Most pictures and words from Anthony C Murphy

Thursday, 22 September 2011


Ken Loach in Conversation with Artist Terry Atkinson

Outside, a radical sells his newspapers. Inside Brighton University's Sallis Benney theatre, film director, Ken Loach and Terry Atkinson are in conversation. The theatre is crowded and warm. The audience is a mixture of ages. Loach and Atkinson are both in their seventies now and have followers through several decades. They are to discuss their life, work and the way political views and climates have shaped both.

Ken Loach cuts a slight figure with wispy white hair. When listening he sits with his chin resting between finger and thumb. Atkinson is more robust, arms across chest, and has a heavy Barnsley accent. They start at the beginning of their respective stories and give an account of grammar school days.  Both men were beneficiaries, or products, of the 1944 Education Act. This provided educational support for pupils who passed their Eleven Plus exams. There were very few working class kids who did benefit and so the Act ultimately produced a functional middle class hierarchy, “a managerial class.”

Loach and Atkinson were two of the lucky ones. They would find that there were spaces for the practices of the newly educated lower class. One such space was the all-new BBC2 channel. Its modernity meant that it was not totally controlled, akin to the Internet today. Teleplays were newsworthy and political and experimental, but this was not to last long. The Clean Up TV campaign would change that.

Atkinson tells anecdotes of how, in these shifting times, he saw freedoms being squeezed. The campaign had a puritanical guise but was intent at displacing any radical element, any alternative viewpoint. T.V. became sanitised and therefore it broadcast purely propaganda.

The Sexy Left
Talking of his own radicalisation, Loach declares that it was "sexy to be on the Left in the Sixties". Obviously going to meetings because of girls was not the only thing on the agenda. This is where a political education was to be had. The groups had a rigorous respect for political theory. His 1975 T.V. series Days of Hope played on this as it dramatised the beginnings of the Labour movement.

The Spanish Civil War was a catalyst for many joining the Left. Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia was required reading. It shows the British ruling classes helping fascists before 1939, or at least standing by and doing nothing to stop their spread. The working people of Spain suffered and their British counterparts sympathised. It seemed to many working class people that the only just war was a class war, as Days of Hope writer, Jim Allen, pointed out.

Terry Atkinson states that it is not really necessary to have a knowledge of political history to be politicised. He thinks that the constant rate of exploitation by those in power will always cause confrontation. There are concerns that global consumerism has created a situation where a "comfortable life is preferred to a conflictual one", but that there will always be exploitation.

The Essential Concept
Loach is asked how he can distill years of history into one screen story. He says that he searches for the essential conflict. The "little nut" you find that describes the whole story. In The Wind that Shakes The Barley, his 2007 movie about Irish independence, the essential conflict comes to be between two brothers. Both want an Ireland free of the English, but one wants it for the people and the other wants it for the political party. This version of events, dramatised, can then lead to the audience gaining political knowledge.

Atkinson has also painted on the subject. He says that his work has to be true to human experience, otherwise it becomes worthy, or politically correct art; like a public monument. He says that his paintings are a response to his reflections, his awakening to political history. Atkinson thinks the art world has become celebritised, and Loach decries the narrowing of cinema's vision by Hollywood and it's merchandising. "What a destruction of the medium!"

The two discuss how the art world is now geared to being business orientated. They marvel at why art students have business cards and talk on how the artist should be responsible to the medium and not to entrepreneurial gain. Thatcher is blamed. Her counter-revolution is thought so embedded and insidious that we expect this kind of behaviour from our artists. "Politics is concealment", says Atkinson.

Questions and Answers
At the end, the audience asks a few questions. One member accuses the talkers of being pessimistic about the media as it is now. This causes refutations, but also an admittance that the "…function of the mass media is to make you pessimistic. This is all there is. It's their view of the world" (Ken Loach).  He is asked what "little nut" he has found for our time now. Mr. Loach reveals that his latest project is to concern contract workers in Iraq. He hopes that it will reveal the West's real impact on that region: the economic impact as well as the military one and the opportunism involved.

This project has since been realised on screen as the film, Route Irish.

Terry Atkinson discusses his interest in how the basic reality of our world is now unpictureable. He says that our world has become less than micro and that we think on phenomena that can never be seen, like quarks and god particles. This for an artist is a conundrum. How do you paint that?

And then the discussion is brought to an end. There are one or two people sleeping in the rows. It is a dry and hot room now. Ken Loach is not finished however. The comment on his conceived pessimism about the media still rankles. He says, matter of factly, that we should not be down hearted, that we need to create and that we've "got to keep at it".

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