How a 1984 strike defined Britain today

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(Image credit:

Joss Barratt/Sixteen Films

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Ebla Mari and Dave Turner star in The Old Oak (Credit: Joss Barratt/Sixteen Films)

Ken Loach’s new film, The Old Oak, examines the refugee crisis and Britain’s former mining communities. The 87-year-old director tells Anthony Frajman how the 1984-5 miners’ strike shaped modern Britain – and inspired what could be his final film.

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Throughout his 60-year career, director Ken Loach has seen sweeping societal changes in Britain, from the reforms of the 1960s, the watershed 1984-5 miners’ strike and the weakening of trade unions in the 1980s, to more recently, Brexit and the pandemic.  

Yet it was the 1984 strike that inspired the 87-year-old director to make what could be his final feature, The Old Oak. For Loach, the strike’s outcome shaped the future of the country. “The miners’ strike was the pivotal event,” Loach tells BBC Culture. 

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For seven decades, Loach has been Britain’s pre-eminent left-wing political filmmaker, chronicling the lives of the working-class in films such as Riff-Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993). 

Loach began his career in the 1960s with a series of groundbreaking TV dramas at the BBC, which helped break social barriers in Britain. These included Up the Junction (1965), a frank depiction of three working-class women in Battersea that featured a graphic backstreet abortion scene. A year later, Cathy Come Home highlighted the issue of homelessness with its depiction of a young family evicted from their home, watched by a quarter of the British population, and coming second in a 2000 BFI poll of the top British TV programmes of all time.  

It was the revolutionary 1960s that enabled him to cut his teeth as a filmmaker, while challenging a few social stigmas in the process.  

“The huge stroke of luck was to be able to do the [dramas] in the 60s, which gave us a calling card from then on because people knew about [my work],” says Loach.

The Old Oak premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May (Credit: Joss Barratt/Sixteen Films)

The Old Oak premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May (Credit: Joss Barratt/Sixteen Films)

Continuing his socio-political focus, The Old Oak depicts another major issue: the plight of refugees. Set in 2016, it follows TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), a pub owner in a decaying former mining village in North-East England, who forms a friendship with a young Syrian woman Yara (Ebla Mari), when a community of Syrian refugees are moved into the area. TJ and Yara attempt to unite their disparate communities, and overcome xenophobia from the locals and the ensuing cultural clash.  

The feature is a return to the North East, the location of Loach’s last two films – I, Daniel Blake (2016), a scathing attack on the UK’s welfare system that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the acclaimed Sorry We Missed You (2019), which followed a struggling family ravaged by the gig economy. The Old Oak marks the third film in a loose trilogy.  

“It began with the area where the old industries have died,” Loach tells BBC Culture. “Refugees from the Syrian war were placed in the most deprived area in the country. So you had two communities, one who’d been abandoned, was a shadow of what it had been, and another which had suffered the trauma of war. Many had been tortured, homes destroyed. Could these two communities find a way of living side by side, or would the potential that racism could emerge, would that occur and would that dominate?”

Paul Laverty, Loach’s long-term screenwriter, adds: “After Sorry, We Missed You and I, Daniel Blake, we felt there was unfinished business in the North East. And I suppose, too, we really wanted to understand how did we arrive at Daniel Blake and how did we arrive at Sorry, We Missed You? And it was very, very hard to understand that unless you look back to what happened in the 1984 miners’ strike.”

That sense of mutual support, that’s what’s worth getting out of bed for in the morning. And that’s what gives you hope – Ken Loach

In the film, TJ, who is struggling to keep his business afloat while dealing with his ex-wife and estranged son, is reinvigorated by the arrival of Yara, reminded of the solidarity the town used to pride itself on.  

Likewise, Yara identifies with the way the miners pulled together in the face of adversity, drawing parallels between their past battles and those of her own community. Their relationship encourages TJ to open up the pub backroom to feed both the struggling locals and the new arrivals.  

According to Loach, showing understanding and finding common ground was the key to both characters navigating their own difficult situations.

“It’s human contact, isn’t it? It’s sharing things, and just gaining strength from each other,” he says. “You’ll get defeated now and then… but that sense of mutual support, that’s what’s worth getting out of bed for in the morning. And that’s what gives you hope.”

