Realism, Naturalism, Loachism? A study of Ken Loach's films of the 1990s.

Thesis (M.A.), 2002

108 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of contents


1. Realism and naturalism: a theoretic framework
1.1. Realism and naturalism in the nineteenth century
1.1.1. The emergence of realism
1.1 2. Naturalism as the intensification of realism
1.2. Realism and naturalism in film and film studies
1.2.1. Social realism and the British documentary movement of the 1930s
1.2.2. Bazin, Kracauer and Italian neo-realism
1.2.3. The ‘classic realist text’
1.2.4. Seamless realism
1.2.5. On-Screen Naturalism and documentary drama

2. The career of Ken Loach

3. Ken Loach’s films of the 1990s
3.1. ‘Realism of theme’: showing the margins of society
3.2. ‘Realism of form’: Style and cinematic technique
3.2.1. Location shooting
3.2.2. Shooting in sequence
3.2.3. Camera and camera movement
3.2.4. Lighting and sound
3.2.5. Actors and performances
3.2.6. Narration
3.3. Emotional realism: manipulating spectator response

4. Case study Ladybird, Ladybird: spectator response mechanisms
4.1. ‘Realism of theme’ analysis
4.1.1. Emotionality of subject matter and melodrama
4.1.2. Plot and fabula
4.2. Film specific aspects of narrative: scene analyses
4.2.1. Point of view and camera positioning
4.2.2. Editing and camera movement
4.2.3. Performances
4.2.4. Music and spectator involvement

5. Case study My Name Is Joe: ‘Loachism’ and success
5.1. Realism of theme
5.1.1. Subject matter and plot
5.1.2. Narrative structure
5.1.3. Humour
5.2. Film specific aspects of narrative
5.2.1. Cinematography and editing
5.2.2. Performances
5.2.3. Sound


German summary




The 1990s was a very productive decade for the British film industry. It is the continuation of the so-called ‘renaissance’ in British film, which started in the 1980s.

With the establishment of Channel 4 in the 1980s the biggest obstacle to British filmmaking, the finance, had not vanished, but considerably improved. Between 1982 and 1997 Channel 4 produced or sponsored more than 200 low-budget films. It brought challenging pieces to the screens, which were renowned for “their realism, their simplicity, their absence of special effects and their originality” and often politically, socially and/or ethnically motivated.[1]

One of the British directors renowned for precisely this kind of filmmaking is Kenneth Loach, who adhered to his realistic approach to filmmaking from the 1960s through to the 1990s and applied it both to the television and the cinema screen. After a less productive decade during the 80s, when he turned to documentaries rather than feature films, most of which never made it to the screen under the politics and censorship of the Thatcher government, he experienced a comeback in the 1990s. Even if his style developed over the decades of his career, his main aim - to show the life of the British working class - has remained consistent. Critics generally refer to Loach as a realist or naturalist filmmaker, terms which Loach himself would rather substitute with ”authentic”, which to him seems a less loaded word than ”naturalistic” or ”realistic”[2].

So what is he? A realist, a naturalist or should one create a new term, as has been suggested and call his filmmaking ”Loachian”[3] to do justice to his unique style? Could one define such a thing as ”Loachism”, rather than ”realism” and ”naturalism”?

Loach’s style can be regarded as a continuum within realist traditions of filmmaking.[4] From the early beginnings of cinema, realism constituted an important part of the new medium. Critics and filmmakers alike engaged in discussions on the realist issue. Is cinema real? Does it show ‘life as it really is’? Could any two-dimensional art ever show the real life? How far can the style of filming manipulate the reflection of reality in film and how does this influence the film’s effect on the spectator?

The following work will look at the origins and developments of realist film theory and the connections to naturalism (Is naturalism a kind of realism?). After the establishment of a theoretic framework, I will place Loach and his films within this framework, starting with an examination of his distinguishing cinematic techniques, before subjecting two of the films to a more detailed analysis.

As I am dealing with a director who has made films from the 1960s to the 1990s, it would be beyond the scope of this work to include all his films. I have therefore decided to limit my analyses to his cinema films of the 1990s, which constituted a renaissance in Loach’s career and showed a slight change in style, partly due to the fact that they were made for the ‘big screen’ and not - like the majority of his earlier films - for television.[5]

1. Realism and naturalism: a theoretic framework

As long as mankind has existed there has always been the desire to depict and preserve images of the world and the reality around man. Important for the cinema tradition of realism are particularly the art and literature movements of the nineteenth century, which flourished in the wake of a new medium, that captured visual reality in a way never seen before: photography. Photography subsequently became the prerequisite for the development of ‘the motion picture’ - cinema.

1.1. Realism and naturalism in the nineteenth century

1.1.1. The emergence of realism

Realism was the dominant movement in art and literature from about 1840 until 1870-80. The nineteenth century was a century full of new discoveries and scientists and historians revealed ever more about reality,[6] changing the human perception of the world. These developments naturally had an impact on the artists of the time, whose aim it became to portray reality as meticulously as possible.

