Monday, July 1, 2024

‘Life Is Better Than Death’: Deceased Artiste Martin Mull

"Life is better than death/Well, it could be/but don’t hold your breath...” — Mull, Near Perfect/Perfect

Martin Mull is best remembered by younger people and the less adventurous viewers among us as a comic actor who played authority figures and eccentric second bananas on sitcoms and in movies. Two other sides of Mull were far more interesting: The first was his own preferred guise, as a painter who worked in everything from abstraction to a wonderful “Americana” mode that blended kitsch elements (via photorealist renderings of “happy Americans”) with his own skewed sensibility. 

The Martin Mull that I became utterly obsessed by as a kid in the late Seventies was the musical Mull. I was a Doctor Demento listener and was introduced by my dad to the brilliance of Spike Jones. Mull was a different sort of comic musician — a great wordsmith who wrote very funny lyrics and set them over catchy tunes in different musical modes (lounge,Latin, folk, blues, pop). The seven albums he made from 1972 to ’79 were, and are, sublime and nuanced in their weirdness. (This doesn’t include In the Soop, a seeming “jam” recording that is kind of a mess.) 

For Mull was at once a modern performer and a throwback to earlier deadpan comics. He started out with long hair and a dapper mustache (the mustache stayed throughout his life, augmented by a beard in his later years) in a laidback, lounge lizard mode. He was fully aware of the modern rock scene in the early Seventies, but his true heroes were blues guitarists like B.B. King (with whom he got to play when he guest-hosted “The Tonight Show”).

His humor thus worked on a more *musical* level than most musical comics (Robert Christgau, in an initial review, compared him to Randy Newman), but he also cut an odd figure, since his particular “niche” made him an opener for major rock acts, where (one assumes) he endured a lot of audience hostility and anger. No matter — there was “Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture” starting off the show. He transported with him when on tour an armchair, a lamp, and a table that would comprise his stage “setting,” and he would essentially “play” an extremely white singer-guitarist who just happened to break into light bossa nova and also ultra-funky songs.

Mull in the '67 
Rhode Island
School of Design
The single best example of what he did in the Seventies before he primarily became an actor (this was all following him graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design with an MFA) was what introduced me to his carefully constructed absurdism. He had been touring for three years when he was given a full hour episode of the Chicago PBS series Soundstage to fill; he chose Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Funhouse interview subject Howard Kaylan, otherwise known as the Turtles) to be his guests — their act was also musical comedy but of a much “harder” sort (their take on George Harrison, which was in the show, caused him to sue them). 

Mull played a number of his songs on the show and, in the process, made me into a lifelong fan. The songs were perfectly in the Demento novelty song mode (but more sophisticated), and his hosting and low-key (but razor-sharp) attitude made the hour an utter delight. 

Some of the references that Flo and Eddie make on the show depend on a knowledge of Seventies music (most of which is still being played on classic rock stations around the country), but Mull's material is timeless, with brilliant takes on the life of the common American man and musical tropes that needed desperately to be mocked. Here is his Soundstage episode, “60 Minutes to Kill” (1975).

After the PBS special, Mull continued to tour as an opening act but also made a major breakthrough as an actor, as the wife-beating Garth Gimble on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Martin was so oddly charming (and sleazy) that Norman Lear and his fellow producers decided that Mull should host the “summer replacement” show for MH, MH. It was a talk show spoof (one of the best) about a threadbare program broadcasting from the small town in Hartman

Fernwood 2-Night was clearly testing the boundaries of what could be done in TV comedy (its writers had worked for Mad mag, National Lampoon, and the comedy group the Credibility Gap) and was cranked out five times a week for 13 weeks — the result was a show that acquired a cult when it aired and when it was revived in reruns. It was brilliantly written and had numerous about-to-be-famous performers (including Paul Reubens, Rosanna Arquette, and Gary Coleman) showing up as guests on the fake talk show. 

Fernwood came back for a 13-week run as America 2-Night, which sadly was the end of the series. (Cult series rarely run for long periods of time.) Mull’s ability to guide a show was established, though, and he then began a very busy career as an actor in movies and TV. I don’t link below to specific episodes of Fernwood and America, but many of them have been posted and I recommend all of them as a great introduction to Mull as comic actor and master of deadpan humor. 

I would argue that the best movie he ever made was the 1980 chronicle of California fads, Serial, but he did continue to work steadily in film, sitcoms, and (the bonanza of bonanza) TV commercials through last year. He is beloved by a younger generation for his turn in Clue (1985), which is a film I like but that doesn’t live up to the wonderful talents of its cast. 

So, for the rest of this piece, I will set aside the visions of Mull as Roseanne’s gay boss, Sabrina’s principal, oddball detective Gene Parmesan, and will instead focus almost entirely on his music, which is remembered mostly by “people of a certain age” and those who do have a taste (and an ear) for the finer things in musical humor. 

Two Funhouse faves
on the same bill!
The first song on the first Mull album, on the Capricorn label (best known for putting out the Allman Brothers records) is “Ventriloquist Love.” It’s definitely a comedy song, but not in a pop-rock mode — the main instrument is the piano (played by Mull himself; he splits piano chores with Bill Elliott on the album). The great level of musicianship for all this silliness begins here; among the musicians playing on the album is Levon Helm. (And one song, “Partly Marion,” is more instrumentation than lyrics.) 

Martin declares his love for his dummy but demands that she not make him say things in public that he doesn’t want to say. “Ventriloquist love,/It ain’t such a groove/Whenever I kiss you/your lips never move.” 


The catchiness continues later in the album when Martin sings about Miami, spelling out the town’s name as an existential quandary: “M-I-A-M-I in heaven or am I in Miami?”


And Mull’s “theme” of sorts appears on this album, an ode to his little-person object of love. Here again, a catchy-as-fuck melody accompanies a ridiculous set of lyrics. (With some very snappy whistling!) 


His second album had the unwieldy (and so very early Seventies) title Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture in Your Living Room!!. It was the first of two live albums he released; thus the record has an ample amount of Martin talking to the crowd. (Each one of his better-known songs had a sizable preamble he’d do in concerts.)

Here, there are two novelty instrumentals. This piece of rare video (shot for a PBS show) shows him performing one of them, “Dueling Tubas.”