Ebla Mari and Dave Turner star in The Old Oak (Credit: Joss Barratt/Sixteen Films)

Ebla Mari and Dave Turner star in The Old Oak (Credit: Joss Barratt/Sixteen Films)

While TJ is welcoming to the new arrivals, many of his longtime customers are racist and hostile towards to the new community. “We realised the past was a character, and perhaps a way to encapsulate that was through The Old Oak, the last public place standing, the place where people could meet and you could try and figure out why people were so angry, how they lost agency in their lives,” says Laverty. “Many of the people that we met… everything had been taken away. It was really important not to demonise those people, but to try to figure out where it comes from, how division is sowed, and how people lose hope.

“When people are confident, as Ken has often said, they’re generous, but when their backs are to the wall and they’re set up against each other, it’s really, really important then to look up and say, ‘right, how did this come around? Who benefits from stirring up all this hatred?’ And those are really, really big questions,” he adds.  

In the film, the effects of the 1984 miners’ strike weigh heavily upon TJ, an ex-miner, and many of the struggling locals, decades later. One of the key scenes in the film features TJ showing Yara a shrine of photos dedicated to the strike, housed in the pub.

From the strike onwards, Loach believes, “the gig economy was inevitable and its continued development will be inevitable unless there’s a huge political change”.

Ken Loach (left) and screenwriter Paul Laverty (right) have worked together since 1996 (Credit: Getty Images)

Ken Loach (left) and screenwriter Paul Laverty (right) have worked together since 1996 (Credit: Getty Images)

Looking back at his own remarkable career, which has included two Cannes Palme d’Or awards and three Cannes Jury Prizes, Loach reflects on how he has resisted the lure of Hollywood. He says working with minimal means has been crucial to his autonomy.

“A key thing has been to ensure that we look for finance across the channel, not across the Atlantic. And to stay clear of the American industry, because in Europe they have a different attitude to cinema… Also, to keep the budgets modest and respect the trade union agreements. If everything that we spend is on the screen and you don’t get caught into the nonsense of filmmaking expenses, then you have freedom, really.”

Finding stories, not issues

Since their first feature together, Carla’s Song (1996), about a Glaswegian bus driver who falls for a Nicaraguan woman, Loach has worked regularly with Laverty. The Old Oak is their 14th collaboration. He attributes the longevity of his career to their partnership. 

“I’ve been hugely lucky to work with Paul because I wouldn’t have been able to keep going otherwise,” says Loach. 

“You have to be motivated by the same stories and the possibility of stories. But you don’t just find an issue. You have to find a story. And I suppose what fascinated us from the very beginning is how power operates in our lives. Who has the power? How can you try and challenge it? How can we try and build a world that is fairer?” asks Laverty. 

Loach’s resistance of Hollywood has enabled him to continue his unorthodox filmmaking methods, which often include casting non-professional actors, and incorporating regional dialects. It’s an approach continued on The Old Oak – Dave Turner, who stars as TJ, was previously a firefighter, while Ebla Mari plays Yara in her first on-screen role. Loach says the actors’ dedication was absolute. 

“When [Turner] grieves, he [really] grieves, and his susceptibility to not having hope is very real. He’s a man who’s lived as a firefighter and as a trade union organiser,” says Loach. “He knows those communities… there’s a lot of experience in the man. And he shares it, it’s on the screen.”

Rather than favouring stars and big budgets, Loach says a key focus has been to simply portray working-class lives authentically. 

“People depict the working-class as victims or the working-class as crooks or comedy characters. We never see the strength that they have if they stick together… That’s where the hope can come from.”

With The Old Oak, Loach wanted to counter antipathy towards asylum seekers. “It was a question of: can we really find hope?” he says. “Our feeling was that solidarity is in fact a default position… You see people in trouble, then instinctively people will go and help them. And I think that’s the building block that we’ve got to work with and say, ‘right, we also have strength’.

“I think hope is political. Because if you have hope and it’s not wishful thinking, you have hope that there is a way forward, there’s a path, then you have the confidence to pursue it.”

The Old Oak is in UK cinemas now. 

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