The success of last year’s I, Daniel Blake proves the enduring relevance and power of Ken Loach’s films. He has shown at 80 years of age he still has the power to create a socially conscious drama that resonates with his audience. It should also be remembered that no director has been as honoured or recognised at the Cannes Film Festival as much as Ken Loach. BFI are releasing together in one collection three films he made in fairly close succession in the early 1990s: Riff-Raff (1991), Raining Stones (1993) and Ladybird Ladybird (1994). These films came after a couple of decades in which he had relatively few cinema successes. His first three films were what critics at the time called social-realism (a label Loach does not like attached to his films) and launched him into the cinema world. His first film was a TV movie made for the BBC, Cathy Come Home (1966). This was seen as a shocking indictment on housing in Britain, made during a decade in which the rest of the world had a very different view of Britain and so would set the tone for his subsequent career as he would focus on the struggles of the working class. He followed this with the underrated Poor Cow (1967), again starring Carol White and supported by Terence Stamp, before he made his most celebrated and most loved film, Kes (1969).
Making only a handful of success over the next two decades, he returned to form with Hidden Agenda (1990) which expands out and focusses on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In between this and the 1995 film set during the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom Loach made the three films included on this collection. The earliest of the three is Riff-Raff which centres on a Glaswegian ex-con, Stevie (Robert Carlyle) who has arrived in London with no fixed abode and takes on work at a North London building site along with colleagues from the rest of the UK: Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester. They all work for a wage cheque at the end of each week and collectively move into a squat in an abandoned nearby council flat, pooling their resources as builders and plumbers and make it habitable. A short while later Stevie meets a young Irish girl, Susan (Emer McCourt) who sings in pubs and clubs with aspirations of being a professional singer. Not long after Susan moves in with Stevie and his fellow workers as their relationship develops, but her emotional fragility threatens their relationship, as do the pressures of working on the site and working for bosses who flout health and safety concerns.
As ever with Ken Loach films, the acting Loach is able to pull from his performers, professional and non-profesional alike are outstanding. Of course Carlyle, who became best known for his role as Begbie in Trainspotting (1996) is here in an early moody role, but is a much more sympathetic one than that of Begbie. But despite the central plot driver being the relationship between Stevie and Susan, it is the other peripheral characters that add colour, interest and humour to the film, not least of all Ricky Tomlinson as the politically conscious Scouser Larry, one of the older, more outspoken member of the crew who attempts to encourage his colleagues to become unionised, only for it to fall on deaf ears. He also has the best lines, as a former northern clubs stand-up comic as well as the hilarious scene in which he takes a bath in the show apartment he is helping build when he is caught in the buff by an estate agent and her Arab clients .
The next film is Raining Stones (1993) which again, even more darkly follows the struggles of a working-class father, Bob (played by Bruce Jones, the former Les Battersby from ‘Coronation Street’) trying to eke out a meagre living in order that he can afford a confirmation dress for his 7-year-old daughter. The film is both a tragic and heartwarming tale of a man who tries all sorts of different failed enterprises to get money, only to have no luck. The results are both funny and sad. Tomlinson returns again in a pre-‘Royale Family’ role and, as in Riff-Raff is hilarious and is an even bigger loser than Bob. The film takes a sinister turn when Bob eventually borrows money from loan sharks who threatens Bob’s wife while she is baking. But Bob finds unlikely salvation in the local priest; also unusual for Loach that the saviour is a man of the cloth.
While Riff-Raff and Raining Stones have a great deal of humour, there are no such laughs to be had in Ladybird Ladybird. The lightest part of the film is in the opening when we are introduced to Liverpudlian single mother Maggie (played by Scouser norther comic, Crissy Rock) who is living in London is seen singing karoke in a pub. After she has had her turn she is approached by a Paraguayan immigrant, Jorge (Vladimir Vega) who chats her up and after an evening drinking takes her back to his place. Jorge seems to be too good to be true, leading Maggie t0 become wary. Jorge comforts her and she soon reveals that she has four children from four different fathers. In a flashback we see she and her mother were phsically abused by her father when she was a child and as an adult goes from one violent relationship to another, including with Simon (Ray Winstone). When she is out one evening, her children are injured in a house fire, leading the authorities to take her children away from her. She fights doggedly to get them back, but her mistrust of the authorities and her own temperament against them leads to her undoing, making her another of Loach’s heroic losers. Jorge proves to be a very patient man who shows her love, but when the walls go up, the strain begins to show on him. When she falls pregnant again with Jorge’s child she sees fresh hope.
All three films are powerful and representative of Loach’s career. Alone and collectively they are a strong indictment of Tory Britain and in this age of austerity and another Tory government these films have become as relevant now as they were in the early 1990s. Also in each of the films, but most particularly in Ladybird Ladybird there is strong mistrust of the authorities, even those such as the Social Services who are there to do good, but here they and the police are seen as part of the problem. The genius of this film is in non-professional actress Rock’s convincing and complex performance.
On the discs there are additional extras including two Q&A interviews with Loach as well as am indepth documentary on the director, ‘Carry on Ken’.