We all know what privatisation has done to our trains and the tracks they run on. Few of us know, or care, what it did to the workers. Ken Loach does. A wry, humorous, bitter look at one of the Great Ideas of the twentieth century.
UK/Spain/Italy/France 2001, 97 minutes
At a station in South Yorkshire, the old British Rail sign is being replaced by a shiny new one. British Rail is dead; long live Railtrack. It marks an irrevocable, and to some extent necessary, change for the railways. British Rail had enormous problems needing huge amounts of cash, and privatisation, while largely ideological, was partly a genuine attempt to solve them. From now on, the customer comes first. But bureaucracy, bad management and penny-pinching are by no means confined to the public sector; good decisions are implemented haphazardly, politics intervene, and the good thrown out with the bad.
In all his work director Ken Loach has shown a keen awareness that political and commercial decisions have personal consequences. For the ‘customers’, who now look back to the crowded, sometimes unreliable trains of the sixties and seventies as belonging to a comparatively golden age, there’s the feeling that they were better off as ‘passengers’, when the company had some responsibility to get you there rather than just sell you a ticket. For the workers, results were mixed. Redundancy for some, new uniforms for others, and for all, a new ethos and new work practices. For the group of workers followed in the film, these changes destroy a camaraderie built up over many years, leading to acts of mutual betrayal.
Loach’s film-making technique famously consists of letting people get on with it. He encourages improvisation, ad-libbing, and character development on the hoof. His artlessness conceals his art: you have to choose the right people, for a start. In this case the writer is Rob Dawber, a former rail worker, and the workers are played by comedians and singers from the northern clubs – the gang they portray would probably be in the audience. They bring not only authenticity, but their own camaraderie and humour. Then you have to get them to trust you: the cast were shown scripts at the last minute, often with instructions to keep some details to themselves. One character starts into his big speech unaware that the others have been told to heckle him: his discomfiture is genuine, but he went through with the scene and the rest of the film. The result is a very funny film with a serious message and bitter undertones. Rob Dawber died before it was finished, of work-related asbestosis, and it was released two days after the Hatfield crash. And our Treasurer, who used to get home from London before seven, may not see it – he’s only been in time for four films this season.
John – Dean Andrews
Mick – Tom Craig
Paul – Joe Duttine
Jim – Steve Huison
Gerry – Venn Tracey
Len – Andy Swallow
Harpic – Sean Glenn
Director – Ken Loach
Producers – Ulrich Felsberg, Rebecca O’Brien
Photography – Barry Ackroyd, Mike Eley
Music – George Fenton
Designer – Martin Johnson
- Classic Loach – excellent!
- A film for our time!
- A wonderful film – gripping, gritty but what a terrible indictment of ‘management’
- Totally absorbing and entirely credible.
- Brilliant! A real eye-opener about the dangers of uncontrolled privatisation.
- No wonder the railways are in the state they are to-day. Privatisation = Profit = Danger!
- This film should have a much wider circulation. Bring back ‘The Slow Train’
- Does this have owt to do with the ‘breakdown of society’ the politicians deplore?
- Excellent gritty Northern realism: marvellous Yorkshire humour.
- Typical males…
- A cross between Brassed Off and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
- Reminiscent of Riff Raff: was it really like this?
- Very funny, very real, very sad. Does ABCD really need a ‘mission statement’?
- Brave, committed but ultimately rather one-sided and hence contrived. As usual, the characters were the best thing.
- Too f****** true to be f****** funny!