Martin played around with the notion of club dance culture on his albums. He meditated on disco etiquette in later years, but at this point (’73), he felt a new dance was needed for those who didn’t want to get up and make fools of themselves. Thus, “Do the Nothing.” 

He changed the lyrics for this tune from performance to performance; the verse about Helen Keller is probably the best of the bunch — this was, again, the Seventies of National Lampoon and Norman Lear TV shows. 


Mull was, among other things, a killer guitarist, a talent that got hidden in his “Fabulous Furniture” lounge lizard incarnation. The best example of this is a song that he wrote that actually says he *isn’t * a good guitarist — he plays famous rock refrains as he confesses, “It’s just licks off of records I’ve learned.” Here he duets with a master guitarist, the Wrecking Crew’s own Glen Campbell. 


Here is an example of Martin entertaining a receptive crowd during a Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert episode devoted to Southern rock bands (signed to Capricorn records) in 1973. He plays a song from the second LP, “Ukulele Blues,” that has him utilizing an unusual tool to play bottleneck guitar. 


Although I’m saddened to write this piece, I was delighted to find that various collectors have shared their rare pieces of Mull-iana. Here is a radio interview he did in 1975 on a Maryland radio station, to promote a gig in D.C.

In this interview he describes a movie he was supposed to write with Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, Pat McCormick, and Jonathan Winters about American history (for the Bicentennial), to be produced by Francis Ford Coppola (!). Suffice it to say, the film never got made. (Instead, The Jerk appeared.) 


The third album, Normal, contains another group of memorable tunes, including the title song, in which Martin tells his main squeeze they should give up their hippie ways and turn “normal for a change.” 


Now, onto a clever set of lyrics that are of that same National Lampoon era. Mull did humor about many races, including his sharp mocking of midwestern white people (in The History of White People in America). He did one song that reflected on his inability to be truly funky (unless he wanted to be compared to Randy Newman); this depresses him to the point where “All I’ve got that’s Black is the Blues.” 


A precious artifact to find, a live set done on Sausalito radio station KSAN in 1973. This is primo stuff, with Mull performing solo and doing a few songs he never put on any album.


Another one of those ballad-y songs that Mull wrote that had the most bizarre and brilliantly playful lyrics. Here he meditates on the schnozz and its many uses (plus makes many bad puns and rhymes on the word “nose”). 


As someone who fled the Catholic church as fast as I could (after attending way too much Catholic school), I have a major fondness for Martin’s songs about God. There are four of them, with “Jesus Christ, Football Star,” being the first (done in a country mode).

Perhaps the best of his sacrilegious tunes is this one, which has some blessedly irreverent rhymes about how he tried many other things and finally arrived at Jesus. Again I remind you this was the National Lampoon era where every topic was up for grabs, comedy-wise: “I tried women/oh, how I tried/I took little boys in leather suits outside/and had them tied/I tried a poodle, a collie/Kukla, Fran, and Ollie/but Mary in her manger got me satisfied!”


Jumping ahead to the album that I believe was his best seller (mostly because it appeared after he had started hosting “Fernwood 2-Night”), I’m Everyone I've Ever Loved, we move on to an even greater package of laidback absurdity and some great genre parodies. Here is a sea shanty that he wrote with Steve Martin, as performed on Fernwood 2-Night.


My favorite genre-parody by Mull is this one, which finds him perfectly spoofing Philadelphia Soul with a song that isn’t funny but is just a damned good parody of pretty much everything the Stylistics and other vocal groups released in the early to mid-Seventies.


Mull’s best story song, “They Never Met,” was acted out for Michael Nesmith’s Television Parts TV series. At this point Martin had put on some weight and had a beard. The odd thing here is that I believe the woman performing the sketch with him is his wife, but Melissa Manchester actually performed the female vocal on the song they are lip-synching to.


Another song written by “Steve Martin Mull” (the name under which Steve and Martin toured at one point). This time it’s a parody of an old Western song, again with great gag lyrics.


Martin’s seventh and last album, Near Perfect/Perfect (1979) contained this, the last of his religious songs. In this one he lets us know who he wants to be — and it’s nothing less than the Deity himself. Witty lyrics again placed over a catchy-as-hell melody.


And it makes sense to end the part of this survey pertaining to his Seventies music career with this one, in which he sums up his reaction to the clubs he had played over the years, having found the single worst one of the bunch. 


I’ll include two short clips from his first two films as an actor (both of which he starred in). The first one, FM (1978), was refashioned into WKRP in Cincinnati and tries to make a group of DJs into heroes. It’s one of those films where the soundtrack was more solidly worked on than the script. (And some of the musical acts who were on the soundtrack were also seen performing live in the film.) 


His second film, Serial (1980), is definitely the best movie he ever starred in. A parody of the health, psychological, and spiritual trends of the Seventies (famously called “The Me Decade” by Tom Wolfe), the film has some great nasty dialogue and a wonderful cast of TV sitcom vets. Mull’s wife was played by the superb Tuesday Weld (good in everything she did), who had a mostly unused knack for comedy, which she displays in Serial

The quote the boy says to Mull in this scene is not from “Star Trek” as he says, but from Kurt Vonnegut’s book of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House.


Mull began his History of White People series on Cinemax in 1985; it concluded with a film called Portrait of a White Marriage in 1988. The series was done in mockumentary style and followed, among others, a family headed by Fred Willard and Mary Kay Place. 

Willard performed in the style of his “Jerry Hubbard” character from Fernwood 2-Night — dull-witted and delightfully deadpan. The show was a celebration of “white culture,” which was depicted as mainstream, no-frills nothing, really. It was, again, a by-product of the National Lampoon sensibility, which mocked societal norms and introduced caustic humor into staid, all-American situations. 


I had never heard of Mull being presented in a foreign context. Thus my happy surprise at the posting of a clip from a 1985 episode of The Bob Monkhouse Show on which Martin guested. Monkhouse gives him quite a nice showcase — he comes out and does his “humor test” for audiences and then sings “The Humming Song,” a bossa nova in which all the “dirty lyrics” have been removed and he hums in between the stray phrases that remain. 

He then chats with Monkhouse, who sets up an a cappella (with audience response) version of his sea shanty “Men.” 


While he was in the midst of the White People project, Mull had a full-hour comedy special on HBO. Called Martin Mull: Live From North Ridgeville it was exactly that — Martin hosting a special from his former hometown in Ohio. Because he didn’t want to openly mock the town and its people, some of the humor here is kinder than his usual fare from the Seventies and Eighties, but there are some great segments in the mix. 

The first is an ad for North Ridgeville, narrated by Harry Shearer doing the voice of Robin Leach (then-host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous). One standout piece finds Mull doing his bit on white blues music (and “Ukulele Blues” with his baby-bottleneck). 

His old friend Fred Willard then joins him, and the two have a Fernwood-esque discussion about Ohio (which was also Fred’s native state). The final comic segment is a radio play about Martin leaving North Ridgeville as a teen, acted out by Mull, Willard, Teri Garr, and Jack Riley. (Aside from Prairie Home Companion, one can’t imagine a comedy special that includes a radio play in the current era.) 

The special, written by Martin and Allen Rucker, is for those already acquainted with Mull’s humor. 


One of the most fascinating Mull videos on YT is the All-Star Toast to the Improv. The show was recorded in 1988 and features only six comedians, four of whom — Robert Klein (who hosted), Paul Rodriguez, a very wired Richard Lewis, and Billy Crystal — are very verbal guys. To my knowledge, Mull had never done standup (he, of course, sat down during his musical sets), and the sixth person was Robin Williams, who is clearly very buzzed on something (cocaine?). 

Thus, Mull is the odd man out, but he also assumes an interesting role, as a non-standup who doesn’t take Robin’s *constant* mugging, physical gestures (including much dick-touching), and yelling out odd exclamations for granted and instead addresses him at various points (by this point in the show Williams has drawn attention to himself during the sets of Klein, Rodriguez, Lewis, and Crystal). 

Martin roasts the other panelists — sometimes brutally, sometimes mildly. His remark about Klein is a brutal one (about how he “rehearsed and rehearsed that spontaneity”), but his takedown of Crystal is far lighter (about how he’s “healing the wounds of ethnic diversity in this country with a smile and a manager”). Crystal responds with a Sammy impression, but then later snipes at Mull, “Keep reading...” 

And then there’s Robin. Martin seems to know Williams is going to ruin his set as well, so he notes at the outset, “That’s where your March of Dimes money goes, ladies and gentlemen.” As Williams continues to disrupt and draw attention to himself, he says, “I don’t blame you, Robin. I blame the one who gave you the shot.” 

It’s incredible stuff because it does remind one of *how* intense-to-the-point-of-annoying Robin could be at his drug-taking worst. (I’m a fan of Williams, but his acting became a focus for me, as his comedy, even when later sober just was… tiring. This is most likely why Jerry Lewis would constantly cite him as his fave “younger” comic.) 

The show also establishes that Mull could indeed handle standup, as he does come up with other ad-libs directed toward Williams as he keeps on disrupting. It’s clear that Mull’s absurdist view of the world could’ve extended to standup, but the interruptions would’ve been worse than the ones he experienced as a rock opening act.


One YT poster put together a montage of Mull’s paintings. Since this was his true vocation and the one he valued the most, I wanted to include this in the line-up.


Two final clips from more recent years. The longest single interview Martin did was on the Kevin Pollak Chat Show in 2015. Previously, the hosts most receptive to Mull were Johnny Carson, Letterman, and particularly Tom Snyder (whom I saw inquire about the state of Mull’s music late in his career; Martin replied there was a “mandate” not to do it anymore, courtesy of the American public). 

Pollak’s show was very easy-going and he got a lot out of his guests, especially the comedians. This is definitely the friendliest and most revealing chat Mull ever had with an interviewer. 


And this was a very pleasant surprise. Mull played the “older” version of National Lampoon writer Doug Kenney (a version that never existed in real life, since Kenney died at 33) in the made-for-platform (Netflix) movie A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018). In the film Mull appears at various points, commenting on the action. It’s a “meta” device that doesn’t really work, but then again, the film as a whole doesn’t really work. 

The film ends, though, with Mull singing, something he hadn’t done in public much since the ’80s. (He broke out a guitar on an episode of the flop sitcom “Dads,” but nothing memorable came of the moment.) The song he sings is his own composition, and it’s a pleasant (dare I say, sweet) summing-up by a man in his later life, “The Time of My Life.”


The song, of course, takes on added resonance when one views it as the “last thing” Mull did. (He actually did a lot of acting in the five years that followed that movie, but this was his final song.) Unlike Doug Kenney, Mull did have a full career that found him singing, acting, writing, and most importantly, painting until the age of 80. He lived a full life and forged a type of humor that was wholly his own, which is something very, very few performers ever do.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Ken Loach in the 20th century (Part 2 of two)

The opening of The Old Oak and a retrospective of Ken Loach’s theatrical fiction films at the Film Forum has led me to a nearly comprehensive binge of Loach’s film, minus a few of his TV docs and special projects. Although most of his films provide a time capsule view of the eras and places that they were shot in, they also explore political situations that are just as relevant today as when the films were made. His work is particularly relevant these days, when there are few (few!) political filmmakers at work in fiction films. (Oliver Stone seems to have moved entirely over to making documentaries.) 

By way of an introduction, we can situate Loach as the last “kitchen sink” British filmmaker; he in fact took that genre and wrenched it away from its “angry young man” beginnings and told stories of individuals, couples, and communities. He also has sketched the politics that created the situations his characters are in. The importance of this aspect — that Loach is a filmmaker who makes working-class stories that emphasize the political forces that have trapped his characters — can’t be overstated.

Loach’s filmmaking career had an odd trajectory, in that he was among the most celebrated British TV directors in the Sixties and made a critically acclaimed and popular film (Kes) in 1969. But then, due to the changing landscape of British cinema, he only made three more theatrical films in the Seventies and Eighties.

His ability to find funding for theatrical films hit a brick wall in the Eighties (coincidentally, the Thatcher era in England). Thus, he turned to making political documentaries for TV, but the majority of these were shelved or banned outright. Hidden Agenda (1990), a well-financed political thriller with familiar stars, rejuvenated his reputation. With the aid of producers Sally Hibbin and Rebecca O’Brien and a small group of excellent scripters (led by Jim Allen, and later Paul Laverty), the Nineties saw Loach become an internationally known and respected British filmmaker. His latest film, The Old Oak, is his self-professed “last” movie.

Any discussion of Loach should acknowledge that the man himself disavows the auteur theory. He feels that film is a collaborative art, and he regularly heaps praise on his collaborators for making the films work so well. Watching his films, though, one gets the impression of several through lines that have been in his work from the Sixties to the present.

On a visual level his films are distinguished by location shoots done in little towns and urban neighborhoods. The “lived-in” feel of these places is palpable and situates the characters perfectly. On the editing level, Loach has favored fades to black to indicate the passage of time. His earlier theatrical films were filled with long shots held for several seconds longer than one would expect. As of his Nineties “comeback,” he and his editor Jonathan Morris cut more and were thus able to better capture the flow of emotionally charged conversations.

As for his work not utilizing any Brechtian “distancing” or modernist visual techniques to convey the political message (in the manner of the radical cinema of the late Sixties, including, most prominently, Godard), Loach has spoken of not wanting to alienate working-class viewers, who he hopes will go to see his films. He aims “to try to make films for the class which we think is the only politically important class — the working class — and therefore not to make elitist films, or cineaste films, but to make films which can be understood by ordinary people.” [from the article “Family Life in the Making” from the periodical 7 Days, quoted in John Hill, Ken Loach: the Politics of Film and Television, BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 131]

Shooting Carla's Song.
His work with actors is quite peculiar. Loach’s fellow filmmaker Ermanno Olmi worked almost exclusively with non-professional performers, and Mike Leigh continues to do weeks (and in some cases months) of workshopping the backstories of the characters with his actors. Loach instead chose early on to use some non-professionals (based on their real-life connection to the characters they play) in key roles, blending them in the cast with professional actors. He also does not want his actors to know ahead of time what fate awaits their characters.

His method of working with actors is best summarized in John Hill’s 2011 book about Loach: “This has led him to shooting a film in sequence in order that actors experience the story in the correct chronological order and undergo a similar emotional journey to the characters that they play. It has also led him, in many cases, to withhold the whole script from actors so that they do not know what is going to happen next and, therefore, arrive at a scene with the same amount of ‘knowledge’ as their characters. Loach also avoids extensive rehearsals and encourages actors to improvise as a way of achieving spontaneity in their performances. As he has commented, ‘exact words are not terribly important — the important thing is what is happening.’” [p. 121] 

Loach’s disputing of the auteur theory aside, he has shown one major trait exhibited by the greatest auteurs: consistent subject matter that is explored from different angles in different features. The first common theme one can see is the placing of an innocent at the center of a narrative; this innocent will no doubt be betrayed, but he or she has enough fortitude to keep on going. In some cases these innocents embark upon a project — be it a boy training a kestrel (Kes), a mother hoping to regain custody of her children (Ladybird Ladybird), or a “skint” man wanting to purchase a communion outfit for his daughter (Raining Stones). 

With David Bradley, star of Kes.
In many cases, a violent act changes the protagonist’s life for good, whether committed while a crime is taking place or when family or spousal violence is occurring. In some cases, the violence is state-sanctioned and is a matter of daily living for the protagonists, especially if the film is an ensemble piece.

Much has been made of the fact that characters in Loach’s films are very often undone by someone from their own class or someone whose profession is meant to help the people whose lives they end up destroying, in their efforts to “go by the book.” (The theme of being betrayed by someone in one's own social group was explored, of course, by Fassbinder in a few of his films, most notably Fox and His Friends.) The most common sequence in a Loach film is an impassioned discussion between people in a large group — these sequences started appearing in his telefilms in the late Sixties, but they have carried on to this day (albeit with smaller groups, sometimes only pairs of people discussing the problem). These are often the most profoundly political (and profoundly humane) scenes in his films. 

Another consistent element in his films is the apparently “random” (Loach’s own term) view of the characters’ lives. He has certain plot elements in his Nineties films that simply go away, and in others there is a sharp tonal shift from comedy to drama (and vice versa) that is sometimes quite jarring. On the whole, though, the films that undergo these tonal shifts contain some of the best drama, and the best comedy, in his work. 

On a lighter note, one trope that has appeared in his films since the mid-Nineties is a “walk-on” by a three-legged dog. These pooches never factor into the plot, but they’ve become a kind of good-luck charm for his productions and also serve a sort of metaphor for his heroes and heroines who refuse to give up the fight.

In this piece I will cover Loach’s work up until My Name is Joe (1998) and will hopefully follow up with a piece about Loach’s sixteen 21st-century films.


In my previous blog entry about Loach, I referred to his “ten first films.” Since that time I’ve watched the other surviving telefilms (which started out being referred to as “plays,” but rather quickly in Loach’s career became films when the location shooting outdistanced the scenes shot in-studio). A fourth play, “Wear a Very Big Hat” (the second one Loach made, chronologically) has apparently been wiped by the BBC. 

“Tap on the Shoulder” (1965), from the series The Wednesday Play, has a very un-Loachlike scenario, in that it is simply a crime caper about the robbing of gold from an airport. The film, Loach’s first in the “Wednesday Play” series, is indeed very workmanlike in its construction. 

The only aspect that connects it to Loach’s later work is the way that the characters are sketched as working class (thanks to their accents) and that one character — a friend of the thieves who has become wealthy by doing various financial deals and is dying to get a knighthood (the titular “tap on the shoulder”) for his donations to charity — is clearly a working-class gent who aspires to be in the upper crust and is willing to buy his way into society. (His character supplies the alibi for some of the thieves, as they are present the night of the crime at a high-society party that he is hosting.) 

“The End of Arthur’s Marriage” (1965) could simply be described as “Loach goes mod!” This film relied almost entirely on real locations and was shot before the trendsetting play that preceded it in the third season of “The Wednesday Play,” namely “Up the Junction.” That play had its share of elements that now signal as “Swinging London,” but its roots were also firmly in the “kitchen sink” British cinema of the time. 

“Arthur’s Marriage” is a purely playful film, with a slight plot about a man who goes to buy a house with his well-off in-laws’ money and then loses the house to a better-off couple. He then goes on a spending spree with his little daughter that turns into a crazy journey throughout the city, in the manner of Zazie dans le metro. The film has a great deal of the “Richard Lester style” (decoded on this very blog as the “Spike Milligan style”). The influence of the French New Wave (primarily Godard) and silent comedy is felt throughout.

The most memorable aspect of the film besides its playful camerawork and editing is the musical score, which includes songs that match the action, which are either sung by the actors themselves or by nondiegetic pop singers (including the later-famous Long John Baldry).

“The Coming Out Party” was his final 1965 film for “The Wednesday Play” and it draws upon at least three of the preceding plays. Like “Arthur’s Marriage” a child is a central character (here he’s the protagonist), like “3 Clear Sundays” a carefree criminal milieu is sketched (with some of the actors playing basically the same characters they did in the earlier play), and like “Tap,” it focuses on some blithely uncaring working-class crooks. 

The title of the film refers to a forthcoming party for the little boy’s mother, who is coming out of jail. The little boy initially learns that his mother is in jail and thus he disappears on his caregivers (his equally crooked grandparents) and wanders around trying to find the prison his mother is in. There are various “time capsules” scenes, including one where he and another little boy break into a toy store and play with everything they can find. 

The only jarring element in the film (considering its time and place) is that the adults openly discuss sex in various sequences, with the boy’s parents going upstairs at a pub to do it on the pub owner’s bed. All in all, the film is very light in tone but ends up imparting a serious message about the way that certain children can grow up without a single caring adult in their life. (Here, the mother’s friend, played by “Cathy Come Home” star Carol White, seems to be the only person caring about the boy’s welfare.) 

Loach moved on to feature films in 1967 but did go back to TV on various occasions in the ’70s and particularly the ’80s. One of the most prestigious and argued-about projects was a four-episode miniseries charting fictional characters experiencing events from the First World War through the General Strike of 1926.

Days of Hope (1975) is a rather dazzling accomplishment, in that it is a blatantly Socialist view of historical events in Britain in the guise of a drama. The films were all written by Jim Allen (the scripter of Loach’s “The Big Flame” and “The Rank and File”), whose screenplays spawned some of the most overtly political films of Loach’s career. 

In the first part alone, we are shown the way that conscientious objectors were taken into the British army and, if they refused to cooperate with their officer, were bound and dragged on the ground by other soldiers and, in one particularly harrowing scene, tied to a pole in the enemy’s view. (The events in this series may seem fabricated, but Allen was basing his drama on all-too-real events.) The film also contains the first treatment in a Loach film of the way that the British dominated Northern Ireland. 

Part 2 of the series could have stood on its own as a separate telefilm. (In fact, Loach originally envisioned the series as this single film, and then Allen’s vision grew until four episodes were arrived at.) In this part, a central character deserts the military and goes on the run, witnessing countless ways in which British soldiers abuse the residents of a Northeastern English town. 

One of the hallmarks of Allen’s scripts for Loach that, as noted above, became a centerpiece of Loach’s work is the inclusion of an extremely lively political discussion taking place between characters with different viewpoints. In “Days of Hope” this type of scene occurs frequently, between small and bigger groups of characters. Here those characters are miners, debating how to get the bosses to agree with their demands — one solution that is suggested is blowing up the entrance to the pit, thereby stopping all business in and around the mine. 

By the third part, the conscientious objector has now opted for party politics and has become a Labour MP. Stephen Rea has a relatively brief but important role as a reporter who tells this MP about a deal the Tories and Labour made to put down the workers’ uprising. 

The fourth and final episode of the series is where it all comes to a head. At points this episode is decidedly better when depicting the negotiations that were had about the General Strike that eventually did occur. Unfortunately, by this point in the narrative, the three major characters (the Labour MP, his radicalized wife, and her brother, the soldier who deserted and has become a member of the Communist party) stop being central to the drama and simply become “types.”

At this point Allen and Loach were seemingly so intent on faithfully depicting the events of the General Strike and allowing for different Left viewpoints to be spoken (from the firebrand Communists to the calmer, more willing to compromise Labour leaders) that the film doesn’t quite clearly acknowledge that the General Strike is in fact taking place. This assumes the viewer knows enough to realize that the discussions by that point aren’t merely discussions but are deadly serious negotiations that outline future government and trade union strategies for dealing with radicalized workers. 

The fictional characters’ arguments are thus banal compared to the grand tapestry that Allen and Loach are sketching. Although occasionally a line is uttered by one of the three protagonists that sums up beautifully the perspective of the authors, as when the sister says that “Social democrats always betray.”

As always with Loach’s work, one watches “Days” in amazement that he actually got a series this radical onto the usually staid BBC. 

“The Price of Coal” (1977), written by Barry Hines (Kes), was Loach’s final contribution to the “Play for Today” series (which was simply “The Wednesday Play” on a new night, Thursday). This excellent two-part film is less polemical than “Days of Hope” and also is brilliant in its conception, as the first part presents us with a light comedy set against the world of coal mining — making us love the characters in the process — and then the dramatic second part puts a group of them in jeopardy. 

The first episode is the kind of working-class comedy that Loach returned to with Riff-Raff and Raining Stones in the ’90s. A group of miners are told by their bosses to clean up all areas of the mine, in preparation for a visit by Prince Charles. In the process, we meet the characters and begin to really like them.

There are discussions about how ridiculous it is to clean up a mine and its exterior for a brief visit by a Royal, including one where the lead character brings up the amount of money being spent on the visit. This film also has a sublime final image — the lead character’s son, having played hooky and not joined his classmates in attending the local pomp and circumstance accompanying the Prince’s landing in a helicopter, is seen oh-so-quietly quietly fishing and ignoring the whole bloody thing. 

The second part does indeed capitalize on the affection for the characters that was created in the preceding film. Here, an accident occurs in the mine, with four men being buried in the rubble. There is a classical TV cliffhanger conceit — namely, will our pipe-smoking lead character be found alive in the rubble, or has he died? 

But Hines and Loach mostly focus on the feelings of betrayal the workers feel (because of a lack of safety measures — a theme returned to in
Riff-Raff) and the frayed emotions of their children and spouses. One wife waiting to find out if her husband is alive sums up the feelings of all by saying, “It’s just not worth it,” having their husbands and sons work in the mine for decades and then suddenly being killed in a mishap. 