At the same time new democratic ideas sprang up and resulted in a demand for political and social democracy as well as for democracy in art. ”Ordinary people - merchants, workers and peasants - in their everyday functions, began to appear on a stage formerly reserved exclusively for kings, nobles, diplomats and heroes”.[7] Realist artists believed they had to be of their own era - Il faut être de son temps. They felt they had a mission to reflect their contemporary world[8], viewing people ”frankly and candidly in all their misery, familiarity or banality”[9].

This notion of être de son temps is not only characteristic of painting, but of literature, too, where French writers such as Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert or George Eliot and Anthony Trollope in England, captured human life and experience in their writings. They shaped the realistic novel, in which complex characters were represented, who were ”[rooted] in a social class, [operated] in a highly developed social structure, [interacted] with many other characters, and [underwent] plausible and everyday modes of experience”.[10] All events are rendered in a ”circumstantial, matter-of-fact, and seemingly unselective way” and are written so as to make the reader believe that the characters might exist and that the events might well happen.[11]

This new tendency of focusing on the secular and the ordinary is characteristic of all realistic works not matter if one deals with painting, literature, theatre or film.

1.1 2. Naturalism as the intensification of realism

Naturalism is closely associated with realism and often regarded as a kind of realism, but more intense than the latter. Naturalists depict life even more accurate than realists and take a more scientific and objective approach to art.

In the naturalist view, two forces determine the human being: heredity (compulsive instincts, e.g. hunger, sexuality, accumulative drive) and environment (family, class, social milieu into which a person is born).[12] Every human being’s personality and expectations in life emerge as a result of the interplay between those two forces. Thus, there is only a certain degree of control people can exert over their own lives and their ambitions in life. These characteristics also apply to naturalism in film.

Of more significance for a filmic approach to naturalism, however, is the naturalistic development in the theatre of the nineteenth century. Furthering realistic tendencies, which already emerged in the eighteenth century bourgeois drama[13], the Frenchman André Antoine was one of the first dramatists and directors, who accomplished a ‘slice-of-life-realism’ on the theatre stage.

Actors were meant to incorporate their characters and ‘be them’ instead of ‘acting them’. The audience should be confronted with a realistic décor, contemporary subject matter and naturally delivered dialogue. Forgetting that they were watching a play, the audience should feel as if they were witnessing a happening in real life. In the same way, actors were to forget the audience, not addressing or acknowledging them in any way.[14] Antoine later started to direct films and took this method with him into the new medium.

1.2. Realism and naturalism in film and film studies

The mere structure of film as a medium that is capable of putting visual reality on a screen makes it most suitable for a realist approach. In fact, some critics in the beginnings of film and film theory claimed that film’s unique and sole duty was to be true to reality. If realism meant to ‘show life as it really was’ then film was destined to do precisely that. It was regarded as the perfect instrument for realism.

As with all art movements, different approaches develop and coexist alongside each other. From the early beginnings of film, two main tendencies can be identified. On the one hand, there are the filmmakers who are “obsessed with capturing raw reality on film,“ early representatives would be the Lumière brothers. On the other hand there are the ones who are “more interested by what [they] could do to [their] raw materials,“ one of the first filmmakers to follow this approach was Méliès.[15]

Many other art groups such as the formalists or the German expressionists coexisted with the realists and must be at least mentioned, even if I shall not look further into these developments in this paper. The following chapters on realism in cinema must be seen as only one approach to the medium, which developed alongside many other approaches.

1.2.1. Social realism and the British documentary movement of the 1930s

Long before the first theories on realistic cinema were put down in black and white, realism had taken to the cinema screen. In the 1930s John Grierson surrounded himself with a group of filmmakers, who explored the social and economic circumstances of the working and middle classes in form of documentaries. All future realist movements in film maintained the three basic principles the group followed:

First, cinema should be taking slice-of-life reality rather than artificially constructing it. Second, everyday ordinary people should act themselves in real settings. Finally, cinema should strive to catch the spontaneous or authentic gesture and uncontrived or natural speech.[16]

On the basis of Grierson’s work, social realism was later introduced into narrative cinema by such movements as the ‘Italian neo-realists’ in the 1940s, the ‘Free British cinema’ and the ‘British New Wave’ in the 1950s or the ‘cinema-vérité’ during the 1960s in France. The films, which emerged out of these movements, were often termed “social-problem films”.[17]

1.2.2. Bazin, Kracauer and Italian neo-realism

The first two significant contributions to a realist film theory were the essay collection “Qu’ est-ce que le cinema?” by the Frenchman André Bazin[18] and the book “Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality“ by the German journalist Siegfried Kracauer.[19]

Before looking at specific realist methods in filmmaking, there are two requisites of cinema, which are vital for the spectator’s perception of the medium.

