If you take a look through the TV schedules for any particular week you will find a significant proportion of programming is so called ‘reality TV’, writes Dave Kellaway. These programmes are supposed to present ordinary people’s lives. You have the ones about young people going crazy on holidays, the various dating set ups, poor people on benefits and of course Love Island. But hardly any of these programmes either present reality or attempt in any way to explain the deeper reasons or causes of people’s behaviour. What Ken Loach and his regular writing partner, Paul Laverty, have done for over 40 years is to make fictional films that are more real and explain a whole lot more than nearly all of the reality TV output or most documentaries.
On a recent Question Time programme we saw Kate Andrews, from the Institute of Economic Affairs contemptuously dismiss Loach’s film as ‘stories’. Ken comes back with a passionate attack on zero-hour contracts citing the real-life case of driver and diabetic Don Lane who missed his medical appointment to go into work and subsequently collapsed and died.
How many films do you see that actually show people doing manual labour whether skilled or less skilled? You have a lot of films about business people or those working in fashion, design or advertising but a lot less that show the daily grind of work. Very few indeed do what Ken Loach does showing the exploitation but also at times the vital contributions such workers make to our society. Debbie, the wife of Ricky, the delivery driver, is a care worker. Like her husband she is on a self-employed agency contract with strict time limited visits and having to pay her own travel costs. But we see extraordinary patience and acts of kindness well beyond her limited pay grade.
All the Thatcherite ideology of working for yourself and becoming your one boss is paraded in the opening scenes where Ricky is not hired but comes ‘on board’ signing a contract as a franchisee with the delivery company. He has to have his own van and has no sickness, holiday or other benefits which employees generally have. If he cannot come in, then he has to find another driver or he is fined.
Many writers have talked about the decomposition of the working class through the structural changes to the labour market – Ken’s films over time have been an articulate description of the changes in the labour market and the weakening of the labour movement. This is expressed eloquently in a short scene where the tough depot boss who is displeased with the lateness and attitude of one of the drivers decides to take away his route (one of better ones). The drivers are in a semi-circle as he offers them this swap. Several he asks refuse and you sense even in this atomised state, workers have an ache for solidarity but Ricky, as the most desperate, takes up the offer and there remains only a sort of sullen resignation.
A lot of rubbish has been talked about how networks and digital technology are liberating, creating new exciting and flexible work. The reality is shown graphically in the film. The scanner and tracker handheld – aptly christened the gun by one worker – co-ordinates and controls the working day. It provides a record of each driver’s productivity. Once again the depot manager expresses the essence of how we produce and consume today when he reels off a paean of praise to the handheld and how it and his tough treatment of the drivers allows his depot to be successful and keep its contracts while allowing consumers to get what they order when they want.
The film is more credible and gripping because of the way Loach shows how family breakdown does not happen in isolation but is embedded in capitalist structures of production. How often are we treated to accounts of family breakdown that focus only on the psychology or sociology of the family rather than on how many problems are directly linked to the reality of long hours and financial insecurity. Both children in the movie are affected by the strains of their parents’ jobs. The rows with the truanting elder son just feel so genuine – the actor who plays Ricky said as much in a Breakfast TV interview when he say he had been there with his own son.
In fact Loach’s policy of employing actors who are unknown or even debutants has the same effect as we see in the great tradition of the Italian neo-realist films of post-war Italy or in the recent Mexican movies Romaor The Chambermaid. Using an established actor sometimes weakens the authenticity Loach is able to achieve. We are so used to the faux-reality of soaps like Eastendersor Coronation Streetthat the dialogue’s rhythm, accent and tone appears unfamiliar. But listen to ordinary people speak and you can see who gets it right.
Sorry We Missed You could not have come out a better time with the election. There is now a clear choice between continuing this unfair ‘self-employed’ charade and establishing new ground rules and giving unions back the power to defend people at the workplace. It certainly inspires us to get out and do that extra evening of canvassing to get a Corbyn-led government.
Sorry We Missed You, directed by Ken Loach and scripted by Paul Laverty (2019).