Fifty years after Cathy Come Home turned a spotlight on homelessness, veteran director Ken Loach has created another incendiary drama tackling the harm done to ordinary people by the government’s benefit system. I, Daniel Blake is a tragi-comedy that will break your heart and make your blood boil, but it will also make you laugh and feel warmed by the kindness shown by many of its characters.
After the film, which opened the Cambridge Film Festival, there was a Q&A session with stand-up comedian Dave Johns, who plays Daniel Blake. He gave the audience a fascinating and funny insight into how Ken Loach works.
Now 80, Loach came out of ‘retirement’ to make I, Daniel Blake, and the film won him a second Palme D’Or at Cannes – a controversial decision because many felt there were ‘better’ films in competition. Loach’s social-realist film is plain and unadorned; it has no musical soundtrack – nothing to distract us from its anti-austerity message. But it packs a real punch and features outstanding performances from its two lead actors.
The film begins with Daniel, a 59 year-old Newcastle carpenter and widower who has recently had a major heart attack, attempting to negotiate a 52-page form in order to qualify for Employment and Support Allowance. The Job Centre clerk reads out a list of questions pertaining to every part of his anatomy, except the one that matters. ‘Forget about me arse,’ he tells her, ‘that works a dream. Can we just talk about my heart? We’re getting further and further away from my heart’.
Long-term Loach collaborator Paul Laverty’s script nails the ‘monumental farce’ of the present benefits system and the unthinking cruelty it causes – in Dan’s case, ‘a sick man looking for non-existent jobs’. Laverty reportedly interviewed hundreds of real people for I, Daniel Blake, and many of their experiences are up there on screen.
When Dan helps a young mother (Squires) get a fair hearing, they are both asked the leave the Job Centre for causing a scene. Katie and her two children have been forced to move from London to Newcastle to find a flat and she now faces the threat of being ‘sanctioned’ – having her benefits stopped. All of them now face poverty and humiliation caused by a system seemingly designed to drive people into the black economy, or to crush them completely. The invisible ‘Decision Maker’, who holds people’s fates in his hands, sounds like a character from Orwell’s 1984, or Kafka’s The Trial.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the telephone put-on-hold background music of choice, has never sounded more like an instrument of torture.
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At the Cambridge Film Festival Dave Johns told the audience that I, Daniel Blake was the first film he had acted in. Johns was invited to audition and meet Ken Loach; they chatted about football: ‘I support Newcastle. He supports Bath City. So we have something in common – two crap teams’. He went on to do improvisation sessions and got the part, after feeling ‘a connection’ when acting opposite Hayley Squires.
Loach shoots chronologically and the actors are only fed a bit of the script every couple of days, so they do not know how things will end. He wants it to be spontaneous, so ‘he keeps stuff back’. Because there is no music in the film ‘as an actor you’re very exposed. You listen to each other and then you’ll get the truth’. Johns sang the praises of Paul Laverty: ‘the mark of a good writer is that those words disappear. He lets you own the words: that’s why it looks natural’.
As preparation for I, Daniel Blake, Loach made Johns fill in the 52 page Assessment form. It was an eye-opener – ‘I didn’t know about sanctions’, but the role was mostly ‘about living the moment, living Daniel’s life’. With Ken, there was ‘no make-up, clapper-board, no distractions, which probably helped’.
Did Johns have any plans for more films in the future?
‘I’m a stand-up comic, first and foremost. I was going, don’t ruin Ken’s career, Dave. I’d love to do more film. I’m very proud of this … Hayley’s a fantastic actor, there in the moment in every scene. There were times I forgot I was in a film’.
Did the film have an impact on him?
‘The subject matter did. I didn’t know about the problems people had in the system’. Johns talked about the change from ‘social security’ to ‘welfare’, which seems like a handout and the negative public perception caused by ‘poverty porn tv like Benefits Street’. ‘Dan could be your dad. The system is not working for ordinary people’.
Here in rich Cambridge, what can we take away from the film? Should we take its’ message into Parliament like Cathy Come Home?
‘Yeah, Cambridge is still getting over the Great Bollinger Shortage of 1982’ (laughter). ‘Where I was born – Byker in Newcastle– working class areas have been split apart. Austerity blamed on the people who can least afford it’. Johns wants to get back to Social Security because ‘we should be proud to have this sort of safety net’.
He had always been a Labour supporter, but ‘Ken has radicalised me a bit. He is very much a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’. A window of opportunity for change had opened up all over Europe and ‘there has to be change … it’s about voting … telling people we don’t want this … get a little bit of pride back for the working class. The whole system needs overhauling … compassionate Conservatism is like the unicorn. We’ve all heard about it, but nobody’s seen it’.
Johns said that the right-wing media were pushing this idea that people in need are feckless, and the disabled were getting this treatment more than the able-bodied. People are hankering back to a Golden Age that didn’t exist … ‘It’s about us all saying enough is enough’.
All Ken Loach’s films are now available to watch for free on YouTube. Johns finished with a story about actor Mark Rylance, who told Loach that Daniel Day-Lewis came round to his place and that they had watched all Loach’s films back-to-back. ‘Didn’t you want to kill yourselves?’ replied Loach.