Firstly, cinema “registers the spatiality of objects and the space they inhabit“.[20] Thus the spectator can relate to the images, as he is familiar with their look from his real life. The images on the screen are of course not reality, but what Bazin called ’tracings of reality’.[21] Naturally, cinema and reality could never fall together for if they did, cinema would “cease to exist as cinema“.[22]

Secondly, cinema records reality automatically, without human interference, so that the spectator is willing to accept its objectivity. In other words, the spectator views the images on screen as he would view reality because they were recorded mechanically.[23]

These two features of cinema constitute a very important aspect of the spectator’s perception of the medium: he is willing to accept the images on screen as real.

Naturally, of course, any film would record space and do so mechanically. That does not necessarily make it a realist film. These faculties of the medium and the effect they have on the viewer must rather be seen as an advantageous prerequisite for realism in cinema. What distinguishes realist filmmakers from others is the fact, that they put much emphasis on their image on screen being as close to human perception of reality as the medium allows.

Their approach is distinguished by the non-use of cinematic techniques rather than by the artistic exhaustion of the latter. A realistic filmmaker does not aim at surprising or astonishing his spectator with exceptionally artistic images. As Kracauer claims, the technical properties of cinema, namely cinematic techniques such as editing, close-up, soft-focus or lap-dissolve should never take precedence over the basic properties of the medium, the properties of photography, which give film the ability to record and reveal physical reality.[24] Realist filmmakers put this into practice.

They aim at a more emotional response and involvement of the spectator and at an objective representation of reality. Objectivity is, of course, always a problematic matter, as the choice of a certain perspective or angle already distorts reality, a fact that must not be forgotten when dealing with seemingly realistic and ’objective’ works.

Such realist ideas were implemented by Italian neo-realism, a movement, which was blossoming in the 1950s. The Italian neo-realists were praised both by Bazin and Kracauer for their “perfect and natural adherence to actuality”,[25] which evoked an extraordinary feeling of truth.

The neo-realists demonstrated the ideal use of cinema and cinematic techniques. Although the roots of realism in cinema go back to Murnau and Stroheim in the era of silent cinema,[26] it is only with the Italian neo-realists that cinema comes close to realist ’perfection’.

One of the most significant steps towards ’perfection’ was the introduction of deep focus, first employed by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941). The depth-of-field shot restored the visible continuity found in reality: the action is not broken up into fragments, but is given the space and the time to unfold in front of the spectator’s eyes. Instead of focusing on one aspect of the image, the camera “takes in with equal sharpness the whole field of vision“.[27]

In consequence, the spectator is actively involved in the action in process, as it is he himself and not the director, who chooses what to see or what to focus on.[28] Part of the meaning of the image derives from the spectator’s attention and thus not only the continuity of reality, but also the ambiguity of reality is preserved in the deep focus.

[The] spectator should be forced to wrestle with the meaning of a filmed event because he should wrestle with the meanings of events in empirical reality in his daily life. Reality and realism both insist on the human mind wrestling with facts, which are at once concrete and ambiguous.[29]

A film, of course, is hardly ever entirely shot in deep focus. However much one might prefer depth of field to montage, the latter cannot be banned from cinema, not even from realistic cinema.

Therefore Bazin suggested: “. . . to restore reality to a recital of events it is sufficient if one of the shots, suitably chosen, brings together those elements previously separated by montage.“[30] Montage can well be realistic, if its use follows the logical line of human perception. If space and time are broken up in accordance with the logic of the narrative, the spectator does often not even notice the manipulation. Using the fragments provided, he creates a seamless story in his mind.[31]

In realist cinema, cinematic techniques should only be applied where absolutely necessary and in a way, which makes it almost impossible for the spectator to perceive the existence of such techniques, or which makes the spectator forget the techniques over the involvement in the story.

The Italian neo-realists became known in their time for showing the complexity of social reality on celluloid without artistic transformation.[32] They introduced or rehabilitated the use of deep focus photography, location shooting, hand-held cameras, natural lighting, original soundtracks, natural dialogue and non-professional actors (some of these techniques had already been used in the documentary movement of the 1930s). Films such as Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di bicicletti (1948, Bicycle Thieves), Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948, The Earth Trembles) or Roberto Rossellini’s Roma Citta Aperta (1945, Rome Open City) are perfect examples of realist filmmaking, combining all or many of the above methods.[33]

In addition to technical choices, their choice of subject matter intensified this realistic style: their stories were taken out of the post-war Italian everyday life in the 1950s. These stories were discovered rather than contrived[34] and were termed ‘found story’ by Kracauer, who regarded them as the ideal form of cinematic narrative. The idea already goes back to Grierson’s filmmaking in the thirties.

