Ken Loach and Paul Laverty’s Final Show

Paul Laverty

Ken Loach’s longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty talks to Jacobin about their final collaboration on The Old Oak, which follows Syrian refugees and ex-miners in Northeast England, and why the working class remains the last hope for justice in the world.

Dave Turner as TJ Ballantyne and Ebla Mari as Yara in The Old Oak. (StudiocanalUK / YouTube)

Interview by
Ed Rampell

Paul Laverty is one of the world’s leading lefty screenwriters. His historic collaboration with director Ken Loach, British cinema’s lion of the Left, has spanned four decades, producing fourteen films. The Loach-Laverty team’s latest, The Old Oak, was nominated for Outstanding British Film of the Year at the BAFTA Awards and for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; it’s also a New York Times critic’s pick. Oak is likely the last feature to be helmed by Loach, who turns eighty-eight this June.

The Old Oak is the antithesis of most Hollywood movies — it follows Syrian refugees resettling in an inhospitable UK. Their encounters and interactions with the all-too-human English residents of a depressed former mining community are the heart of Loach and Laverty’s final feature together. At the core of the film, according to Laverty, is a question: “How does one traumatized community react when it ends up side by side with another?”

Ed Rampell

How did the story for The Old Oak come about?

Paul Laverty

It came about after long discussions with Ken and Rebecca O’Brien, our producer. We had done two films in the northeast of England, I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You. Both were tragedies, really. Very, very tough stories. And we thought this might be Ken’s last film, because he was eighty-six at the time. So we wanted to end on a different note. And something that was important to both of us, ever since we started working together over thirty years ago, was the notion of hope — where we find it, how we nourish each other.

You can’t just copy a screenplay or a story from the street. You have to make the connections. Anyway, I thought we’d go back to the northeast of England again, where we made the last two films at Newcastle, the big industrial city. The North East is an area of high deindustrialization and mining. There were lots of mining villages all around Newcastle. I wandered around them. What was very, very striking was how they had deteriorated ever since 1984, which was a huge and important year in the history of politics in the UK.

That was the year of the miners’ strike. The miners went on strike for over a year, and Margaret Thatcher, with the help of the state, really crushed the miners. After the miners’ strike was lost in 1984, many of these villages came upon hard times; because of deindustrialization, people lost their jobs and there was gradual deterioration of these communities. The post offices and banks and their livelihoods would go.

They became very, very tough, bleak areas, full of charity shops and shops that sold the basics. Wandering around these villages, just looking, you could see the past in the present. It was quite striking to talk to the old miners, who remembered it. Many of these older people told me great stories about solidarity, what it was like, and their social lives: they went to jazz clubs, and many of these old villages had their own brass bands. There was a real rich cultural life. But after 1984, that fell by the wayside.

And then what happened was the housing in those areas began to fall in price. Even today you can buy a little miner’s cottage there for £5,000. The local authorities started dumping people who had evictions or were coming out of prison, and then they started putting Syrian refugees into these cheap houses as well. So the people who lived there were under great stress. They’re saying: “Why are you sending needy people to some of the poorest areas in the country? Why not send them to Chelsea or Westminster, rich areas in England and London, and not to us?” People felt that everything was being dumped upon them, wrongly. They felt angry, alienated and felt that for what little control over their lives, there was an alienation.

There were also people in these communities who remembered the miners’ strike, looking after people. They used to have community kitchens, where people ate together, looked after each other, to continue the strike. Thatcher tried to starve people back to work in 1984. Some of the people in these communities, with the help of progressive people in the churches, held out the hand of friendship to some of the Syrians and tried to understand where they’d come from, the trauma they’d gone through. They realized that if they were going to have a vibrant community again, where people looked after each other to fight the racists and all the prejudices, that they had to hold out the hand of friendship to the people in the local community, too. So they started, during the summer, community eating, so the people would come together and do sports for the kids during the summer holidays.

I was wandering around one village in particular that really struck me, a great story of hope. It’s a small village, but there’s actually a huge canvas, because you have all the people fleeing the war in Syria, who have lost everything, coming to the little villages, and — I’m not trying to make an equivalence between the trauma, because the Syrians were exposed to enormous mass murder and mass incarceration — but there was trauma in these villages, too. They were falling to pieces, there was hopelessness, and people in the middle of all that are trying to imagine each other’s lives, to nourish each other, look after each other. It’s a really, really hopeful and interesting story to try a different angle.

So, I went back to talk to Ken, and we just felt there was something here that was very much of the moment. This was a few years ago; ever since then, it has become more significant. The whole question of people on the move, looking for asylum, has become a bigger and bigger issue. Not only in the UK, but in America, too. Ken, Rebecca, and I felt that this is something interesting — it’s got three dimensions to it, a richness — that we’d bang into. So, I went back up on a long trip to the North East, found people, talked to people, listened to their stories. Then you try to find a story that best works. All the characters are fictional; TJ Ballantyne [Dave Turner] is fictional. But you meet people like that, hanging on by their fingertips, people who lost hope in the past and in their self-confidence.

