The radical film director Ken Loach is still active and still able to stir controversy.
On 15 of March his latest film “The Spirit of 45” was shown at selected cinemas in London. The Curzon Cinema, Shaftesbury Avenue was full with people from all age groups. They were not disappointed. The film (98 minutes) was a cinematic treatise in political activism, dedicated to a celebration of the Labour victory of 1945 that led to the nationalisation of many industries (including mining, gas, electricity, railways).
The low budget film relied mainly on British Film Institute’s Archives for documentary material. The “live” parts consisted of testimonials of nurses, physicians (GPs) trade unionists and one politician – the distinguished Labour veteran Anthony Wedgwood Benn. All spoke candidly about the change that swept the country under Attlee. Visual juxtaposition of the misery of 1930s unemployment and poverty with memories of reaction to the new policies of housing and above all the National Health Service worked very well.
One GP related a moving example of a mother who called him to see her sick child. When he was about to go she told him that her other child was unwell upstairs but she could not afford to ask him to treat him. He replied that he worked for the NHS that ensured treating her other child too.
A trade unionist related how working people had to take their best suit to the pawnbroker in order to buy food for the week, then retrieve the suit on Friday (pay day) for work on Monday.
The film was split in two parts; contrasting the euphoria of 1945 and after, with Margaret Thatcher’s change of course that led to the privatisation of the Railways with catastrophic consequences.
In an interview (before the screening of the film, Ken Loach mentioned that the timing of the release of the film was relevant to April 13 when what he called the beginning of the end of the NHS would be felt).
|The Spirit of 45
As an ideological call, the film resorted to a black and white argument. Compassionate Attlee versus Margaret Thatcher “the milk snatcher”; several nuances had to be sacrificed in the process.
- If nationalising everything in a stultifying command economy was the best course of action, why did the USSR and its satellite states collapse?
- The reconstruction after the Second World War was contributed to by Indians, West Indians and Pakistanis who were recruited with advertisements abroad. There is no mention of that (nor of them) in the film.
- There is a blind spot in the film about Suez and about Vietnam (when Harold Wilson wisely refused US request to join the war).
An effective film, judging by the reaction of the cinema audience, perhaps because of its timing, as many people in the UK are worried about cuts to the services and creeping commercialisation of the NHS; but the black and white style blunts the message.