It’s time for a call to arms to prevent poverty, film director Ken Loach tells Laura Davis. But who should lead it?
HE MAY be one of the most softly spoken directors but there is fire in Ken Loach’s quiet sentences and his captivating film sequences.
Viewers of his latest work will find it hard to resist feeling equally impassioned – at least if they are already at least partly converted to his message.
Mixing archive footage with newly shot interviews, The Spirit of ’45 looks at the extraordinary accomplishments of post-Second World War Britain, when the nation was hungry for a society which pulled together for the benefit of the many.
The Government, trades unions and ordinary people resisted a return to the high unemployment and destitute conditions of the 1930s, determined that it should “never again be about that kind of peace where everything was run by rich people for rich people”.
Those words, ominous in today’s Britain – where there are almost one million young people out of work and where, this year, more than 230,000 people are expected to visit a foodbank – open the documentary, to a backdrop of snaking dole queues and barefoot children playing in the rubble of the Blitz.
“That period where people thought the basis of society was co-operation and not competition is largely being written out of history,” says Loach, 76, who is taking part in a Q&A and screening of the film at FACT’s Picturehouse cinema next week.
“The people with the memories of the ’30s are not getting any younger. It seems really important to have their memories recorded while they are still alive.”
Sam Watts, 87, who found himself homeless after serving in the Navy, is one of those featured. Born in the slums off Great Homer Street, Liverpool, he recalls the squalor of poverty.
“I was one of eight children and we slept five in a bed – my bed was three lads and two girls,” he says.
“We got into a bed full of vermin. When I say vermin I mean the bugs and fleas were in the hundreds and there was nothing we could do about it because they were in the building behind the wallpaper, in the skirting boards. The next morning when we got to school we got the cane for having dirty knees.”
In such unhealthy conditions, infant deaths were sadly common. Sam lost three siblings between the ages of two and four.
“I can recall putting two coffins across our knees in a one-horse coach and it taking us to the cemetery,” he says.
The first step in preventing others from experiencing such hardship was the 1942 Beveridge Report, which proposed widespread reform to social welfare to address the five “giant evils” of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease.