The Old Oak is sometimes described as the third of a trilogy after I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You. Is it that they are all set in the northeast of England? And if so, why did you choose this region?
Firstly, the films have been made through a strong partnership between Paul Laverty [screenwriter], Rebecca O’Brien [producer] and myself. It’s very important to say that it’s really not about me as an individual.
It was never intended as a trilogy. It began with us wanting to make a film about the conscious cruelty of the benefits system, where people who are entitled to financial support are denied it by being forced to jump through impossible bureaucratic hoops. That was the first story we wanted to tell: I, Daniel Blake.
We chose the northeast because it’s an area built on struggle. The old industries have gone, the communities have been left abandoned, both by the Tories and by New Labour. Blair was the MP for a northeast constituency, Sedgefield, and so was the wretched Mandelson, in Hartlepool. Neither did anything substantial about the wreckage that Thatcher left behind. It’s one of the poorest, most devastated areas in the land – but its people have a great culture, a very specific language, a powerful sense of humour. When making a film, that strong sense of identity is really important.
The question of the nature of work has been a continuing interest of both Paul and me, stretching back to the time I spent working with Jim Allen, with films about casualisation on the docks (Big Flame) and documentaries on the miners’ strike and other industrial struggles.
In Sorry We Missed You, we tried to show the consequences for workers themselves and especially for their family lives and relationships. When people are at work, they put up a face – they get through it – but when they get home, they’re knackered, they’ve no time for each other or the kids. That’s what we try to show.
We realised that with the two films we had shown two faces of the consequences of neoliberalism, but the stark question that we hadn’t answered is: what’s happened to those areas that have lost their industries and have got nothing? The pit villages in County Durham illustrate this especially vividly because they’re self-contained communities. When the pit shuts a large part of the community shuts down as well.
Paul had heard the stories of the Syrian refugees coming into the area and facing hostility. This for us could be the catalyst that reveals both the complexities of what is left behind in those abandoned communities and also the horror of experiencing a war and then being given a very limited, frosty, welcome by our government.
The Old Oak conveyed to me a sense of new forms of solidarity in a context where the older forms, built on that old regional identity, had been crushed. As a result, the film ended up with a sense of hope and possibility. Was that the intention or was that what you and Paul discovered?
It was implicit in the story from the beginning. It is very clear when you’re in those old mining communities that the traditional solidarity is very strong. That’s why, in the early 1980s when the National Union of Mineworkers was the most powerful and politicised union, Thatcher left them until last – until she defeated all the other unions. That memory of solidarity is very proudly maintained by many in those communities.
So, at the centre of the film is a struggle for consciousness within that community: between the memory of that solidarity and its reactivation to welcome the refugees on the one hand, or, on the other hand, the bitterness and the anger. That hostile bitterness has been fanned by the right-wing press, and by Farage and his gang. Fanned too by the Labour right wing that did nothing for them in office and now lines up with the government in saying that refugees are the problem.
Tony Garnett described how the TV films that you did together in the 1960s – like Cathy Come Home over homelessness, and Up the Junction over abortion – had a national political impact. He argued, in the late 1990s, how this would no longer be possible because of the diversity of channels and so on. But I, Daniel Blake certainly was a national event. It very likely fed into the support for Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 election. There’s no doubt it had a national impact.
What about The Old Oak? What impact do you hope it will have?
It’s impossible to foretell what will manage to have the impact you describe. You work just as hard on every film, yet some just fade away more quickly than others. It’s really difficult to know. Daniel Blake did, as you say, hit a nerve, but the numbers who have seen it pale in comparison to the TV audience that saw Cathy or Up the Junction.
As Tony wrote, these were national events because there were only two and a half channels and half the people watching TV that night would have seen it – so it was around 12 million in one hit. A film can never have that immediate impact because the audience arrives over weeks, months and sometimes years. But as you say, one or two will cut through. Daniel Blake cut through and generated a kind of public discussion. Others have cut through in a different way. The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about the Irish war of independence and civil war, was attacked massively by the right-wing press. We were accused of hating our country.
The working class is the essential subject that we have to make films about because it is the class that can make the changes
It seems that your films are more widely appreciated in Europe in than in Britain. Is there anything significant in that disparity between how your films are treated on the continent and how they are treated here in the UK?