The ‘found stories’ show the “unpredictable and chaotic whirl of life“ and are “open-ended, unstaged and indeterminate“. The individuals are entangled in the story, which arises out of reality itself. They never initiate the plot and “exist . . . to bring out the human dimensions of a broad and objective situation, to make us as spectator view it deeply and passionately rather than for its informational content . . . .“[35]

These methods, distinctive for realist filmmakers in general, enhance the spectator’s involvement and make identification easier. They combine to offer a view of reality as close to empirical reality as possible. Other methods, which serve the same purpose, would be 180° rule, shot/ reverse-shot or eye-line match.[36] I shall look at them in more detail in the case studies, which follow below.[37]

Generally in realistic films the spectator should not only have to deal with the visual reality of everyday life, but also with the feelings with which he responds to the situation described. Watching a film, the spectator’s consciousness is weakened and he identifies or aligns with what is presented on the screen. The idea of the film should ideally captivate the spectator’s senses as well as his intellect.[38]

The fact, that the spectator of a realist film tends to forget, that he is watching a work of art, is vital for the effect that the film will have on him. The emotional involvement is higher than with other kinds of feature films. The viewer is confronted with both the cruelty and beauty of reality; he has to deal with the reality presented and is forced to form an opinion about it. His reflections should ideally reach beyond the reality on screen into his own social or political environment. Realist films should initiate a critical analysis of one’s own surroundings: through critical examination, film should bring us back into communication with the physical world.[39]

Italian neo-realism was the first movement to comprehensively incorporate and idealize realistic cinema form. Although it only lasted about fourteen years, it influenced future filmmaking immensely. The ’French New Wave’ of the 1950s and 1960s was much indebted to Italian neo-realism and the ’British New Wave’ incorporated various aspects of style introduced by the Italians a decade earlier.[40]

1.2.3. The ‘classic realist text’

A new debate on Realism arose in the 1970s, when Colin MacCabe tried to define the ‘classic realist text’ in his article Realism and the cinema: notes on some Brechtian theses.[41] He argued that there was “a hierarchy amongst the discourses” of a classic realist text, which was “defined in terms of an empirical notion of truth.”[42] In this context MacCabe identified two main features of the classic realist text:

1 The classic realist text cannot deal with the real as contradictory.
2 In a reciprocal movement the classic realist text ensures the position of the subject in a relation of dominant specularity.[43]

What MacCabe seems to imply is that the classic realist text represents a specific worldview and the messages and questions it delivers are steered by the director or screenwriter. Even if it presents several voices or opinions, the screenwriter’s or director’s view will always remain dominant. There are no contradictions to be resolved or acted out by the reader (or spectator).[44] MacCabe agues that “the only problem that reality poses is to go and look and see what Things there are.”[45] Consequently, the effect such a text would have, would be “comforting rather than disturbing,”[46] something which certainly does not hold true for Loach’s films.

MacCabe’s article evoked a harsh response from many different sides of film and literature criticism. The many discourses, which developed out of his article show, how complicated and undefined the matter of realism is. As John Hill put it: “There is probably no critical term with a more unruly and confusing lineage than that of realism.”[47]

It would be beyond the scope of this work to include all arguments, which have been brought forward over the years and the main points and characteristics of a realist aesthetic have been expressed above.

1.2.4. Seamless realism

Whereas an aesthetically motivated realism, as described above, aims at communicating one or even several readings of reality and tries to be objective in its view, seamless realism tries to disguise the illusion of realism. It has become associated with Hollywood cinema and refers to certain techniques, which filmmakers apply to create a continuity effect. As the narrative is regarded as more important than style, shots, lighting, colour, editing, mise-en-scène and sound should not draw attention to themselves.[48] They rather work together to produce a continuous narrative line.

A ‘spatial and temporal contiguity’ is created between the spectator and the narrative: the spectator always knows where he is in time and space, and in the logic and chronology of the narrative. If flashbacks are used they always fit in with this continuity and appear in chronological order.[49]

Certain cinematic techniques support the creation of such a “reality effect” and minimise the sense of disruption. The employed strategies should be transparent to the viewer: he should be unaware of their existence.

Match cuts link two shots, which are related in form, subject or action, e.g. one being a long, the other being a medium shot. The eye-line match follows the direction of a character’s look. The spectator sees the character and is then shown, what the character looks at. Thus a seamless continuity is created, the spectator is not aware of the cuts.[50] The eye-line match is an extension of the 180° rule, which refers to an imaginary line along the action of a scene, which should be clearly established. It serves to clarify the movement of the action, e.g. when characters run away from or towards each other in consecutive shots. Consecutive shots should not be taken from opposite sides of this line.[51]

Other devices to achieve a reality effect would be the shot/ reverse-angle shot or crosscutting. The former is often used in dialogue scenes, where the camera moves from one character to the other, following their conversation and their looks. The camera very often frames close-ups of the character’s faces, or other parts of the body, creating intimacy. The spectator identifies with the character’s gaze and looks at whatever the character’s eyes focus on. Crosscutting changes between two sets of action, which happen simultaneously in different locations enabling the spectator to witness everything. It is mainly used to create suspense.[52] These are only the most prominent techniques used to create the illusion of reality. How these effects work in a film will be seen in the analysis of Loach’s films of the nineties.