And I spent lots of time with Syrians in the North East to try to understand them, study the history of the country, look at documentaries, listen to their music, read through their novels. Of course, Syrians will tell their story better than any outsider will. Ken and Rebecca were very encouraging with the character of Yara [Ebla Mari], who has learned to use a camera in the refugee camps. So when someone like her arrives, she has curiosity — she’s somebody looking out, trying to figure out what’s going on in the host community.

Ed Rampell

Ken has said the “Syrians in the film should be those who have settled in the area.” Were most of the film’s refugees nonprofessional actors?

Paul Laverty

The Old Oak is set in 2016, because that’s the year thousands of Syrians came in. All of the Syrians were ordinary citizens — apart from Ebla Mari — who lived in the area. Amna Al Ali, who played the mother [Fatima], lived in a little village close by. Because you’re shooting a film, you don’t want to bring children away from other parts of the country. So we just found local people. Fortunately, we found people who could give life and blood to the characters as imagined. The character of Yara was played by Ebla Mari from the Golan Heights, which is just across the border. Previously, before the 1967 war in Palestine, it was Syrian territory. Ebla had not worked in film before, but she had worked in theater. A remarkable, fantastic young woman, very, very bright. A tremendous person to work with — we’re all knocked out by Ebla.

Ed Rampell

How about the English locals? Were they played by nonprofessionals or trained actors?

Paul Laverty

Some were professionals; others weren’t. A mixture of actors and ex-miners who hadn’t acted before. Trevor Fox [Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), Victoria & Abdul (2017)] plays Charlie, who used to be TJ’s friend. He’s a very well-known actor. Chris McGlade is an actor as well [I, Daniel Blake (2016)]; he plays Vic, one of the rougher, racist characters.

Dave Turner, who played TJ Ballantyne, used to be a fireman and had all sorts of jobs. He’d done one scene in I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You. So, we knew him. But this was obviously a much bigger challenge for him. We talked to him on many occasions. Ken gave him a series of improvisations to do. He’s a very handsome man with a great sensibility. Very elegant, articulate, working class to his fingertips. He was in the fireman’s union [as a full-time official].

Claire Rodgerson is a young woman who plays Laura, an activist in the community. Claire in real life is like her character in the film; Claire’s an activist [an organizer for the national charity Citizens UK].

Ed Rampell

You said in press notes that “the past should be a character in our film,” and earlier you explained what you mean. The pub, the titular Old Oak, is also a sort of character in the film. How?

Paul Laverty

That’s a very good point. As a dramatist and director, you’ve got to try and imagine how you can convey all of these ideas in a way that is not on the nose. It struck me as I walked around many of these communities that there were so much that was lost: the banks, libraries, public swimming pools, all the places that make up community. I noticed that there were a lot of old pubs just hanging on by their fingertips. Many had just been closed over the years. So I imagined this pub that had been hanging on by its fingertips, a little bit like TJ himself, and then when you see an old pub like that and go into it, you can imagine it’s been there for years, and you can almost smell the past in it.

You imagine that TJ’s uncle had been a miner and an amateur photographer — in that backroom, when we see all the pictures of the mining life prior to 1984, you can actually smell the past. In these communities, you can actually see the past in the geography of the towns. It’s close in the cottages that you see; these are typical mining cottages that you see in the film. You really do smell the past in the present. But more so in that pub.

And in that pub, there is also contested territory, because it’s the last public place standing and there’s some people who really want to dominate. There are the ones who are stretching their hand of friendship to the Syrians, and then there are the ones who are racist or so pissed off that they’ve lost agency in their lives. They just feel like this is the last thing that they’re hanging on to. I don’t want to demonize these people. We wanted to untangle that anger: Where does that hatred and racism come from? Oftentimes when you get underneath, you begin to sense alienation, people who have lost agency in their lives.

Like the guy Trevor Fox plays, Charlie. The houses are sold off or rented very, very cheaply. Then they put in somebody who’s an addict or has mental health problems or has just been released from prison. It can really infuriate people because it dominates their lives. They can’t sell their property because it’s worth so little now, so they feel trapped, frustrated, angry, like they have no agency in their lives, they can’t just up and move. They become furious. Then, of course, the racists come in; they find the easiest targets, oftentimes in the most silly fashion, and they target people. It’s not [the victims’] fault — they’re Syrian refugees, they fled war and ended up there because the housing was cheaper. The racists blame them and try to capture and harness all that anger, alienation, and fury.

Prior to 1984, [these communities] had miners’ unions which were very, very strong; working people had an eight-hour day, proper sick days, and benefits. Then suddenly, forty years later, trade unions lost their power. Thatcher’s anti-union legislation undermined the working class and Tony Blair’s “New Labour” also fed into the same narrative and undermined trade unions. What you get now in free-market society are the Amazons of the world: these big corporations that drive people into the ground, literally, and make sure unions don’t flourish. In a strange way, we can only understand the world of Sorry We Missed You [if we] look back and untangle what was lost in 1984 and how things became like that.

