised a hot-button political issue. Both films were powerful, both critically acclaimed, and both found an appreciative audience, particularly among those despairing at the Conservative government of the day.

Now, The Old Oak completes a trilogy of films linked by austerity, each dealing in some way with the hostile environment and cruelty targeted at people living in poverty, facing hardship, insecure employment or arriving in the UK.

“We had done two films in the north-east,” Loach says. “One about the cruelty of the social security system where people are knowingly condemned to hunger and poverty. And one about the gig economy, the absence of basic rights at work, job insecurity.

Ken Loach and Paul Laverty (Photo by Alessandro Levati/Getty Images)

Damaged communities

“We felt we needed to tell a third story – centred in the old mining communities. Because the whole area was coal mining, shipbuilding and steel, and all the old industry is gone. So what are the consequences for ordinary people?”

He continues, answering his own question.

“The consequences are that the old mining communities are left abandoned with nothing. So how do we reveal that in a way that also sheds light on the dangerous swing to the right?”

Loach is a compelling speaker. Quietly, but with absolute conviction – the same certainty in his cause and his mission that makes his work so direct and so clear-sighted – he describes why this film just had to be made.

“What happened was that groups of refugees from the Syrian war were placed in these old mining areas by the government without much preparation,” he says. “Now it is much better and there are very good people that help look after refugees from Syria. But refugees from a war zone are placed in these desolate communities that were abandoned with little hope – how can they coexist? Where can we find hope in all that?

“That was the key question. When people who have been through the trauma of war are placed in a community of people who have nothing, where do we find hope?”

When people who have been through the trauma of war are placed in a community of people who have nothing, where do we find hope?

Challenges of The Old Oak

Across more than 60 years of filmmaking, Ken Loach has tackled all the major political issues of the day with similar conviction. From homelessness in Cathy Comes Home way back in 1966 to industrial disputes (The Big Flame), the exploitation of migrant workers (It’s a Free World, Bread and Roses), the Iraq war (Route Irish) and privatisation (The Navigators). He has turned his attention to conflict in Ireland (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and the Spanish Civil War (Land and Freedom). There have also been less clearly issue-led stories – from Looking for Eric’s football fantasy to the tough romantic drama My Name Is Joe, 1991’s story of solidarity Riff-Raff and Kes’s depiction of a young boy escaping bullying at home and school to find joy looking after a bird of prey – a film that remains beloved more than half a century after it was made.

The Old Oak was, says Laverty, a bigger challenge than their previous two collaborations.

Daniel Blake in its essence was a simple story. It was complex journey to get there – because the welfare system is so complex, you had to dig in and speak to whistleblowers within the welfare system,” he says. “But once we focused on Daniel Blake, it was a simpler story to tell.

“But when you we are dealing with two very diverse and complex communities, with all sorts of nuances – to try and figure out a way to make all that work is an enormous challenge – in the writing, the casting and the directing.

Ebla Mari as Syrian refugee Yara in The Old Oak

“We are keen to avoid stereotypes all the time, of course. And every community is very, very different.

“We had to find Syrians who were prepared to tell this story. And you have to treat them with respect. Every one of them has a special story, and they’re scared. They’re scared for their families about being identified back home. That’s why at the end of the credits we say thank you to all the people who didn’t want to give them names. Because so many people contributed and it’s such a danger for them.

“We also had to balance the trauma and what we actually see. Some of these people went through mind-boggling cruelty and trauma – so how much do we show of that? Because if you did show exactly what people lived through, you wouldn’t be able to tell the other story. You would be just overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the tragedy. So it was a massive one for Ken to pull off.”

Research and outreach

How did they do it? Firstly by listening. And years of research. Reaching out to groups of refugees in the north-east, talking with local groups supporting these communities, or helping combat far-right sentiment in the region.

Loach says, “The nuts and bolts of it were complicated, as Paul said, because within the village there are all different grades of response and within the Syrian families – I mean, there were catastrophic tragedies in every family so that was really tough – and because it’s not a culture I know, we said from day one to all the Syrian families who all live nearby, you must tell us how you would respond in these situations.”

Laverty joins in. “It’s the same in the writing of it. Because it’s a different culture, a different language, you’ve just got to spend time with people and really listen. Syrians, in time, will write their own stories, so we are super respectful of where people have come from and people having different points of view.

“But the scenes where TJ [the publican from The Old Oak pub, played by Dave Turner] goes to have tea with them – those were things that we did, to get to know the families. And that’s how they treated us. With that tremendous hospitality.