Altogether three main areas should be included in an analysis of realist film: the realism of form, the realism of theme and the emotional realism. Conventions of staging, directing, acting, shooting and editing are just as important as the choice of subject matter, the plausibility of characterization, circumstances and action and the presentation of national and political pressures towards the ’socially ordinary’ or ’socially problematic’.[53] In recent years film critique has concentrated mainly on emotional realism,[54] namely the effects on the viewer. I shall follow this procedure in chapter four of this essay.

1.2.5. On-Screen Naturalism and documentary drama

Naturalism made its way from literature to cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, articulating the “social and economic discontent” in post-war Britain.[55]

The lines, which separate naturalism from realism, are almost indistinguishable and the two lie very close together, as we have already seen in the first chapter of this essay. If one defines realism in the terms of Bazin or Kracauer, then naturalism could be regarded as a “hi-fi” realism:[56] it shows the same characteristics as realism, but is even more realistic and raw. If realism were defined in terms of MacCabe, I would tend to agree with Deborah Knight, who grants naturalism an existence of its own and outlines naturalism as critical realism[57] (as opposed to classical realism).

Naturalism in cinema manifests itself as a combination of documentary, docudrama and British New Wave and is connected with such names as Lindsey Anderson, Tony Richardson or Karel Reisz.[58]

Fiction is presented using documentary techniques such as location shooting, hand-held camera, cramped shots, natural lighting or inaudible sound which gives the impression of an unplanned and unpremeditated shot taken by a camera which is just as surprised by the action as the spectator is.[59]

The seemingly objective documentary look is mingled with the dramatic look: the fictional characters exchange looks, establish different relationships with other characters[60] and create both a consistency and a movement of the narrative, while placing the spectator in relation to it.[61] Documentary drama combines documentary techniques with the rhetoric of narrative realist film (eye-line match, shot/reverse-shot, point of view shot).

Using unprofessional actors who often have the same or a similar social background as the characters they represent, and choosing subject matters with historical or contemporary reference[62] support the effect of truth and actuality of these docudramas or ‘factions’ (mingling fact and fiction). The spectator is easily deceived into believing he is witnessing a real happening (or at least a very truthful reproduction of one) rather than a fictional creation. This can be dangerous and misleading and evoked severe criticism in the 1960s,[63] and still does today.

The most significant distinction to realism is an extensive occupation with the characters’ social environment and the effect the latter executes on the characters’ lives and especially on their limitations in life. Naturalist works investigate a character’s “social position (class), economic situation (comparative wealth or poverty), region of birth, education (or lack of it), type of employment (or unemployment), ethnicity and gender”[64] and expose how “society, culture, economic circumstances and so forth impose limits on characters.”[65]

Naturalist protagonists are anti-heroic and are generally unable to initiate actions.[66] They find themselves in the clutches of the social and economic forces around them, and their actions rarely lead to as much as a slight improvement of the life they want to break free from.[67]

As we have seen earlier, naturalism in cinema and television has its origins in the theatre and consequently shows a tendency to “tell a story by means of dialogue”: The camera very often concentrates on photographing “faces talking and faces reacting”.[68] This was conceived in the mid-1960s as boring and as lacking in style.[69]

Directors such as John McGrath and Troy Kennedy Martin, who worked with Kenneth Loach at the time wanted to move away from the ‘neutrality about life’ naturalism imposed and felt that the meanings of naturalist works were too implicit, ambivalent and not critical enough.[70] By the end of the 1960s, however, naturalism had become the dominant mode of television drama.[71]

The ambivalence criticised by McGrath constitutes one of the positive aspects of naturalism in Deborah Knight’s view. Thus the viewer is forced to interact with the screen, to evaluate the processes presented and to draw his own conclusion, which makes naturalism a more complex representational form than MacCabes ‘classic realist text’, where it is sufficient to ‘just look and see what things are’.[72] Like Kracauer’s ‘found story’, naturalist films are open-ended and “conclude” with the problem still unresolved,[73] often leaving the spectator unsatisfied. In how far these techniques are characteristic of Loach’s films of the 1990s will be analysed in chapter three.

2. The career of Ken Loach

When dealing with film it is important to take the director into account. After all, a film is never only the raw material, but an expression of how the director works with his raw material. Every realist director has his own pattern of realism and uses this pattern to interpret a chosen facet of reality.[74] As Roy Armes points out, a realist filmmaker “must have the qualities of an artist able to select and probe, disentangle the real from the feigned, order the over-abundant material . . . .“[75]

In order to understand the ‘Loachian’ touch in Loach’s films of the 1990s it is necessary to look at his career history and the influences, which made him develop into the filmmaker he is today.

Kenneth Loach was born in Nuneaton, an industrial town in Warwickshire, in 1936. After school he completed two years of National Service in the Royal Air Force before starting to read law at St. Peter’s Hall, Oxford. During the years in Oxford he became involved in acting and became President of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and Secretary of the Experimental Theatre Club.