When The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme d’Or, we got over 400 screens for the opening of the film to be shown in France, in Ireland we got 70, and in England we got 40. A tenth of what we got in France, for an English language film. With TV they censor but cinemas work in a more devious way. They just refuse to book it.
The Europeans, particularly the French and the Italians, have a different view of cinema. It’s taken more seriously. It’s a much wider view of what cinema can do. They have traditions of their own cinema that are political. The Italian neorealist films, east European films, French films, they’re much wider. There’s more of a sense that the film is a serious art form as well as being a commodity.
We are cursed with the Americans speaking our language – the cinema in Britain has always been subservient to the US. You saw the consequences – and still do, when the writers’ strike in Hollywood closed down the British film industry almost entirely. We are simply an outpost for American investment, and we don’t have an independent British film industry that can sustain itself. Our film industry is colonised.
In this context of the US-driven film monoculture, what sources of hope are there for radical films having a presence in mainstream cinema?
It’s hard to see. At the moment, the market is simply working as the market will always work. Its logic encourages companies to make more and more films like the ones that made money the previous year. I used to say it’s like if literature were reduced to airport novels – that’s what Hollywood has done to our film industry. You can imagine a more thriving independent way of making and showing films, but it needs fundamental structural changes to happen.
We are cursed with the Americans speaking our language –the cinema in Britain has always been subservient to the US. Our film industry is colonised
That’s a good cue to ask you more directly about your thinking on how to achieve political change.
What underpins our work are the basic ideas that I learned in the 60s: neither Washington nor Moscow; the irreconcilable conflict between class interests of those who sell their labour and those who exploit that labour for profit; and that this conflict is built into our present economic system. It can never be overcome while that economic system is in place.
It’s a view of the way of the world that is based on the great writings and words of the left going back to John Ball, of the peasants’ revolt: ‘Things cannot go on well in England, nor ever will until everything shall be in common.’ Or Gerard Winstanley in the 17th century, speaking of the earth being a ‘common treasury for all’. The essential building block is the irreconcilable conflict between the two classes. The working class has to take power and it can only do that in a struggle.
The next thing is the working class has the strength to make that change. Implicit in everything we’ve tried with Jim Allen and Barry Hines and other writers, and with Paul for the last 30 years, both in documentaries and in feature films, is to indicate that strength and how it is subverted.
That’s why the working class is the essential subject that we have to make films about, because it is the class that can make the changes. We have to tell the story of the working class, to tell the story of their struggles, to show where we could have won, where we might have won, and the class forces against us. That’s the essential subject matter.
What’s next for your work? You’ve said that The Old Oak is your final film, yet I can’t imagine you retiring. So, I’m wondering whether you envisage the next phase of your life being more about contributing to building the appropriate organisation to build on the agitation that you’ve achieved through your films.
I’d keep making films if I had the strength, but I think you have to recognise the passing years. I’m an old bloke with dodgy eyesight.
In terms of what next politically, we have to learn from what happened to Jeremy Corbyn: how the state determined that the programme that he and John McDonnell and others put together – with which they nearly won the 2017 election and grew the party to 600,000, the biggest party in Europe – was unacceptable.
This programme would have cut back the power of capital, raised questions over Nato’s policies. For once, someone was standing up for the human rights of the Palestinians and their entitlement to the rule of international law.
The establishment knew that Corbyn was determined that his programme would never be implemented. The weapon they chose to undermine it – the accusation of antisemitism – was, given Jeremy’s position as one of the most principled anti-racists in public life, the most damaging smear they could find.
The whole establishment colluded in that. So that now you only hear Jeremy Corbyn mentioned on the BBC if he’s being abused. You hear it frequently, that abuse, and it is rarely contradicted.
No one is ever there to say: ‘Wait a minute, what about all the Jewish people in the Labour Party who defended Jeremy Corbyn?’ You seldom hear from them on the media. It’s like a current of opinion that is not allowed to exist and or be represented.
That’s how they control consciousness, isn’t it? We’re seeing it now in these terrible days in Israel and Palestine. Humza Yousaf, the SNP leader, said there is a hierarchy of lives here and Palestinian lives are cheaper. When you listen to how the news is presented, it is hard to disagree, yet that’s how our opinions are determined.