That’s how they treated us. With that tremendous hospitality.

“And talking to them, you understand that the food they give and the hospitality they show is very deep within that culture. The idea of bringing food around to people is real and something we were able to use in the story. I found those scenes with TJ and the family very, very touching.”

Laverty goes on to talk about the communities in the mining villages he visited. “You do actually see time right in front of your eyes. You see these beautiful mining villages, which are the stuff of Hovis adverts. And when you talk to the older people, there’s a real sense of coherence about how they organise their lives. Their houses are remarkable – they are humble but very, very proud. Then you speak to a lot of the younger people and their lives were chaos – because many of them have been dumped there.

“There are people coming out of prison and placed there because houses go for £5,000, local authorities were shipping out problem families to there for the same reason – all they cared about was getting people’s housing benefit.”

He also noticed that many of the local pubs were closing – a story repeated all too often, with the last shared public space in so many places forced to call time. This gave them their other central character: The Old Oak.

“The Old Oak, as Yara says in the film, has a special significance in English history – the oak is the symbol of stability, strength, security. So that’s the pub’s name. And in its past, its back room has been the centre of Friday and Saturday night entertainment for a lot of people.

“Now the pub is just a handful of old blokes who go there for too many pints during the day – and there’s a kind of grumbling, which can lead into racism and god knows what. So I suppose the struggle for the character of The Old Oak pub is also the struggle for the consciousness of the people in the middle.”

Hope in a hostile environment

There has been a lot of talk of hostile environments in recent times. And between them, the three north-east films show a range of hostile environments – the hostility of austerity and benefit sanctions, the hostility of zero-hour contracts and insecure employment, and the hostility towards migrants and refugees purposefully created by the government

“Look at what Robert Jenrick said recently. I’ve got the exact words here: ‘We must infuse each state of the process with deterrents’. And that’s in terms of refugees coming to this country! Not with fairness, not with justice. With deterrents.

“People say, what are they doing, forcing some poor janitor to paint over cartoon characters on the walls. It looks bonkers from outside – but when you hear them say that, there is a consistency.

“There is another MP called Tom Hunt, from Ipswich…”

Loach interrupts, face full of mischief, playful in a way we don’t necessarily associate with his films: “Careful how you say his name! Good job his first name isn’t Mike… sorry, I’m interrupting your serious point.” 

“Well, if there is a misprint I won’t complain. But I want to mention his name,” continues Laverty. “Because he defended it to the hilt. He asked about the cartoons being painted over and he defended it to the hilt. It’s the same conscious cruelty they’ve had with the welfare system.”

So how did they find hope. Despite the hostility. Despite everything these communities have had thrown at them?

“We met some remarkable activists in the preparation,” says Laverty. “Great people – with empathy, with curiosity, they’re intelligent and they’re determined. And those are the things that make up solidarity.

“It’s not easy. It takes commitment. They work in the evenings, finding people, borrowing a van, sending all the emails, collecting food or household essentials for the refugees who had nothing.

“But they found other people who had nothing and were going to food banks were getting jealous – so they tried to do something for the kids during summer holidays to ensure people weren’t going hungry.

“And we heard so many stories of people who were anti-immigrant to begin with, like Maria in the film, people with absolutely nothing who would tell you how their daughter might have been on a housing waiting list for years – but then when they got to know them, they really do recognise what they’ve got in common, empathise with what they have been through, and people’s humanity kicks in.

“There was one particular woman I’m thinking of. A real matriarch in the community. And when one day she went up and hugged one of the young refugee kids, it had a tremendous effect. The bullying stopped. So people change. There is the possibility of change. But that was done by activists making contacts, being creative, thinking about how to get people together. And I’m glad to say, even when I was there very recently, the kids were playing football together.”

Playing football together, eating together, sharing stories. There is hope and joy in people coming together – and if The Old Oak has a message it is that we must find that hope.

“It’s about the struggle of hope to emerge, isn’t it?” says Loach. “And the struggle of people to see hope. We couldn’t be in a more disastrous situation with civil society collapsing around us – health, education, homelessness, housing, student debt, poverty and hunger used as a weapon, transport collapsing.

“Every aspect of our life is collapsing, with the added danger from climate disaster. So where you find hope in all that is the big question. But the hope has to be in people’s determination to resist and our instinct – and I think it is an instinct – for solidarity.”

The Old Oak is in cinemas from 29 September.

www.theoldoakfilm.co.uk

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