Black Jack (1979) is the most unusual item in Loach’s filmography. A period piece that plays like Treasure Island, it has a little boy as the lead, going on various adventures wherein he encounters a French giant with the titular name. It’s actually a charming film and fits with other Loach films when we see the functioning (and the fraternity among the members) of a traveling sideshow. It’s very interesting to see him operating on this kind of level. And it works, as long as you watch it with lowered expectations. 

The Gamekeeper (1980) was Loach’s last fiction film made solely for TV; in the case of some of his later films he made them for international theatrical distribution and an airing on U.K. TV. (His next, Looks and Smiles, had a similar distribution pattern.) It’s a stirring and extremely quiet piece by Barry Hines that follows the life of a gamekeeper from season to season. Hines explicitly said the novel it was derived from and the script he wrote for Loach were “about class” and not actually the daily chores of a gamekeeper. 

Hines clearly chose the profession of his protagonist for specific reasons — most particularly because gamekeepers must be especially loyal to their employers, threatening any interlopers on the owner’s land, be it by adult men wanting to poach animals or children who simply want to play in the trees (and perhaps steal an egg or two). We see the lead being quite stern with local boys from working-class families and lenient to little girls who are picking flowers — and happen to be from adjacent, richer homes. 

A scene in a bar here finds some of the gamekeeper’s friends arguing that the land didn’t initially belong to the current landowners, but the government presented parcels of land to rich individuals to farm on. (It “weren’t their land in the first place,” his friend says.) In one scene we see the gamekeeper’s mask slip as he himself argues that the landowners don’t deserve their land. 

The film is a somber one that does focus on the nastier things the gamekeeper has to do, including raising birds who will be eventually killed by the landowner, but time is also devoted to how much the gamekeeper’s wife and children don’t like his job. (His wife complains that if the landowner for any reason fires him, they have no place to live and no financial resources to fall back on.) 

All told, the film creates a wonderfully bucolic atmosphere that is countered by the actions the gamekeeper has to take, including killing animals that come in to feast on the birds he’s raising. Its allegorical side about differences between social classes is apparent throughout, but Loach and cinematographers Chris Menges and Charles Stewart crafted such beautiful images that it ends up feeling like an elegy for a profession that is clearly a relic of the old feudal days and forces a man to sternly lecture kids climbing a tree. 

Looks and Smiles (1981) is Loach’s only theatrical film to address the state of Thatcher’s England while she was still in office. It’s definitely a bleak film and the only one of Loach’s fiction features to be shot in b&w. Barry Hines wrote the script about two young men who are out of school and out of work. One of the two joins the army and the other (who is prevented from joining the army by his father, who doesn’t want him cracking heads in protests and riots) scrambles for any kind of work that is available. 

The film shows us an unvarnished view of Sheffield at the time the film was made. Adding to the time capsule nature of the film, we see our unemployed anti-hero going to the disco with his moody girlfriend. (Everyone in the film is essentially moody.) The political aspect arises as a result of the bleakness of his life and the fact that his friend welcomes cracking heads over in Ireland. (“We’re just doing a job!” he insists.) 

In interviews Loach has declared his dissatisfaction with this film, noting that he later stopped using the kind of long shots that appear throughout the film — where we see the bleak landscape all too clearly and it’s not a pretty sight. 

A few of Loach’s Eighties political documentaries are archived online, thankfully. They are not essential viewing by any means, especially for those who are not already interested in the politics of that period in the U.K. A Question of Leadership (1981) was the first of a group of documentaries that Loach made for British TV in the Eighties, nearly all of which were either shelved or shown a while after they were made. (And nothing ages worse than a very “current” political doc.) 

The Red and the Blue (1983) intercuts political conferences held by the Conservative and Labour parties. As is usual with Loach’s docs, one knows where he stands politically, but he does try to give both sides a hearing in this particular telefilm. We see the ritziness and organization of the Conservative conference counterpointed against the less formal approach of the Labour party. (It’s definitely tuxedos and evening gowns vs. street wear here, with the Right-wingers attending a banquet dinner and the Leftys going for fish and chips.) Watch it here.

Which Side Are You On? (1984) was also shelved by its initial production entity, “The South Bank Show.” Loach assembled a number of songs, poems, and stories written by workers taking part in the ’84-’85 miner’s strike. The usually very “liberal” South Bank producers (including host-producer Melvyn Bragg) felt that Loach and company were making too much of a political statement and that the higher-ups in their corporation wouldn’t like it, so the show was aired on a different network. Watch it here.

Fatherland (1986) might well be the most disappointing of all of Loach’s work, since it starts out with an intriguing plotline and then turns into a “can we find the Nazi (or was he even a Nazi)?” third act that is a complete shambles. Playwright Trevor Griffiths wrote this one and, even though Loach has said that he himself was the one that made the film run aground, it’s clearly Griffith’s fault for utilizing for the single-most-obvious way to end a story about a German searching for his father. 

The initial plotline follows an East German singer-songwriter who seeks asylum in the West so that he can be free of censorship. He then encounters the different ways that an artist can be censored in the so-called “free world” and the compromises that one must make in the music business. This part of the film works well; it’s when he goes in search of his missing father that the film becomes a hunt for a suspected Nazi. 

The Eighties were definitely not a peak time for Loach’s earnest approach to political drama. It wasn’t just the hairstyles, the outfits, the fake music videos, and surreal dream sequences (found in Fatherland) — it was the need to make narrative concessions to try to make the film “commercial” (a concern he abandoned in the Nineties and then made his best work). 

The only intriguing part of the Nazi-hunting second half of the film is the fact that the singer’s father didn’t want to kill Leftists taking part in the Spanish Civil War; he was ordered to do so by the Stalinists who were controlling things during the conflict. This bit of concealed history is dealt with far better in Loach’s later Land and Freedom

View from the Woodpile (1989) is a hybrid of documentary sequences and staged recreations. This telefilm follows young people in a theater group in the West Midlands. The group perform plays based on their experiences and we witness scenes that the actors staged for Loach’s camera. The subjects tackled include drugs, poverty, and pregnancy. 

The film’s best scene finds the group responding to a TV ad advertising a personnel firm. The ad is hokey and simplistic (and I believe manufactured for this film). The young people eventually wind up *in* the ad voicing their complaints to the unseen narrator. 

