I don't know what the the advantages of awarding honorary degrees, but I'm glad Keele granted one to radical film maker Ken Loach on Friday because it meant he did an open Q&A afterwards. And luckily I was there with notebook and pen at the ready.
As you can imagine he spent an hour answering pretty much everything that could be asked, so these are very much the edited highlights. The first questioner asked about his approach to casting and whether using "normal" people as opposed to professionals ever caused him problems? Loach replied that the bottom line has to be credibility - actors must be convincing in a particular role. As far as he was concerned if this is your aim you cannot have a working class woman played by the likes of Julia Roberts. This means a very long casting process as Loach typically sees people seven or eight times before making a decision. But by the end of it they have been "professionalised" by the process and are no greater risk than any other actor.
The next question moved to his famous forum scenes, such as the debates in Land and Freedom and The Wind that Shook the Barley. Loach set out to bring the critical issues of the Spanish civil war out into the open, particularly the struggle between the Stalinists and mainstream republicans who wanted to prioritise the military struggle against Franco and leave the social revolution until afterwards versus the position of other lefts that saw the revolution and the war against the fascists as interrelated processes. A similar intent lay behind the production of Wind, which is an interpretation of the Irish struggle for independence as a revolution. Here for Loach the movement was particularly difficult for the British ruling class because in their eyes Ireland was a home nation, a core component of the Empire, and not a colony. Loach confessed to stretching history "a bit" to include discussion of Connolly's republican socialism, and also showed how imperialism can accommodate an independence movement. In his opinion the struggle more or less changed the flag because it fell under bourgeois hegemony and so, post-independence, it was business as usual as far as British capitalism was then concerned.
Turning to the state of cinema Loach said it could be the same as any other medium and should be as varied as imagination. But it is thoroughly commodified and exclusionary. Because of Hollywood's dominance, US films and US-funded films are produced with the American market in mind. As a result its output tends to resemble more a store full of airport novels than a public library. To illustrate this dominance in the UK, Loach's previous film, It's a Free World sold around 40 copies to British cinemas. But across the channel where Hollywood's grip is far less secure, French cinemas purchased 370 copies.
Loach also gave us a quick preview of Looking for Eric, which is due out this summer. It follows the descent into depression by Eric, a Man Utd-obsessed postman. Then one night he smokes a spliff and Eric Cantona appears and starts giving him advice. Kitchen sink meets magical realism?
Lastly it wouldn't be complete if Loach wasn't asked about his politics. Given the current situation, he was asked if he thought revolution was back on the agenda. His answer took us back to the late 60s. Then, Loach said, it felt as though it was around the corner or a couple of years away at the most. But now, while that hope is gone our situation is approaching something of an end game. Not because capitalism looks like it's about to be swept away, but due to the environmental crisis. In his opinion the planet cannot sustain a system premised on endless, reckless economic growth, and the idea 'the beast' could behave responsibly defies belief. So what happens next? His answer to the mainly young audience was simply "over to you".