Ken Loach & Paul Laverty: The Old Oak

The latest picture from Ken Loach, THE OLD OAK, covers the story of Syrian refugee Yara (Ebla Mari) acclimatising to the societal workings of a North-East village whose residents are still stung by the miners’ strikes and lasting ramifications of Thatcherism. Pub landlord TJ (David Turner) helps Yara and the other refugees when they need help. Loach juxtaposes the refugee experience with that of a society indoctrinated by the vitriol spouted by the government in a resonating if simplistic film with a lot of heart. At the North-East premiere of THE OLD OAK, writer Paul Laverty sat down to chat about the film, while director Loach spoke over a video call.

Connor Lightbody: How are you feeling, Ken? You fell recently, which prevented you from attending today’s Newcastle premiere.

Ken Loach: I’m okay. It’s a cracked rib and a few pulled muscles. All rather boring, they’ll heal. When you’re knocking on a bit, when one thing happens, it has a knock-on effect to the other things, but it’s alright. I shouldn’t complain. I’m lucky it wasn’t worse, really.

CL: It was quite emotional for me as a local lad seeing the [Durham] Miners’ Gala or the Big Meeting up on the big screen.

KL: The Miners’ Gala is the greatest demonstration of class solidarity in the country every year, and it’s barely – if ever – reported on.

Paul Laverty: Well, actually, talking of the Big Meeting, Ken and I were invited a few years back, and we went to the blessing of the banners where I was absolutely knocked out by the cathedral itself, which was where the root of the cathedral scene came about from.

CL: How did you get the cathedral and permission to film in Durham Cathedral for a whole day?

KL: It wasn’t the whole day because they had something on at four, but they were very helpful. It’s been used on film before, and I think they understood we were a very small production who wouldn’t disturb them too much. They couldn’t have been more co-operative. It was a joy to work with the choir and choirmaster, who were so generous.

PL: Our brilliant locations director, Mark Valentine, worked his magic there. They were massively collaborative with us. Even before I wrote the script, the reverend there, John Barron, and his wife, Val, were supporting refugees, extending a hand of friendship to these refugees, and were an inspiration for where we were going with the script. They realised there were difficulties in some of these communities, a hunger in them and the locals, and that brought people together, so they were involved in this very bright, collaborative effort.

CL: It’s a really wonderful scene. I wondered if I was just biased because I was seeing one of my own local landmarks on screen, but when I spoke to Ebla (Mari), she agreed that it was her best scene.

PL: It’s one of my favourite scenes in all of the 14 films we have done. It was really special.

KL: Actually, on that day, when we shot the scene at the cathedral, it was my birthday and just before the choir left, I suddenly heard the first notes of “Happy Birthday” as it was sung by the entire choir. That was a nice touch.

CL: As you’ve been made aware, I am a massive fan of yours. I have a Kes tattoo on my wrist.

PL: How extraordinary.

I haven’t seen that before; that’s amazing. Well, you’ll be pleased to know Billy Casper [played by David Bradley] is 69, only 14 when we shot it, and still as nice a man as he was a lad.

I met David Bradley for the first time recently down at a shoot for Empire

CL: Yeah, when I spoke to Dave [Turner], he was telling me about meeting David Bradley at that Empire Magazine thing along with the likes of Hayley [Squires] and Dave [Johns]. How was that, Ken, seeing what is basically your legacy all in one space?

KL: That was extraordinary. When you do a film, the people tend not to meet the people in the others because they could be years apart. I’ve always worked with people who are committed and generous. It was interesting – not like it was an experiment, of course – but that it was reassuring to see how well they got on. We laughed a lot and smiled a lot. Stories from one film were matched from stories with another film, so it was a really lovely meeting.

CL: Were you there on set a lot, Paul?

PL: All the time. Not many writers do, but Ken and I generally have a very close working relationship. I think we’ve done about 14 films together now. We’ve always put it as I’m the writer, Ken’s the director but we meet in the middle as filmmakers and try to support each other. The beautiful thing about working with Ken is that there’s no big ego there. He’s such a good man. What we try to be is our own toughest critics and try to be honest with each other. It’s been an absolute joy every single project we’ve done together. I also met David Bradley for the first time at the Empire event, which was lovely.

CL: How much input does Ken have on your script, Paul? Do you go in and redraft or vice versa?

KL: Well, Paul and I collaborate on everything. Paul writes it, but we talk about the idea, how the story should go, and whether telling the story simply will reveal how the world is. But the main thing is making the characters credible and interesting.

PL: It’s a very organic process. One film bleeds into another, but they all come out of conversations we have as very close friends. We’re also in contact all the time and send each other articles that we think the other should see. But we’ve got different jobs, so what usually happens is we’d imagine a character and their situation. If we think it’s worthwhile investigating, I’ll go dig around and then get something down on paper. Get that first draft of the script done by myself because you’ve got to just take a run at it on your own instinct. After that, we probe it, test it and investigate it to make sure it’s as strong as possible.

CL: Do you mean that you’re testing to make sure things like the racism we hear in The Old Oak are accurate?