Another memorable moment finds one of the young men seeing police practicing marching maneuvers outside his window. The fascist aspect is evident, with the boy concluding, “They’d rather lock us up than help us.” Watch it here.

Hidden Agenda (1990) was Loach’s return to form with a theatrical feature whose thriller structure is enough to keep the average viewer interested, while the political aspects of the plot (as ever with Loach, based on real stories from Northern Ireland) reward viewers looking for headier fare. 

Jim Allen scripted and seemingly took at least a few notes from the work of Costa-Gavras here. The plot follows an honest police investigator from England (Brian Cox) sent to Northern Island to discover why an American human rights advocate (Brad Dourif) was killed in a mysterious shooting on a back road. It seems he had been given an audio tape with proof of various psy-ops carried out in Ireland by the British. 

The decision here is whether the English cop and the dead man’s girlfriend (Frances McDormand) will simply accept what the Northern Irish government says is the truth of the killing or whether they will continue the investigation, despite being warned to stop by various interested parties. The film is compelling, although it isn’t one of Loach’s best. 

Riff-Raff (1991) resumed Loach’s update of the “kitchen sink” style. Although the main character, a Glaswegian (Robert Carlyle) who finds work on a construction site where no safety measures are in place, harkens back in some ways to the “angry young men” of late Fifties and Sixties kitchen sink films, Riff-Raff is primarily an ensemble picture, in which we attach to all of the characters working on the site and to the lead character’s lover, who has some major problems of her own. 

At this point, Loach decided that it would be good for his ensemble works to have the presence of standup comedians in the cast, as they can both liven up a character and can also ad-lib when faced with new situations that weren’t previously in the plot. This aligns with Loach’s preference to only let his actors see a small part of the script for each shoot (all of which are carried out in as closely chronological order as possible). Thus, he can introduce new elements of the plot to the performer while the camera is rolling and get very genuine responses from the performer (while they stay in character). 

Loach has spoken about this: “An actor should see the world through the eyes of the character. That’s why I don’t like actors to see the entire script of the film they’re working on. I don’t want them to take the birds’-eye view. I just want them to go through the events at the level of their character.” [Loach on Loach, edited by Graham Fuller, Faber and Faber, 1998, p. 46] 

Here the tonal changes mentioned above come into effect: the major romantic relationship that is rather enchanting in a low-key way ends suddenly, with the girlfriend character just ceasing to be part of the lead’s life and thus the film as well. 

Loach has addressed the “random” elements that come into his films and then do not reappear: “An idea we had… is that there’s something quite satisfying about a story that has an arbitrary quality. When you add it all together what is apparently arbitrary actually complements the whole story. It’s like creating a mosaic or a collage from different fragments.” [ibid, p. 59] 

Viewers can also sense that the repeated mentions of the safety violations on the construction site will inevitably pay off in some very serious drama, in amongst the workplace activity. 

Raining Stones (1993) served as the second part of the one-two punch (with Riff-Raff) that made Loach a bankable name in both British indie and international circles. The film could in fact be a sequel to its predecessor, as it has some of the same cast members and reflects the same view of working-class difficulties (and has similar tonal changes). 

The plot is extremely simple — a man whose finances are already strapped wants to buy his daughter a new outfit for her first communion. Thus, he commits a series of petty crimes and eventually ends up in dutch with a ruthless local loan shark. He’s a proud man who won’t take charity (and won’t accept a used dress instead of a new one). 

Thus, he goes on a journey that ends in the kitchen of one of the cinema’s most humane priests. In the process scripter Jim Allen and Loach sketch daily life in a town where (as is noted in one scene apropos of a young couple having a public argument) crime, booze, and drugs, are all seen as perhaps not fitting but inevitable choices made by the locals. 

Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) is one of two high points in Loach’s Nineties filmography. It’s a memorably sad and sweet film that has moments of rage and hits as hard as his famous 1966 telefilm “Cathy Come Home.” (With which it shares one major plot point, the removal by social services of children from a mother.) It returns us to the strong emotions and bittersweet moments that came from the Italian Neo-realist films, including Loach’s personal favorite, Bicycle Thieves

This was only one of two films that Loach shot a video introduction for, to be played at the recent Film Forum festival of his films. In this intro he provided background info on the real woman behind the “Maggie” protagonist in the film. He also praised lead actress Crissy Rock to the hilt, noting that she did not receive her due when it came to acting awards for the film (although she did win Best Actress at the 1994 Chicago International Film Festival and the Best British Actress by the London Film Critics Circle). He cited one review, which noted that she was simply a working-class woman playing someone like herself — Loach, in turn, noted that hers was one of the best performances he’s directed. 

This film, scripted by Rona Munro, has none of the tonal changes that occurred in the preceding two features. Here is a straightforward story, albeit told through flashbacks, of Maggie, whose romantic choices have been very bad for her; in addition she has a wild temper that is the result of childhood beatings and sexual abuse. At the point we meet her, her four children have been taken away by social service workers. She encounters Jorge (Vladimir Vega), a gentle, low-key man from Paraguay who is very unlike her previous lovers, who have been abusive to her. 

As the film moves on, we become invested in the story of Maggie and Jorge. They deserve to have a quiet, normal relationship, as both have gone through traumatic situations. Both of them are wounded, but only Maggie lashes out in anger, which Jorge diagnoses properly in one scene as her pain manifesting as anger. 

It’s clear as the film moves on that society (in the form of numerous social workers) has judged her incapable of changing; she sadly reinforces this argument by reverting to sarcasm and bursts of anger at the social workers. It’s evident that Jorge has mellowed her in certain regards, but she still strikes out too often and had too wild a younger life, to the point where a child she has by Jorge is taken away from her by social workers. 

The film thus provides us with arguably the best illustration of Loach’s recurrent theme of working-class people being betrayed by those whose job it is to help them. The social workers are not depicted as villains — in fact, Maggie’s anger is palpable and her mood can change on a dime — but we also become aware that when Maggie has indeed changed as a person, she is still thought of as the woman she used to be. 

Ladybird is the closest that Loach has moved to the cinema of Cassavetes and Leigh, where we see how family pressures can explode and change a person; also how someone can change for the better, thanks to a newfound attitude toward life (and perhaps a new friend or lover).

