We’re nearing the end of our brief Ken Loach season, but this week I’m going to use up two of the remaining plays in one go, as they’re a two-parter. 1977’s The Price of Coal was written by Loach’s Kes writing partner Barry Hines and is set in Yorkshire colliery community.
The first part, Meet The People, is a slightly comic affair, with management trying to enlist the miners in sprucing up the pithead in preparation for a visit by Prince Charles. A strangely comic affair for both Hines and Loach, it sees Loach abandon his documentary style of filming in favour of something a bit more Czech new wave that’s merely content to observe, although Loach did do his usual trick of casting some non-actors in key roles, drawing on some local stand-up comics when casting his humorous miners (Duggie Brown, Bobby Knutt, Stan Richards and Jackie Shinn).
The second part, set just a month later, reverts a bit more towards the Loach mean, with an underground explosion at the colliery killing several miners, the play then following the attempts to rescue others than remain trapped.
A satirical musical full of fantasy, surrealism and formal experimentation? That can only mean one man: Ken Loach.
Hang on a sec. That doesn't seem quite right, does it? Yet 1965's The End of Arthur's Marriage is just that.
Written by poet and Private Eye contributor Christopher Logue and composer Stanley Myers (who wrote the theme to The Deerhunter, fact fans), The End of Arthur's Marriage was broadcast as part of the BBC's Wednesday Play series and sees working class man Arthur (Ken Jones) tasked with putting down a deposit on his house, using his in-laws' savings. However, he soon discovers he'd rather spend everything in a few scant hours with his daughter (Maureen Ampleford) instead.
The play was one of Loach's earliest works, so came at a time when he was still finding his voice. While it incorporates a number of his future trademarks, including his first use of 16mm film, as well as the use of documentary techniques and the untrained Ampleford, there's a lot that's uncharacteristic of Loach: as well as conventional songs by Long John Baldry and others, there are in-character songs, including a sales pitch by shop assistant John Fortune, and narrators attacking middle-class conformity. There are also hints of Brecht in Arthur's purchase of an elephant and the episodic narrative structure, and Loach intercuts between scenes of people dancing and disgruntled viewers, even appearing as himself at one point, arguing with a documentary crew filming at his planned location.
While Loach says he was the wrong person for the job, it's certainly worth watching The End of Arthur's Marriage to see what he could do before he decided what job he was the best person for. And you have your chance below - enjoy!
Continuing our season of Ken Loach-directed plays for the BBC, this week we’ve got not one but two Loach plays, both of them written by Marxist playwright Jim Allen: The Big Flame and Rank and File. The two are similar, conveying both writer and director’s socialist concerns regarding workers and strikes in light of the events at the time. However, the two have different approaches to the problem.
The Big Flame came first, offering a more general vision than Rank and File. The second of Allen’s plays (his 1967 play The Lump was about the exploitation of casual labour in the building trade), The Big Flame gives us striking Liverpool dockers enacting a Communist-style system of workers’ control of the docks.
Filmed in Loach’s now-standard, quasi-documentary style, sometimes with real dockers, it’s an obvious bit of agitprop, with the workers’ communism shown as entirely successful until broken up by the police. As a result, Mary Whitehouse herself complained to both Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the then leader of the opposition Edward Heath, demanding a review of the BBC Charter because of its advocacy of a “communist takeover of the docks”; it also became the name of a revolutionary Liverpool socialist organisation.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay to watch it below. So much for communism.
Rank and File was a far less notorious play written by Allen once he'd observed at close hand a strike at Pilkington Glass Works in St Helens in 1970. It's also a play that both he and Loach are less proud of, Allen saying that the play was written in three weeks and was 'too didactic', while Loach says it shows its 'age badly', having tried to catch the headlines and be topical.
Featuring many of the same cast members as The Big Flame, the play depicts the events of a wildcat strike at a family firm, caused by collaboration between a union executive and management. It is less of a mouthpiece for its author's beliefs than The Big Flame (bar a quote from Trotsky at the end), instead flagging up as problematic the new Industrial Relations Act that made unofficial strikes illegal. Nevertheless, those who get Allen's sympathies are convincingly written and portrayed, while those who don't get far shorter shrift.
All the same, it's a powerful piece and you definitely can watch it below. Enjoy! It's free! Long live the revolution!
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I'm Rob Buckley, a freelance journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of, although you might have heard me on Radio 5 Live's Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I've edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for trade magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider and the equally short-lived Death Ray and Filmstar magazines; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it "web site for urban hedonists" The Tribe. I'm freelance now and have contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network and TV Scoop.