Having completed his course, he decided to work as an actor in repertory theatre. In 1961, Loach was offered a sponsorship from ABC TV to become an assistant director at the Northampton Repertory Theatre, a post he held until joining the BBC as trainee television director in 1963.[76]

During his theatre years he was highly influenced by the work of British theatre director Joan Littlewood, who was connected with a working-class theatre. Loach was made familiar with the idea “that drama didn’t have to be about middle-class people . . . [but that it] could stem from the lives of ordinary working people.”[77] Furthermore he admired Littlewood’s style, where the “images appeared arbitrary but none the less a story emerged”. When he decided to change from theatre to television, his aim was to create “the same sense of randomness which she got in live theatre”.[78]

His debut in television was the thirty-minutes domestic drama Catherine (1964), after which he directed three episodes of Z Cars, a police series, and three of six parts of Diary of a young man (1964). With the latter works he experimented on new grounds, working together with Troy Kennedy Martin and John McGrath, who are still remembered today for their experimental, non-naturalist studio-based television plays, which were groundbreaking in the 1960s.

They mixed “stills, voice-overs, direct address to the camera, and location and studio footage with ’live’ studio material“, a method totally new to television. The main point was to rebel against the traditions of filmed theatre, studio drama, and overacting.[79] Loach learned a great deal in those years and used some of these methods in his early Wednesday Plays, although in the long run, non-naturalism proved not for him.[80]

In films such as Cathy Come Home (1966) and In Two Minds (1967) Loach tried to achieve a new synthesis of documentary and drama, aiming at a more effective and convincing kind of filmmaking. However, he soon felt that this style did not leave enough space for the development of inter-character-relationships and turned to other devices.[81]

When asked today, what his main influences were, he names Italian neo-realism[82] and Czech New Wave.[83] The latter impressed him because of the combination of a humanist style with a sharp, wry wit. Loach adopted this style for his groundbreaking feature film Kes (1969). He consciously moved away from “newsreely, chasing kind of photography to a more reflective, observed, sympathetically lit style of photography”, which should make “what is in front of the camera as authentic and truthful as possible”.[84] Since Kes, he very much adhered to this kind of filmmaking, although his more recent films show a slightly more assertive and energetic style.[85]

After a successful period during the 1960s and 1970s Loach’s luck changed for the worse and he found it almost impossible to make the kinds of films he wanted to make. Britain and British cinema used America as its raw model, and Loach’s films did not fit in with the current trend. In the 1980s, disillusioned about feature filmmaking, Loach turned to documentary.[86] Four of the six documentaries he made during the eighties were permanently banned from Channel 4 because they were politically too one-sided, confronting the crisis in the British trade union movement under the Thatcher government.[87]

In the late 1980s, starting with Hidden Agenda, which was filmed in 1988/89 and released in 1990, Loach became more fortunate and experienced a renaissance as a British film director, which lasted throughout the 1990s. The films, which marked this renaissance, will be examined in the following section.

I will not include Hidden Agenda, Loach’s investigation of British ‘dirty tricks’ and a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s,[88] in the analysis. There are several reasons for dealing with it separately. First of all, it was already done in the eighties, thus not really belonging to the nineties category. Secondly, it is a political thriller and the genre dictates a certain narrative structure aiming at suspense, which limited Loach’s directorial freedom. Furthermore, it was financed by an American company, which forced Loach to compromise with certain aspects, for instance forcing him to cast two American stars (Brad Dourif and Francis McDormand). Overall, it is not what some would call a ‘typical Loach film’ and although it reinvigorated Loach’s career as a feature director, it otherwise belongs to “the brave but inconsistent middle period of his career”.[89]

3. Ken Loach’s films of the 1990s

The 1990s is the most successful decade in Loach’s career so far. Almost every year brought another Loach film on the cinema screen and thus re-established him as one of the most prominent British directors to date. Three reasons can be named for this rejuvenation.

First of all, Loach did not only rebuild a successful working relationship with writer Jim Allen, with whom he did Hidden Agenda, Raining Stones (1993) and Land and Freedom (1995), but also found other good writers, who shared his views and visions, such as Bill Jesse (Riff-Raff, 1991), Rona Munro (Ladybird, Ladybird, 1994) and Paul Laverty (Carla’s Song, 1996; My Name is Joe, 1998). Second, Loach found two producers, Sally Hibbin and Rebecca O’Brian, who managed to raise the necessary finances for his films, profiting from Channel 4 and a highly improved European cooperation in terms of film production. Furthermore Loach started working with Barry Ackroyd, who photographed all of Loach’s feature films since Riff Raff.[90]

Loach’s films of the nineties show the same “uncompromising visual rawness”[91] that was characteristic of the Kes -era films and display a more traditional and conventional approach to narrative than his eighties’ work. The narratives are based on a conflict and develop along a narrative line. Even if there is usually no final resolution offered, they still demonstrate methods of traditional ‘storytelling’.

Whereas in some of his television films of the sixties and seventies Loach tried to “chase headlines with the films” and be topical, he now prefers working “at narratives and characters and dilemmas that really last”, which in his view works better for cinema.[92] This change in attitude certainly constitutes one of the reasons for the success he experienced over the past decade.

