(l-r): Briana Shann (Daisy), Hayley Squires (Katie), Dave Johns (Daniel) and Dylan McKiernan (Dylan) in I, Daniel Blake.
It all started here for Dave Johns. The actor, writer and comedian had never visited a food bank before he began filming I, Daniel Blake. He had never even heard of them. Millions hadn’t. But his eyes were opened by the scenes of poverty and desperation he encountered researching and filming his breakthrough role.
The 2016 film I, Daniel Blakebecame director Ken Loach’s most successful and influential film in decades. It put food banks and benefit sanctions centre stage – foregrounding the government and systemic failures that led to a million people receiving food parcels from the Trussell Trust in the year it was filmed in and around Newcastle.
“I always say I was radicalised by Ken Loach,” says Johns. “I hadn’t heard of food banks until I was in the film. And now there’s more food banks than McDonald’s.”
People were angry. The scene in which Hayley Squires as Katie breaks down on her first visit to a food bank – scrambling open a tin of beans with a ravenous hunger after days foregoing food so her kids could eat – is seared on the memory of anyone who saw the film.
This should have been a watershed moment. Just as Loach’s 1966 TV film Cathy Come Home turned millions of viewers on to issues around homelessness, so I, Daniel Blake alerted many about poverty and hunger in the UK.
However, rather than kick-start action to reduce and prevent poverty and homelessness, the government response was negligible. The original film told how austerity-driven attacks on the poor, a new welfare system unfit for practice, and a political machine stacked against those with the least were creating dire living conditions.
Seven years on, post-pandemic and in the midst of a cruel cost of living crisis, the story has never been more relevant. Because things have got worse. By the time Johns’ adaptation of I, Daniel Blake opens at the Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne, later this month food bank use will be more than double the levels that drove Loach and writer Paul Laverty to make the original film. In 2022-23, 2,986,203 emergency food parcels were distributed, according to the latest Trussell Trust statistics.
Johns vividly remembers filming at a food bank in the Venerable Bede Church on West Road.
“That was one of the stories that came from Ken and Paul’s research,” says Johns. “A young mum came in so hungry that they found her crouched behind the shelves eating a tin of beans. And she was mortified when she was caught. We got to show that on film. And everybody cried because it is so visceral. But I also remember Ken telling me they could have made I, Daniel Blake 20 times worse – in terms of the awful stories they heard.”
And updating the story of I, Daniel Blake to the present day?
“Well, they’ve outsourced poverty,” says Johns. “They’ve outsourced it to volunteers and charities. I’ve lived through a few Tory governments. But this one is the most inept and callous in my memory. And I lived through fucking Thatcher.”
As a film actor, Dave Johns’s story started here too. In the role he knows he will always be associated with. Johns did not expect to win a role, let alone the title role. He just wanted to meet Loach.
“The way Ken works is that you don’t even know what film you’re going up for. All I knew was that Ken Loach was going to make a film in the north-east and I was the right age,” he recalls.
And now, Loach and writer Laverty have entrusted their story to the star of the film to bring it to theatres across the country.
“I think Paul and Ken were happy for me to do this adaptation and didn’t want any input because they know I have lived and breathed this story,” says Johns.
“I’ve been very lucky. I got a film career out of doing …Daniel Blake, which I never thought I would as a stand-up comedian. Now I’ve done lots of films. But if I’d never done another film, I’d still be very proud of …Daniel Blake. I’ve got a real passion for it. And I see how much people have been moved by it.”
The film’s journey was an unlikely one, from the streets of Newcastle to lavish film festivals around the world. But this is when Johns knew they were on to something.
“It was so weird being in Cannes, seeing all the yachts, and then our film was about the complete opposite: poverty and all that,” says Johns. “We saw it with around 2,500 people at the first screening and it got a 15-minute standing ovation. It just went crazy. All the awards and festivals kept it in the news. I remember saying to Ken, should we really be going to the Bahamas Film Festival? They wanted to interview me by an infinity pool with a piña colada! No chance.
“But Ken said these rich people are the ones who need to see it – we know how shit the system is. After the screening, I walked on stage and said: ‘Good evening, tax dodgers!’”
If it didn’t change the law or the system of benefit sanctions, I, Daniel Blake did at least change the narrative. Before that, the dominant discourse – fuelled by a government hell bent on austerity – was of ‘strivers’ versus ‘skivers’. There was a concerted effort to paint people receiving welfare payments as lazy or on the make. This was the era of Osborne and Cameron in Downing Street and Benefits Street on TV.
“Then suddenly, the public saw that these are ordinary people. In this story, Dan thinks the system will work,” says Johns. “But it is not geared up that way.
“You hope art and books and plays and films will hit a nerve and actually change stuff. But the only thing that changed from the time I started writing the play was the hold music when you call about universal credit. It’s gone from Vivaldi to some pop thing. They rolled out universal credit despite the warnings. They think the state shouldn’t be involved, and that if you fall by the wayside then tough. But a caring and civilised society should look after people.”
Dave Johns’s own story also starts here, in the social housing of the north-east of England. His origin story is in the community he found in and around Byker.
“The council houses we had were built in the 1960s,” he says. “So when I lived there they were brand new. They had three bedrooms, a bathroom and a garden. There were all these working-class families. It was a proper community.
“But for the Tories, that was too comfortable. They want people to be shit scared of losing their home, losing their job.”
As part of his reworking of the story for the theatre, Johns has written in more about the housing crisis. We learn more about Katie leaving London in search of permanent housing.
“She has never been able to find a proper house,” says Johns. “When she knows she’s moving to Newcastle, her daughter says, will this be our forever house? And she just doesn’t know. Because there is no social housing. It’s about people feeling forgotten. Feeling the system is not there to help them.”
For Dave Johns, the journey into comedy and eventually acting started here too. In this very building. At what was then known as the University Theatre. As a schoolboy in 1970 who had zero interest in going on a school trip to the newly-opened theatre – his first ever theatre trip – but who then found himself transfixed, transported and transformed by his experience of watching Death of a Salesman. It changed his life.
“Afterwards we got on stage. That stage down there. And we saw the set. And something happened in me,” says Johns. “When you’re a working-class kid, you think theatre is for posh people. You think ‘I could never do something like this’. But my teacher said, ‘Well, you could become an actor. Or you could write.’ She started giving us plays to look at.
“Then I joined Wallsend Youth Theatre. I became a bricklayer but then I started my own stand-up comedy club. So when I got the chance to do the play here, it’s like coming full circle. I thought, wow, what would that teacher think? Especially because this play is about working-class people.”
Could anyone imagine anything that would make a teacher more proud than the knowledge that they’ve changed a young person’s life, changed their destiny, created a lifelong love and passion – and that they will use it in a way that supports people who need it most?
Here’s hoping the lessons of I, Daniel Blake are learnt as Johns’ adaptation of the story tours the country over the coming weeks and months.