Land and Freedom (1995) was the other masterwork by Loach in this period. The film boasted the last script by Jim Allen, who had previously written the most political of Loach’s films, from “The Big Flame” and “The Rank and File” to Days of Hope and Hidden Agenda (and the slyly political Raining Stones). Allen is a key figure in Loach’s life, not only for the onscreen collaborations the two had, but also because, according to documentaries about Loach, Allen helped radicalize Loach in his personal life. 

The film sheds light on the unknown fact (at least to non-history scholars) that edicts on behalf of Stalinist Russia sold the Republicans and Leftists from other countries down the river during the Spanish Civil War. (This fact was introduced in the last third of
Fatherland, but that film’s script had by that point become a "find a Nazi" scenario.) Allen and Loach do a great job of making history exciting and engaging here, while continuing the exploration of the theme of betrayal of the Left being accomplished best by the Left. 

The frame device involves a young woman who goes through her grandfather’s possessions after his death and discovers his involvement in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Many Leftists felt that a defeat of Franco would lead to a defeat of Hitler. Instead we see how the brigade of foreign Leftists split into two fractions, both of whom were hostile to the other. 

One of the most memorable moments in
Land is when David (Ian Hart), the grandfather character, is guarding Communist party headquarters, which is being fired on by another Leftist faction. David, who is from Liverpool, discovers that the man shooting at him from across the way is from Manchester. Both end up asking each other “Why aren’t you over here with us?” and neither man has an answer.

The romance in the film between the Liverpudlian and a fiery Spanish radical is the only conventional note that is struck. Otherwise, the film boasts one of the best of the “passionate conversation” scenes to be found in Loach’s work. In this instance, the argument is over whether to collectivize the land that has been liberated from the fascists. The conversation takes place in both Spanish and (heavily accented — French, Scots, Liverpudlian) English. 

Loach discussed the sequence in
Loach on Loach: “To us, it seemed great drama, great conflict, a very human struggle put forward in concrete terms. One guy says, ‘Look, I work harder than you lot. Why you share what I have?’ Then there’s the old fellow who’s seen it all, and who says, ‘The revolution’s like a pregnant cow, and if you don’t help it at the moment of delivery, the thing will die,’ which is very true…. The scene shows people struggling in a very practical, human way, just to see how they can move. When they make a decision, to me that’s a very moving thing, because these are people who’ve been on their knees all their lives. They’re saying, ‘This is us — we can take these decisions.’” 

When asked how much of the scene was scripted (since non-professionals played a number of roles in it), Loach answered, “Jim had written some good speeches and interaction between the participants, but as it developed people obviously took off from the script and got into the cut and thrust of it.” [pp. 103-104] 

Since we know that the fight against Franco failed, Allen creates a hopeful ending involving the granddaughter reading a quote at her granddad’s funeral.


Carla’s Song (1996) opened a new era in Loach’s films, as it was made from a script by Paul Laverty, who soon became Loach’s screenwriter of choice, with whom he has worked on every fiction film but one, from this film to The Old Oak. Laverty had firsthand experience with Nicaraguan politics, as he had lived there for a few years in the mid-Eighties working for a human rights organization. 

There are two sections to the film, which is set in 1987. In the first section (which seems similar to both Riff-Raff and Raining Stones), George (Robert Carlyle), a bus driver in Glasgow falls in love with Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a woman from Nicaragua who is haunted by her husband (who may or may not be dead). In the second part of the film, the bus driver and his lady love travel to Nicaragua and the film becomes an explicitly political one. 

The love story between the leads seems doomed and also too idyllic to believe — George falls for Carla all too quickly, while it seems from the start that she realizes her affair with him is only a way station on the road back to Nicaragua and her husband. When the film is in Nicaragua, though, Laverty and Loach focus on the solidarity of the Nicaraguan workers, who explain their situation to George in a stirring discussion scene set on a truck. 

The film could be placed alongside Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire (1983) and Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), as it offers a white man’s view of the conflict in Latin America, which was entirely manipulated by the U.S. in Nicaragua in the form of the “contras.” In this case, Scott Glenn as an aid worker gets to review the history of U.S. involvement in one speech he makes to Carlyle. 

Thus, the film is both valuable and a bit too heavy handed. Laverty’s scripts would grow subtler as the years went by. 

The Flickering Flame (1996), a documentary, found Loach returning to the subject of the Liverpool dock workers, originally discussed in the fictional “Big Flame.” This particular documentary is incredibly straightforward in its technique and does (as one could expect) dote on the point of view of the workers, who were sacked by their employer when they protested working overtime for low pay. The version online looks like a rough cut, as the images are quite scratched up and there are no opening or closing credits. Watch it here.

Loach closed off his work in the 20th century with My Name Is Joe (1998). We are back in the Glaswegian working-class milieu here, with the film beginning at an AA meeting attended by the lead character, Joe. Joe begins dating a health inspector (a UK name for a certain type of social worker). He lets her know his backstory and the two seem to be headed for the altar when Joe begins to help out a friend in big trouble with a local gangster. 

There is a heavy tonal change here, from a light account of the lead characters (nearly all unemployed) to the heavier, more violent moments featuring the gangster. Here the “switchover” works because we do feel for the characters and given the nature of Joe’s “one day at a time” sobriety, we know it’s very probable that he is going to go off the wagon at some point. That said, the film’s conclusion demands a willing suspension of disbelief. 

As Loach entered the 21st century, he was lucky enough to have a support system going with Rebecca O’Brien/Sixteen Films as his producers, Laverty as his regular scripter, and a number of top-notch professionals as his crew. In the ensuing 25 years he has put out 16 films (counting three shorts for anthologies and one feature-length theatrical documentary). 

The best part of the above being that, aside from one or two missteps (where he seemed like he was copying himself), his work has continued to mature and become even more significant as the years have gone by. 


Fuller, Graham, editor, Loach on Loach, Faber and Faber, 1998 

Hill, John, Ken Loach: the Politics of Film and Television, BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 

Leigh, Jacob, The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People, Wallflower Press, 2002

NOTE: When not being featured in retrospectives like the recent one at Film Forum, the films of Ken Loach can be found on disc and on various places online, from the usual streaming services to sites like YouTube and where film fans post entire films. I thank cineaste Paul Gallagher for help in obtaining some of the films.