Ed Rampell

In The Old Oak there is a huge parade with workers carrying banners, including a union banner inscribed with Syrian writing, another honoring the International Brigade that fought in the Spanish Civil War, and a Palestinian banner. Tell us about this march. How was it staged? In the story is it meant to be real or a fantasy sequence?

Paul Laverty

Oh no, this is based on the Durham miners’ march that has gone on every single year for 130-ish years. It’s traditionally been a day when the miners gather and march through the streets of Durham. Durham is very near — it’s in the North East, where the mining communities were. This is a long-standing tradition, one of the biggest gatherings of the working class in all of Europe. There are hundreds of thousands there — not even Hollywood could manage to organize marches of 100,000.

It’s an event Ken and I have often attended. The trade unions meet there every year. We asked their permission to join them with our fictional characters and our banner of solidarity among all the real demonstrations that were taking place. All that was real. The Palestinian flag was there because it was there — little wonder, given the climate. This was prior to the 7th of October, obviously, the terrible massacre [of Israelis], and of course there have been many massacres of Palestinians before that, too [and since].

We slipped our characters into that, and they understood where our story was coming from and they were very, very supportive. You have to imagine, the story had to end that way. In the past, when TJ was young, he was political. Over the decades, he lost self-confidence; he lost self-esteem. He’d given up. But even though someone can give up, become desperate, and confront suicide, that doesn’t mean you don’t understand the politics. TJ was very different from the characters in I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You because he was a political character that — through working with the Syrians, the community coming together, people looking after each other — [gained] the strength to join the march again. He wasn’t prepared to earlier on; I think he saw that as something that was past. But after he came to life again, it gave TJ hope again.

Ed Rampell

You’ve said Ken “has deep-seated political convictions.” How would you describe those convictions?

Paul Laverty

He’s a man of the Left and a principled socialist. He’s not a social democrat; he’s a socialist. The working class is the only class that has the possibility of political change. The key thing would be to take control of the means of production so that the common good is benefitted — a traditional socialist position.

Ed Rampell

How would you describe your convictions?

Paul Laverty

Very similar, really. I don’t think you can understand the world unless you see it in class terms.

I am often asked about Ken’s politics or my own. In all the thirty-plus years that we have worked together, that has not been something we sit down and discuss. It is implicit in how we see the world, in how we try to understand it. It’s the background air we breathe. We have had different life experiences, and we are not clones. But if we didn’t share a profound sense of how politics and power works in our world, I am sure our working relationship would have run out of steam decades ago, despite our close friendship. It would be easy to come up with sound bites, but the problem with simple tags is that, once attached, they become reductionist.

If someone wants to understand Ken’s politics, I would invite them to examine his six-decade career in the round. What subjects has he wrestled with and tried to untangle? How are human behavior and society affected by political power? What choices do people have in their lives depending on where they are born and which class they belong to? How is change achieved, or undermined, both individually and collectively? We can look at 1969’s Kes (written by the brilliant Barry Hines), about a young lad who everyone assumes must work down a mine, or the series of documentaries that Ken made examining how the rank-and-file trade union membership was sold out by their right-wing leaders. It is in the life lived, the artistic engagement, the choices made, that a deeper politics is revealed.

Over the last thirty years our imaginations and curiosity have been fired by something we have in common, without having to define it. By instinct we get angry and moved at many of the same things, and laugh at the same things. That’s how we ended up with such different films as I, Daniel Blake, or The Wind That Shakes the Barley [2006]. We have had such a great run together, along with our wonderful producer Rebecca O’Brien, I will always see the glass as half full — it has been a privilege, but if we had more time, I have a sense, too, of what we might have continued to grapple with.

We face unprecedented times. You only have to look at what nature is telling us every day, and what 98 percent of the scientists are warning about us about. Climate change is already upon us; lives are devastated now. Many more millions will die or will be forced to move in the lives of our children. But what is the response? We have used more fossil fuels this past year than in our history, and this is stunning; we have given more subsidies to fossil fuel companies this past year than our entire history, too. That is madness. That is corporate power at work, in its inexorable pursuit of profit no matter the consequences. It shows up the farce of what we call democracy when corporate lobbies dominate the levers of power, and reveals the crisis in representation.

You in the United States are faced with an aberration — two pathetic candidates in Biden and Trump, a product of a broken political culture — and we are faced with a similar pair of two lightweight apparatchiks in [Conservative prime minister Rishi] Sunak and [Labour Party leader Keir] Starmer climbing the greasy corporate pole to power, while leading us to doom. Maybe it takes stories to try and disentangle how we have come to such a crisis, and maybe it takes stories, too, to try and find a way out, and find the energy to change things. When we made The Old Oak, and we shot a scene in Durham Cathedral (on Ken’s eight-sixth birthday, by the way) built by the Normans a thousand years ago, I was reminded of the words of Saint Augustine, from five centuries earlier, who said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger at the way things are, and the courage to try and change things.” I reckon that is as good an indication of Ken’s politics as anything.