During his career, which now lasted over forty years, Loach has experimented with different cinematic devices. They might in the beginnings of his career have exceeded the realistic and naturalistic, but a strong desire for authenticity of the image soon guided and still guides his choices of cinematic technique. Ken Loach has developed a unique style, which pervades his work and makes his audience recognise a ‘Loach-film’.

This is not only due to Loach’s work as a director, but due to his collaboration with people who share his visions, tastes and are excited by the same things. In trying to work with the same people, he builds up a backlog of shared experiences, which will then make decisions in the filming process easier, because everybody knows the other one’s mind.[93] Loach has worked for more than twenty years with designer Martin Johnson,[94] all nineties films were edited by Jonathan Morris and photographed by Barry Ackroyd. His films of the nineties have a very similar style, and as Geoff Brown poignantly remarked: “Any variation in tone between Loach’s films stems rather from the writers.”[95]

3.1. ‘Realism of theme’: showing the margins of society

With the films Loach directed in the nineties he continued his line of framing the lives of ordinary working class people, people at the margins of society. His stories unfold on grim housing estates of big cities such as London, Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow.

In Riff-Raff (1991) Stevie (Robert Carlyle), a young Glaswegian ex-convict comes down to London and finds a job on a building site. The wages are low, working conditions are unsafe and the days of worker’s unions are over, leaving the builders with no rights and not much hope for an improvement of their social and financial situation.

Raining Stones (1993) shows Bob, who is on the dole and tries to make money with whatever is on offer from nicking sheep to sell the meat in the local pub to rodding drains. His need for money increases, when his daughter Coleen needs an outfit for her first communion. Bob’s pride will not allow him to buy a second-hand outfit, so he has to get into debt to be able to pay for a new one. As a consequence the loan sharks pursue him and make his life even more complicated than it was anyway, threatening his family. We accompany Bob through the jungle of his everyday life in search for a few quid.

Loach’s next film, Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) is actually based on a true story and sparked up docudrama discussions, which had accompanied his works in the sixties, especially the television play Cathy Come Home (1966). The spectator accompanies Maggie (Crissy Rock), a Liverpudlian mother of four, who lives in London, on her fight for the custody of her children. The film questions the standardized procedures of the welfare authorities and shows the inability of the individual to work against the political and social structures of society.

This inability to escape given structures can be found in all three films and Riff-Raff, Raining Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird have been described as a triptych. All three have been made by Parallax Pictures in cooperation with Channel 4 on a relatively low budget ranging from £700.000 to £900.000 and “exhibit a rough, improvisatory dynamism”.[96]

Their characters live on housing estates of big British cities and the films show the often run down conditions of the latter and the typical people who live on them: poor, often uneducated working class people who have not got much hope for an improvement in their lives. For Stevie in Riff-Raff the flat on a housing estate is already an improvement, as before he spent his nights sleeping rough in the doorways of shops. Maggie and Jorge’s new flat in Ladybird, Ladybird seems like a palace to them, although it is damp and mouldy.

The films never make the central characters wholly responsible for their problems, but explore to which extent the social and economic circumstances they live in can be made responsible for their plight.

Touching upon current problems, Riff Raff shows the despairing situation concerning worker’s rights in the early eighties’ Thatcherite enterprise culture, where labourers have to travel the country in search for badly paid casual employment. Metaphorically presenting the demise of the welfare state, the builders in Riff-Raff convert a disused hospital into luxury flats.[97]

When Larry (Ricky Tomlinson) finally plugs up the courage to complain about work and safety conditions, the management sacks him as a result. Consequently, none of the other workers would dare to express a similar criticism. They cannot afford to lose the temporary income, which was hard to find in the first place. The workers are trapped and lack the means as well as the will to fight back.[98] Any base for self-confident working class action has been destroyed.


[1] David Christopher, British Culture: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 1999) 91.

[2] Julian Petley, ”An Interview with Ken Loach,” Framework 18 (1982): 12.

[3] Tony McKibbin, “The benign but subtly belligerent master of realism: On Ken Loach and the ’Loachian’ way of portraying ordinary people,“ Hard Times 69 (1999): 36-37.

[4] David Nicholls, “Locating Loach,“

[5] Even if I will term the films under discussion ’Loach-films’, they must be rather seen as ’Loach-collaborations’ with certain editors, writers, cameramen and designers, whose input is just as important as that of Loach as a director. See also chapter 4.

[6] Linda Nochlin, Realism (1971; London: Penguin Books, 1990) 15.

[7] Ibid. 23.

[8] Ibid. 28.

[9] Ibid. 34.

[10] M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (1957; Orlando: HBJ, 1993) 132.

[11] Ibid. 174.

[12] Abrams 175.

[13] The three main innovation were: “that the actions of drama should be contemporary. . . ; that the actions and resolutions of drama should be secular. . .; and that the actions of drama should move beyond their conventional social exclusiveness . . . and include the lives of all men . . . .“ see Raymond Williams, “Realism, naturalism and their alternatives,“ Ciné-Tracts 1.3 (1977/78): 1-6.

