Hierarchies seem especially integral to the way this country operates; beyond the old class structures, they can be found in every environment, if only as a means of measuring the individual’s sense of worth and importance when compared to whoever happens to be below him or her. What often appears to escape their attention is that they may only be once-removed from their immediate neighbour on the next highest rung of the ladder, but the distance between them and their immediate neighbour on the next lowest rung of the ladder is the same. Keeping one’s focus upwards serves as a useful blinker indeed.
Transfer this to the workplace and one finds endless Little Hitler’s answerable to a higher power on the next management level, but who at least have underlings beneath them upon whom they can exercise their limited authority, and they consequently feel better about themselves when they do so. They may be all-too aware of being passed over for promotion and have come to the conclusion their life is going nowhere; but there are still lower forms of life to inflict all their pent-up frustration on, and a small modicum of self-respect can be garnered from cracking the whip.
Your average Mail or Express reader, perennially disgruntled that they may not be high-flying high-earners, draw solace from their perused pages, plastered as they are with tall tales of the dregs down at the bottom; cocooned in smug security and the conviction that, as bad as things seem when the retirement nest egg is emptied to fund junior’s university education, they are at least superior to the pond-life plebs whose problems are self-inflicted and remain a million miles from their own concerns. Prejudices reinforced by their reading material, they are little more than oblivious pawns in a narrative scripted by hands that care not to point out that their faith in a future free from social depravation is utterly groundless in a society built on shifting sands. They are one step from losing their jobs, losing their homes and being dumped alongside the undeserving poor they’ve been taught are responsible for their predicament; but never let them know that or else the whole bloody structure will collapse.
Half-a-century on from ‘Cathy Come Home’, Ken Loach’s new film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ has been received by many on the middle rungs of the ladder as socialist propaganda; no great surprise, for the majority of the critics making the accusation have been led to believe ‘those people’ are to blame for their misfortune anyway. With their comfortable columnist status handed down the nepotism network, they’ve been spared entombment in a Job Centre or DWP office; they’ve avoided being threatened and addressed by condescending pre-programmed messengers from the Gods as though they were naughty six-year-olds being ticked off by the headmistress; they’ve avoided their income hanging on which direction the thumbs of glorified Roman Emperors will go; they’ve avoided juggling threadbare funds to decide which bill won’t be paid in order that dinner will still be served. And any storyteller who shines a light on this alien landscape that the ignorant have formed unrealistic opinions about is naturally spinning lefty lies; that Dickens was performing the same invaluable service 150 years ago doesn’t count, of course, because the costumes are lovely.
When ‘Cathy Come Home’ aired as part of the BBC’s ‘Wednesday Play’ in 1966, the strand had already attracted criticism not only from the likes of Mary Whitehouse (who had objected to ‘bad language’, ‘loose sexual morals’ and the backstreet abortion scene in the previous year’s ‘Up the Junction’), but from those on the right that accused television of wallowing in a working-class netherworld of misery that had been solely manufactured by Marxist playwrights as part of their Class War campaign. Had that been the case, the viewing public (who have always been immune to that kind of champagne socialist lecturing) wouldn’t have tuned-in in their millions and wouldn’t have recognised the truth of their own experience in the best of the plays that were broadcast on both ‘The Wednesday Play’ and its 70s equivalent, ‘Play for Today’.
While the lives lived in such productions were undoubtedly hard and often grim, an underlying black humour was always present, as it continued to be in cinematic successors such as ‘Kes’ as well as later portrayals on television like ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’. Having recently watched the latter anew, I approached it with trepidation, remembering the bleakness in Yosser’s story; yet, even that has some great laugh-out-loud lines in it, as proved to be the case with ‘I, Daniel Blake’.
Television has now largely abandoned telling these kind of stories, preferring instead to divert its dramatic resources into imitating the serial killer chic of Scandi-Noir or to revert to music hall-type caricatures of working-class characters, as in the numerous Kay Mellor ‘Jolly Northern Women having a lark’ series. In recent years, only Jimmy McGovern’s superb ‘The Street’ offered an alternative that was neither patronising nor cosily fantasising. The small-screen ghetto now reserved for non-middle-class characters is the cheap documentary and the Jeremy Kyle circus ring, with each wannabe reality hopeful playing the idle dole-scrounger so the Mail and the Express can continue the narrative their readers expect.
Regardless of his personal politics, Ken Loach has always been first and foremost a storyteller; that he chooses to tell the stories of those who are rarely afforded the chance of their lives being seen by anyone outside their own demographic is something that should be applauded – and applause spontaneously broke out in the cinema where I saw ‘I, Daniel Blake’ last night as the end credits rolled. It was a beautiful, compassionate, witty and moving film as well as a damning indictment of a country that likes to airbrush its myriad faults, and one that only a hard-hearted cynic who has never personally experienced any of the predicaments it documents could sneer at. I suspect everyone in that cinema had either been in one of the positions its characters found themselves in or knew someone who had, but that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for appreciation; and nor should it be an excuse for tiresome and tedious token contrariness by self-appointed cultural commentators who want their hierarchies, and the illusion of order they generate, to remain intact.
© The Editor