PL: No not necessarily, just testing it to make sure that this is the best version of that story we can tell. Things arise from that conversation, and then you’ll try another angle and then another, and that process goes on and on and on to be more refined. Even after the casting process, I might chop and change things to suit the strengths of the actors. The casting is supremely important. Ken works with someone named Kahleen Crawford and her colleague Sue to get the best for the role. Bit by bit, you raise the finance on the strength of the script, then find the locations. We always shoot the film in sequence; we can talk about things and change them as we need to. The heart of it is there, it must be because you can’t improvise a whole script. We might sense the story is going one way or another, or some actors fit parts better. So, it’s just about keeping an open mind, and it’s the same process in the editing. Ken’s been working with Jonathon (Morris) for many years, probably about 40 years, so there’s always refining going on there in that part of the process too. Then you get lucky, and you get to today, where you get to premiere the film, and set the beast afloat. Launching the Old Oak today is a very emotional day, not only because it’s the end of this film but it’s the end of three films we’ve done up here in the North-East. It’s been a real privilege to be here for three films. This city gives you so much. Being here have given me lifelong friends in Debbie Honeywood from SORRY WE MISSED YOU and Dave Johns from I, DANIEL BLAKE, who have become a very close friends in recent times.

CL: I’ve lived in the North-East, from Middlesbrough to Ushaw Moor to Langley Park…

Well, Langley Park is actually where we filmed around 1973 for Black Jack, where the oldest row of miners cottages are. It’s a very special place. It’s the village that Sir Bobby Robson was from if you follow football at all, the former England manage, and we had Bobby’s dad play as a character in the film – happy memories of Langley Park.

CL: You’ll be quite glad to know that the doctor’s surgery around where he lived in Langley Park is called Sir Bobby Robson surgery, so we here are so privileged to have had him grow up here, he still has a presence in the village over 15 years since his passing. But yeah, to jump back. I’ve lived in the area where THE OLD OAK is set all my life. I’ve worked in pubs, and I’ve been in around all these same people that say the same racist dog-whistles, but I’ve also heard these same comments be made up and down the country. Why was the North-East the place to set this, when these racist remarks are heard all over?

PL: We’d done I, DANIEL BLAKE and SORRY WE MISSED YOU up here and we just felt like we had unfinished business. Those other two were tragedies, and I suppose we wanted to examine something more hopeful. We wanted to come back to this area anyway but when Ken and I came up and went wandering around some of these villages, it was remarkable to see how things had deteriorated since the miners’ strike of 1984.

KL: Well, the North is where the working class is, and we have to include the working class when telling these stories because it is the class that will change things. Change will not come from those who won’t benefit from a welfare system, it clearly won’t, and it never has. If change is to occur, we need it to come from the working class. It’s the task of the ruling class to maintain that imbalance. If the working class are divided, they are weak and can’t challenge the upper class as to why they are forced to live this way. So, telling stories of the working class means you can incorporate them as full characters with complexities and humour and struggles and sadness and joy and all the rest of it that make them human and not stereotypes or cliches. One thing you never see on TV is their strength. They’re always victims in need of a charity, or criminals or drug dealers. I don’t need to tell you how brilliant the area is, but the landscape and the people in it are so brilliant and vibrant. There’s such a clear, strong culture, it’s almost its own character. The strength that they’ve had to endure what they have – the miners’ strike being one of the greatest industrial actions of the country’s history – over the years, and to come out with such humour and dignity.

PL: And I felt like time itself was a character. How did we get from the logic of an 8-hour day back in 1984 to the world of Ricky in SORRY WE MISSED YOU. Not to romanticise that way of life, of course, because they were long tough days, but to be spending 10-12 hours enslaved by an app on your phone, unable to take toilet breaks like we showed SORRY WE MISSED YOU. It’s not just a change in governmental legislation but in a change of consciousness around our lives. William Blake talked about mind-forged manacles and how we swallow a different type of consciousness and that was very interesting when writing THE OLD OAK, where we felt the past itself had to be a character too. That’s where the idea of the Old Oak pub came from. An old pub hanging on by its fingertips, a bit like TJ in the film.

CL: In the script, there is a scene where a bulldog attacks another dog and kills them. There’s a narrative occurring in the media currently about the potential banning of these Bully XL dogs. The script was written well before this came about. Do you worry that the film will contribute to that narrative, and where did the idea for it come about?

I don’t know. Where do any ideas come about? We went along to all these little villages and there were some big, massive dogs around. They did make me nervous, so maybe that’s where it came from.

Well, I can’t speak about particular breeds of dogs but the idea of dangerous dogs in general scares the pants off me to be honest. It’s the last thing you want to see: a dog hurtling towards you, can knock you over and do damage or even kill you. It’s not something I’d want anyone to experience, but also yeah, I don’t want dangerous dogs on the street. The underlying thing is that those dogs are seen as a symbol of the owners’ strength, and that’s a pity because everyone should grow up experiencing respect and shouldn’t need these dogs to kind of command it. You are respected and you are strong. We have to get to the root of why they’re seen the way they are but for the time, let’s just have dogs wag their tails.

I suspect that the themes in the film will resonate more than the dog attack, but the government will latch onto anything to distract from their actions. I think it’s significant to notice how racist the government has been. Look at Suella Braverman, I think she’s been a disgrace. I’ll give you a particular example: I believe it was last October, where Suella Braverman was discussing the invasion of small boats, and there was a registration office for asylum seekers that was firebombed the very next day. Now, if that wasn’t racist and inciting hatred behaviour, I don’t know what is. Look at how they’re treating immigrant children who are arriving unaccompanied, where the government ordered the Disney mural on the wall of the detention centre to be painted over. That was Robert Jenrick who ordered that. It sounds crazy, like why are we even talking about this, but it fits in with his philosophy, and Jenrick said that we must infuse every stage of the asylum process with deterrents. Not with fairness. Not with integrity. No accordance with human rights laws. It’s all about punishment, to make it as miserable as possible. The disgraceful thing is Labour are almost as bad because they don’t want to condemn it. They don’t want to be associated with anything that could be seen as positive around asylum seekers.