Helen Barlow

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I, Daniel Blake

At 80, Ken Loach was inspired to come out of retirement for his Newcastle-set tale. Winning at Cannes was a nice bonus too, writes Helen Barlow

I, Daniel Blake

WHEN Ken Loach won his second Palme d’Or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake, he seemed genuinely surprised. This tale of the demise of the welfare state in Britain was an altogether smaller affair than his 2006 winner, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, set in West Cork.

“It’s extraordinary really because it’s the same little gang from 2006 who have done it,” he says of writer Paul Laverty, producer Rebecca O’Brien, and his other regular crew members. “It’s nice to be in that team and we really weren’t expecting this.”

As with some of his other best films, including Raining Stones and Cathy Come Home, the 80-year-old’s latest film focuses on a microcosm, and, in working-class Newcastle, Loach and his regular screenwriter Laverty found just the right niche.

“Newcastle is a great city,” says Loach. “It’s got a long tradition of working class struggle in the shipyards and the mines and it’s got a terrific identity. There’s a great sense of humour and it’s one of those cities like Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester where you can identify it, absolutely. The richness of that culture provides a great background to work from; it gives you so much energy.”

Initially, the Glaswegian Laverty, who is 20 years younger, did all the legwork, travelling the country to talk to people at food banks and in Newcastle he notes there were 2,000 people on the day he visited.

“After listening to people’s stories and working with welfare organisations and disabled groups, what was remarkable was how the most vulnerable people bore the brunt of the welfare cuts,” Laverty notes. “People who work with the disabled say they suffer six times more, and a remarkable phrase we heard from one of the civil servants was that ‘the low lying fruit are the easy targets’. But in this story Daniel is a competent man who has a lifetime of work, who’s got friends and is smart. We chose two competent, smart people as the main characters, but it could have been much more heartbreaking.”

Nevertheless, the repercussions of Daniel being denied sickness benefits, when he can no longer work, is gut-wrenching. A generous soul, he takes to helping Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother and they form a close bond. As with so many Loach films the performances are so affecting that we believe the characters are real.

Geordie stand-up comic Dave Johns, who actually hails from the neighbourhood where the film is set, plays his first movie role as Daniel, while London-born actress Hayley Squires plays Katie.

“It’s really very easy working with actors who are full of imagination and vulnerability,” Loach says. “We started at the beginning and shot in order, so the story unfolded as the actors got the script, bit by bit. It feels like it happens in the moment and takes people by surprise. We cast real people working in food banks — in the old Italian neorealist tradition — so they knew the job. People in the office signing people on worked in that office.”

Johns’ and Squires’ performances are what makes the film such a heartbreaker. Even if the story was clearly tough to portray, they had the sense that Loach was with them every step of the way.“There was a calmness on set, a family element and we felt completely safe,” Squires recalls. “Before shooting we spent time researching and talking and having lunch together. You’re with Ken and his team and they’re the most supportive group of people. You know it will never collapse.”

In fact Loach and co were spurred into action by what they discovered, especially at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). People working there said recalled how unhappy they were in the way they were forced to treat the public, says Laverty. “They are actually trained for potential suicides.”

Having supposedly retired after Jimmy’s Hall, set in Leitrim, Loach returned for I, Daniel Blake because he felt it had to be made.

O’Brien, who has worked with Loach since Hidden Agenda in 1990, notes that it’s a simple human story.

“You recognise our own life in the story we’re telling. So many films are about other people’s lives; they’re distant. Here we tell a story people can identify with.”

Setting the right tone was hugely important, Loach says.

“The story is so strong that we had to be very simple and clear and very economical and didn’t need any embellishment.”

The film’s cinematographer Robbie Ryan is Irish, and had previously worked on Jimmy’s Hall.

“He talked about finding a clear and unadorned style without any extraneous movement or anything to distract you from capturing the essence of the people in front of the camera,” says Loach.

During the Brexit debate, Loach advocated staying in the European Union and working to affect change within its strictures — not least because his film, and many of his previous films, would never have been made without European financing.

Ironically, the very people Loach presents in the film were the kinds of disenchanted voters who brought about the exit that could hugely affect the financing of any future Loach films. Will there be a future Loach film? “I don’t know if there’ll be another one, I’ll have to wait and see,” the director responds. “It’s nice having made it and it’s nice talking about it, but the actual making of it does take it out of you. I know Woody Allen finds it easy, but for some of us it’s still a struggle. Of course everyone would like to go on forever. You just cross your fingers when you get very old. You’re just pleased to see the sunrise the next day. So we’ll take each day as it comes.”

I, Daniel Blake opens on Friday.

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