[14] Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2000) 259.

[15] Monaco 395.

[16] Hayward 331-332.

[17] Ibid. 332.

[18] André Bazin, What is Cinema?, and What is Cinema? II, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

[19] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. (1960; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965).

[20] J. Dudley Andrews, The Major Film Theories: An Introduction (New York: Oxford UP, 1976) 138.

[21] Ibid. 140.

[22] Peter Matthews, “Divining the real,“ Sight and Sound 9.8 (1999): 24.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Kracauer 28.

[25] Bazin, What is Cinema? II 20.

[26] Monaco 408.

[27] Bazin, What is Cinema? II 28.

[28] Bazin, What is Cinema? 36.

[29] Andrews 163.

[30] Bazin, What is Cinema? 51.

[31] Andrews 159-160.

[32] Ibid. 166.

[33] Hayward 201-204.

[34] Kracauer 246.

[35] Andrews 123.

[36] Christopher Williams, “After the classic, the classical and ideology: the differences of realism,“ Reinventing Film Studies, eds. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold, 2000) 213.

[37] See also 1.2.4. Seamless realism.

[38] Kracauer 159-160.

[39] Monaco 400.

[40] Hayward 204.

[41] Colin MacCabe, “Realism and the cinema: notes on some Brechtian theses,“ Screen 15.2 (1974): 7-27.

[42] Ibid. 8.

[43] Ibid. 12.

[44] Colin MacCabe, “Days of Hope: A response to Colin McArthur,“ Screen 17.1 (1976): 100.

[45] MacCabe, “Realism and the cinema...“ 12.

[46] John Hill, “Narrative and realism,“ The Film Studies Reader, eds. Joanne Hollows, Peter Hutchings and Mark Janovich (London: Arnold, 2000) 211.

[47] John Hill, “Narrative and realism“ 208.

[48] Hayward 66.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid. 67.

[51] Allan Rowe, “Film form and narrative,“ An Introduction to Film Studies, ed. Jill Nelmes, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1999) 111.

[52] Hayward 67.

[53] John Corner, “Presumption as theory: ’realism’ in television studies,“ Screen 33.1 (1992): 100.

[54] Ibid. 101.

[55] Deborah Knight, “Naturalism, narration and critical perspective: Ken Loach and the experimental method,“ Agent of Challenge and Defiance. The Films of Ken Loach, Ed. George McKnight (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1997) 65.

[56] Corner 101.

[57] Knight 68.

[58] Hayward 50-51.

[59] John Caughie, “Progressive Television and Documentary Drama,“ Screen 21.3 (1980): 27.

[60] Ibid. 31.

[61] Ibid. 26.

[62] Ibid. 24.

[63] Ibid. 23.

[64] Knight 62.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid. 76.

[67] Ibid. 67.

[68] John McGrath, “TV Drama: The Case Against Naturalism,“ Sight and Sound 43.2 (1977): 100.

[69] Caughie 19.

[70] McGrath 101-102.

[71] Ibid. 105.

[72] Knight 71.

[73] Ibid. 70.

[74] Roy Armes, Patterns of Realism (London: Tantivy Press, 1971) 22.

[75] Ibid. 24.

[76] Graham Fuller, Loach on Loach (London: Faber and Faber, 1998) 1.

[77] Susan Ryan and Richard Porton, “The Politics of Everyday Life: An Interview with Ken Loach,“ Cineaste 24.1 (1998), reprinted in 5.

[78] Fuller 19.

[79] Jonathan Hacker and David Price, Take Ten: Contemporary British Filmdirectors (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992) 280.

[80] Fuller 1.

[81] Hacker and Price 276.

[82] See chapter 2.2. for characteristics of Italian neo-realism.

[83] Fuller 38.

[84] Ibid. 39.

[85] Hacker and Price 276.

[86] Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997) 371.

[87] Fuller 63.

[88] Ibid. 79.

[89] Ibid. 33.

[90] Ibid. 78.

[91] Ibid. 79.

[92] Simon Hattenstone, “Interview: Ken Loach,“ The Guardian 28 October 1998, reprinted in 9.

[93] Hacker and Price 297.

[94] Ibid. 298.

[95] Geoff Brown, “Paradise Found and Lost: The Course of British Realism,“ The British Cinema Book, ed. Robert Murphy (London: BFI, 1997) 194.

[96] Geoffrey Macnab, “Ladybird, Ladybird,“ Sight and Sound 4.11 (1994): 13.

[97] John Hill, British Cinema in the 1980s (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999) 199.

[98] Ibid. 201.

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Realism, Naturalism, Loachism? A study of Ken Loach's films of the 1990s.
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
English Cultural an Media Studies
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Realism, Naturalism, Loachism, Loach
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Wenke Langhof (Author), 2002, Realism, Naturalism, Loachism? A study of Ken Loach's films of the 1990s., Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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