“It is a story that a lot of people know is happening but nobody is talking about.”
Ken Loach has built his film career from making these films. Covering the subjects that most other filmmakers avoid or turn away from. Telling uncomfortable truths to audiences about difficult subject matter.
From Cathy Come Home, which changed the world by bringing homelessness into an unsuspecting public’s living rooms in 1966 to I, Daniel Blake, which highlighted the soul-destroying impact of benefits sanctions and a welfare system unfit for purpose half-a- century later, Loach has shone a light on the devastation poverty can wreak.
They were in jobs and still couldn’t feed their families. The working poor. It just seemed we should tell that story
His latest work, Sorry We Missed You, is classic Ken Loach. It grew out of the realisation, during his research alongside writer Paul Laverty for I, Daniel Blake, that many of the people they met at foodbanks were in work.
“That seemed like an extraordinary development,” says Loach, when we meet in Central London. “They were in jobs and still couldn’t feed their families. The working poor. It just seemed we should tell that story.
“The stress appears in families. You won’t necessarily see it in the guy who knocks on your door to deliver a package or the woman who comes to look after your granny. But their families are feeling it. You put on a smiley face when you are at work and then you come home exhausted, you have no patience, you have no time for the kids – that is when the stress comes out.”
If Chris Morris’s recent film The Day Shall Come claims to be based on a hundred true stories of FBI operatives, Loach and Laverty’s latest collaboration could lay claim to many more real-life inspirations.
“Everything was true. We took advice from everyone. It is based on lots of true stories – and many of them we heard were worse. More extreme. Many, many people are engaged in this work and know the level of exploitation and stress that these jobs cause. And the exhaustion.”
The bleak beauty of a film like this is that an issue we all may know exist on an abstract level, and some have seen at extremely close quarters can be given a human face and shown within the context of everyday family life.
In this case, we follow two people – contract nurse and in-home carer Abby, who’s paid for the hours of contact only, so a day’s shift can involve working for more than 13 hours straight, including travel. Then there’s her husband Ricky, who is “onboarded” as a driver for a delivery company.
This is not an accident. This is not capitalism failing. This is capitalism working. This is capitalism’s success
Every movement of every human and every parcel is tracked at Ricky’s new place of work. Toilet breaks are impossible. Ricky can be fined for taking a day off. He is liable for parcels lost or stolen and has no protection in case of illness, injury or family emergency. His work and therefore income is at the whim of Maloney, the self-styled “patron saint of nasty bastards” in the warehouse. This is the gig economy at its very worst.
The couple, who lost their home and previous work following the collapse of Northern Rock in 2007, are constantly grafting. Abby does her parenting from the top deck of the bus between clients – leaving voicemails on her children’s phones detailing bedtimes, chores, which food is to be heated up for tea and how much computer time is allowed before bed.
“You read about them as social phenomenon, but to be drawn into someone’s life and family seems really important. There is a lived experience to connect you,” says Loach.
“If you can feel solidarity with them, that creates a bond. And out of that can come a different way of looking at the world.”
And what does Loach want people to take from the film?
“It is the constant insecurity. People are hanging by a thread,” he says. “And the idea we wanted to leave people with is that this is not an accident. This is not capitalism failing. This is capitalism working. This is capitalism’s success. Because it is flexible labour – and that is what capitalism wants, with no responsibility for the employer. So we are saying this has to change.”
The system that Farage and Johnson espouse means there is no way people will take back control of their working lives
The family depicted in the film, the one based on so many hundreds of thousands across the UK facing insecure employment and irregular hours and income, have little or no control over their working lives. No control over their time. Snatched moments of joy and displays of love are few and far between, overwhelmed by the necessity of graft and the stress of barely managing. Rewinding three years, it is hard not to imagine the Brexit slogan ‘Take Back Control’ being seductive to them. Loach agrees.
“At the time we made the film, the Farage and Boris Johnson slogan ‘Take Back Control’ was very ironic. Because the system that Farage and Johnson espouse means there is no way people doing Ricky’s job or Abby’s job will take back control of their working lives.
“The big corporations will keep the power. You see the power of the slogan – the lie is that the politics behind it mean it will take control further away from the people.
“They say the opposite of the truth. Johnson and his gang want to leave in such a way that our economy will attract investment because labour is cheap and corporation tax is low. Their tactic depends on cheap labour.
“And when he says they will roll out the red carpet for American business, it means you can make a fast buck by subcontracting parts of our public services. The NHS would be a logo stamped on the work of health companies from abroad. Not a pretty picture. But that is their game.”
Loach speaks softly, slowly, crisply, but his words always pack a punch – whether he is taking on Marvel films or political opponents.
Loach has never been closer to the Labour leadership during his many years of activism. He describes Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as good friends – although their attendance at his latest film premiere was scuppered by the latest Brexit debate. For Loach, they have been undermined by the Parliamentary Labour Party from day one.
“You wonder why some of them are standing as Labour MPs when they refuse to serve – all the extinct volcanos from the old frontbench sitting on the back row. Useless. I think that is a big issue.”
Would he countenance a leadership change if it was the party’s only chance of winning?
“If you change the leader, you change the politics,” he counters. “No one else has really fought for the programme.”
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Despite current polling, Loach believes Labour can win the next General Election with Corbyn as leader. He even seems to have a manifesto on the tip of his tongue:
“We have got to make the social programme the issue of the election. Precarious work, poverty, dependence on foodbanks, restoration of public services, kicking out the private companies ripping us off, public investment in a green economy, treating the climate emergency as the big emergency that it is, investment in areas neglected by the Tories and Blair, restoring the integrated transport system under public ownership, building at least 100,000 council homes a year to address the massive housing crisis.
“And there is no way social care should be hived off to private companies – it should be part of the NHS with everyone directly employed.”
He’s 83 now, and each new film is a major commitment of time and energy in his pursuit of our political enlightenment. Is there one single piece of legislation Loach wants to see come out of public engagement with Sorry We Missed You?
“It takes more than one piece of legislation,” he says. “It is a whole social revolution. But if there is one thing it could bring about, it would be the election of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. I will do what I can to help them get in.”
Sorry We Missed You is in cinemas from November 1
This interview appears in The Big Issue magazine. Pick up a copy from your local vendor or buy it online from The Big Issue shop.