Kevin McGrath reviews I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach and praised for its engaging story and timely politics.
The title character of Ken Loach’s “comeback” film is a gentle widower, probably aged somewhere in his late fifties, recuperating slowly from a massive heart attack and all the while itching to get back to plying his trade as a carpenter. On the surface, one ordinary Joe’s fate at the hands of an unscrupulous Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) doesn’t seem particularly fertile ground for box-office success in 2016, especially when up against blockbusters like Dr Strange and Bridget Jones’s Baby in the battle to put bums on multiplex seats. Loach, however, the great social-realist director of our age, has spent half a century giving a voice to people otherwise ignored by mainstream cinema and television drama departments and it’s the very fact that the tragedy of Daniel Blake, a casualty of war in the life and death struggle between Britain’s rich and Britain’s poor, could just as easily befall any one of us that will ensure this Palme d’Or-winning film finds a receptive audience.
Loach’s career as a radical filmmaker began after he enrolled in a director’s course at the BBC in 1963. An apolitical figure at the time (he suspected his late father may have voted Tory), he quickly absorbed the left-wing politics of producer Tony Garnett and story-editor Roger Smith when they collaborated together on the groundbreaking BBC series “The Wednesday Play”. Loach was deeply influenced, too, by the social realism of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and the plays of John Osborne and the other Angry Young Men being staged at the Royal Court Theatre. The sixties Cultural Revolution was gathering pace and Loach suddenly found himself with an opportunity to make films about the death penalty (Three Clear Sunday’s) and the post-war generation’s new-found sexual freedoms (Up the Junction) all for a ready-made audience, Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association not-withstanding!
The astonishing success of “The Wednesday Play” culminated with Loach’s tour de force, Cathy Come Home (1966). Written by Jeremy Sandford, who based the script on his own radio documentary Homeless Families, the play told the story of a young couple Cathy and Reg (Carol White and Ray Brooks), and their harrowing descent into homelessness. The coruscating final scene, in which the couple’s small children are forcibly taken into council care, caused a wave of genuine anger to sweep across the land.
In fact, such was the docudrama’s impact on its twelve million viewers (a quarter of the nation’s population at the time), that it was repeated just a fortnight later with a follow-up discussion taking place on ITV as well as the BBC straight after transmission. Following its broadcast many councils abandoned their policy of separating men from their wives and children and the homeless charity Shelter was founded just 15 days afterward, in recognition that something had to be done in a country where 4,000 children a year were being placed in care because their parents had become homeless. Loach had wanted to ‘draw blood’ and the unprecedented response to the play earned Cathy Come Home its place in the history books.
Fifty years later, Loach has drawn blood again with I, Daniel Blake, a film that cries out in undisguised anguish against the Tory government’s routine punishment of the poor, the sick and the disabled. The film begins with Daniel (under)played to perfection by stand up comedian Dave Johns (continuing Loach’s career long preference for using club comedians in dramatic roles on the basis that ‘they weren’t acting- they were being’) finding out that he has been deemed fit for work by ATOS, a private company contracted by the DWP to carry out ‘work capability assessments’. (Between 2010 and 2011, 10,600 people died in this country while going through the assessment process in which administrators acting as ‘healthcare professionals’ use a point scoring system to override the expert opinions of GPs and Surgeons as to whether a ‘client’ is fit for work).
While attending a DWP meeting, Daniel witnesses single mother Katie (in a beautifully judged performance that should launch a stellar career for Hayley Squires) being ‘sanctioned’ for arriving late for an appointment with her benefit officer. The loss of her income leaves her and her two small children dependent on charity to survive and is the cue for a scene that unfolds in a food bank that’s as agonising to watch as the famous scene that concludes Cathy Come Home. The film plays out by following the fortunes of Dan and Katie, contrasting the kindness and humanity that they show each other, with the institutional barbarity of the DWP as it drives some of the most vulnerable people in society to death’s door.
As wonderful as I, Daniel Blake is, it’s not without its flaws. Loach sensibly lets the straight forward story speak for itself, resolving not to get himself sidetracked in the tangled web of factional socialist politics (a temptation not altogether easy to resist, no doubt, for a former member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party), so there are no stump speeches, soapbox lectures or crash courses on Marxism for beginners, and aside from one minor character’s semi-coherent rant against Iain Duncan-Smith and the Tories, the subject of politics doesn’t really come up at all in this, the most “political” of films.
While this “show not tell” approach may be pitched correctly in storytelling terms, there might have been a little more political context to illuminate the darkness of Dan and Katie’s lives; a character to mouth off against austerity, the bankers or our rabidly right-wing government (all of which surely drove Loach to come out of unofficial retirement to make the film), while supping a pint in their local, or waiting for their food parcel to be cobbled together. In twenty years’ time it will be possible for a new generation to watch this film without any real sense of which party was in power and quite why they persisted, in the face of opposition from all manner of charities and pressure groups, with the unspeakable cruelty of the Bedroom Tax and cuts to the Independent Living Fund. All the more surprising, perhaps, given that Loach himself has been critical of Cathy Come Home for not being political enough, for not ‘tackling the ownership of the land, the building industry and the financing behind it. Otherwise you’re not really challenging anything.’
When the great socialist playwright J.B Priestly broadcast, during the darkest days of Britain’s fight against fascism, (his Postscript programme was being listened to by a third of Britain’s adult population at its peak), that the ‘common folk of this island rose to meet the challenge and not only saved what we had that is good but began to dream of something better’, declaring the Second World War ‘a people’s war’ to ‘bring into existence an order of society in which nobody will have far too many rooms in a house and nobody will have far too few’, Churchill forced the BBC to take him off the air despite knowing the effect it would have on the morale of a people standing alone against the might of Hitler.
Ken Loach continues to argue for that socialist society and that is the story that lies just beneath the surface of I, Daniel Blake. The great social reforms of Attlee’s post-war government, from The Welfare State to The National Health Service, are being undone at the behest of the Murdoch Press and the foul gang of neo-liberal economists that infected the centre/right political parties of Britain during the reign of Margaret Thatcher and which were then enshrined in Tony Blair’s vision of New Labour. It’s a scandalous ambition, made easier by the complicity of the mainstream media in general and state broadcasters in particular (hang your heads in shame all those commissioning editors at the BBC and Channel 4 who fed the nation a constant diet of ‘poverty porn’ in place of programmes honestly examining welfare provision in time of economic collapse). Ken Loach is still fighting Priestley’s good fight and I, Daniel Blake is a masterful clarion call for us to come to the rescue of an endangered Welfare State, and in so doing, to restore to each and every one of us a sense of common decency.