Sorry to name-drop, but I’ve been spending a bit of time with Ken Loach lately, the man and his work. On 2nd February, ‘Axe the Housing Act’ jointly-hosted a special screening of ‘I, Daniel Blake’, with Ken doing a Q and A, at the Genesis cinema in Mile End. We were overwhelmed by the response. All the tickets sold within 48 hours and we had to arrange a second slot later in the evening. Overall, about 1,000 people came through the door. This is testament to the esteem in which Ken is held, both as a film-maker and someone who uses his position to speak out against social injustice, but also to the power of a film that depicts a feature of contemporary Britain with sympathy and understanding instead of condemnation and judgmentalism. Whatever complacent Tories and their media say, Daniel Blake’s experiences are shared by millions of people. That’s why there are now hundreds of local screenings scheduled in communities around the country (something I don’t think has ever happened with a film before), which I’m sure pleases Ken as much as a BAFTA.
On 12th February I was asked to say a few words at a screening by the Socialist Film Co-op of ‘Cathy Come Home’. I hadn’t seen it for a while and was very struck by the links between two Ken Loach films separated by 50 years. Cinematically, there’s an obvious consistency in style – there’s one scene in ‘Cathy’ where the Ray Brooks character shows children how to light a storm lamp that has an almost exact parallel with Dave Johns in ‘Daniel’ – but that’s not my field. What the two films also capture is how current housing and social policy is turning the clock back.
‘Cathy Come Home’ is often credited with having woken the country up to a crisis in its midst when it was first shown as a BBC television play in 1966, which in itself seems a long way from the current unreality TV diet of escapist dramas and talent shows. The housing charities Crisis and Shelter both emerged from the after-shock, although they’ve become incrementally less critical of the policies that create the conditions they exist to alleviate. Cathy’s experience follows a downward spiral from hope to despair that has become all too familiar. ‘You’re only two pay cheques away from being homeless’ has become a cliche because for many, it’s true.
As she and her family fall out of the relative security and independence of council housing, Cathy becomes increasingly itinerant, subject to the vagaries of the private rented market and dependent on paternalistic philanthropy. But shocking as her story still is, what’s more alarming is that the situation for people in a similar situation today is even worse. I had some passing behind-the-camera involvement in ‘I, Daniel Blake’ when I took the actress who plays Katy (Hayley Squires) to meet Ariam who I’d got to know when her life took a similar turn to Cathy’s (read Ariam’s story here). Ariam was relatively ‘lucky’ because unlike Katy, she wasn’t rehoused hundreds of miles away, as has become almost the norm. Of course, at the root of the problem is that, unlike 50 years ago, we’ve virtually stopped building council homes. Today, like Cathy, people are finding their lives distorted and damaged by the abandonment of housing policy to the whims of a market even this Tory government admits is broken. But as Peter Marcuse (or possibly his dad: I can nevr nail down the quote) has said, we don’t have a housing crisis because the system isn’t working, but because that’s the way the system works.
Edits from the Ken Loach Q and A at the Genesis are here.