Loach, a social campaigner for most of his career, believes the current criteria for claiming benefits in the UK are "a Kafka-esque, Catch 22 situation designed to frustrate and humiliate the claimant to such an extent that they drop out of the system and stop pursuing their right to ask for support if necessary".
Loach was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, the son of Vivien (née Hamlin) and John Loach. He attended King Edward VI Grammar School and went on to study law at St Peter's College, Oxford.
Loach's ten contributions to the BBC's Wednesday Play anthology series include the docudramas Up the Junction (1965), Cathy Come Home (1966) and In Two Minds (1967). They portray working-class people in conflict with the authorities above them. Three of his early plays are believed to be lost. His 1965 play Three Clear Sundays dealt with capital punishment, and was broadcast at a time when the debate was at a height in the United Kingdom. Up the Junction, adapted by Nell Dunn from her book with the assistance of Loach, deals with an illegal abortion while the leading characters in Cathy Come Home, by Jeremy Sandford, are affected by homelessness, unemployment, and the workings of Social Services. In Two Minds, written by David Mercer, concerns a young schizophrenic woman's experiences of the mental health system. Tony Garnett began to work as his producer in this period, a professional connection which would last until the end of the 1970s.
During this period, he also directed the absurdist comedy The End of Arthur's Marriage, about which he later said that he was "the wrong man for the job".
Coinciding with his work for The Wednesday Play, Loach began to direct feature films for the cinema, with Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969). The latter recounts the story of a troubled boy and his kestrel, and is based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. The film was well received, although the use of Yorkshire dialect throughout the film restricted its distribution, with some American executives at United Artists saying that they would have found a film in Hungarian easier to understand. The British Film Institute named it No 7 in its list of best British films of the twentieth century, published in 1999.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Loach's films were less successful, often suffering from poor distribution, lack of interest and political censorship. His documentary The Save the Children Fund Film (1971) was commissioned by the charity, who subsequently disliked it so much they attempted to have the negative destroyed. It was only screened publicly for the first time on 1 September 2011, at the BFI Southbank. Loach concentrated on television documentaries rather than fiction during the 1980s, and many of these films are now difficult to access as the television companies have not released them on video or DVD. At the end of the 1980s, he directed some television advertisements for Tennent's Lager to earn money.
Days of Hope (1975) is a four part drama for the BBC directed by Loach from, scripts by dramatist Jim Allen. The first episode of the series caused considerable controversy in the British media owing to its critical depiction of the military in World War I, and particularly over a scene where conscientious objectors were tied up to stakes outside trenches in view of enemy fire after refusing to obey orders. An ex-serviceman subsequently contacted The Times newspaper with an illustration from the time of a similar scene.
Loach's documentary A Question of Leadership (1981) interviewed members of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (the main trade union for Britain's steel industry) with regards to their 14-week strike in 1980, and recorded much criticism of the union's leadership for conceding over the issues in the strike. Subsequently, Loach made a four-part series named Questions of Leadership which subjected the leadership of other trade unions to similar scrutiny from their members, but this has never been broadcast. Frank Chapple, leader of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, walked out of the interview and made a complaint to the Independent Broadcasting Authority. A separate complaint was made by Terry Duffy of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union. The series was due to be broadcast during the Trade Union Congress conference in 1983, but Channel 4 decided against broadcasting the series following the complaints. Anthony Hayward claimed in 2004 that the media tycoon Robert Maxwell had put pressure on Central's board, of which he had become a director, to withdraw Questions of Leadership at the time he was buying the Daily Mirror newspaper and needed the co-operation of union leaders, especially Chapple.
Which Side Are You On? (1985), about the songs and poems of the UK miners' strike, was originally due to be broadcast on The South Bank Show, but was rejected on the grounds that it was too politically unbalanced for an arts show. The film was eventually transmitted on Channel 4, but only after it won a prize at an Italian film festival. Three weeks after the end of the strike, the film End of the Battle ... Not the End of the War? was broadcast by Channel 4 in its Diverse Strands series. This film argued that the Conservative Party had planned the destruction of the National Union of Mineworkers' political power from the late 1970s.
Working again with Jim Allen, Loach was due to direct a play named Perdition, which suggested that Zionists in Hungary collaborated with the Nazis to help the operation of the Holocaust in return for allowing a few Jews to emigrate to Palestine. The play was due to run at the Royal Court Theatre in 1987, but its run was cancelled 36 hours before the first night following widespread protests and allegations of anti-semitism. In 1989, he directed a short documentary Time to go that called for the British Army to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland, which was broadcast in the BBC's Split Screen series.
From the late 1980s, Loach directed theatrical feature films more regularly, a series of films such as Hidden Agenda (1990), dealing with the political troubles in Northern Ireland, Land and Freedom (1995), examining the Republican resistance in the Spanish Civil War and Carla's Song (1996), which was set partially in Nicaragua. He directed the Courtroom Drama reconstructions in the docu-film McLibel, concerning McDonald's Restaurants v Morris & Steel, the longest libel trial in English history. Interspersed with political films were smaller dramas such as Raining Stones (1993) a working-class drama concerning an unemployed man's efforts to buy a communion dress for his young daughter.
On 28 May 2006, Loach won the Palme d'Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival for his film The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a political-historical drama about the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War during the 1920s. Like Hidden Agenda before it, The Wind That Shakes the Barley was criticised for allegedly being too sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army and Provisional Irish Republican Army. This was film was followed by It's a Free World... (2007), a story of one woman's attempt to establish an illegal placement service for migrant workers in London.
Throughout the 2000s, Loach interspersed wider political dramas such as Bread and Roses (2000), which focused on the Los Angeles janitors strike and Route Irish (2010) set during the Iraq occupation with smaller examinations of personal relationships. Ae Fond Kiss... (aka, Just a Kiss, 2004) explored an inter-racial love affair, Sweet Sixteen (2002) concerns a teenager's relationship with his mother and My Name Is Joe (1998) an alcoholic's struggle to stay sober. His most commercial later film is Looking for Eric (2009), featuring a depressed postman's conversations with the ex-Manchester United football star; Eric Cantona appearing as himself. The film won the Magritte Award for Best Co-Production. Although successful in Manchester, the film was a flop in many other cities, especially cities with rival football teams to Manchester United.
Loach's film Route Irish (2010), an examination of private contractors working in the Iraqi occupation. A thematic consistency throughout his films, whether they examine broad political situations or smaller intimate dramas, is his focus on personal relationships. The sweeping political dramas (Land and Freedom, Bread and Roses, The Wind that Shakes the Barley) examine wider political forces in the context of relationships between family members (Bread and Roses, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Carla's Song), comrades in struggle (Land and Freedom) or close friends (Route Irish). In a 2011 interview for the Financial Times, Loach explains how "The politics are embedded into the characters and the narrative, which is a more sophisticated way of doing it".
The Angels' Share (2013) is centred on a young Scottish troublemaker who is given a final opportunity to stay out of jail. Newcomer Paul Brannigan, then 24, from Glasgow, played the lead role. The film competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where Loach won the Jury Prize. Jimmy's Hall (2014) was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or in the main competition section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Loach announced his retirement from film-making in 2014 but soon after restarted his career following the election of a Conservative government in the UK general election of 2015.
Loach won his second Palme d'Or for I, Daniel Blake (2016). In February 2017, the film was awarded a BAFTA as "Outstanding British Film".
In May 2010, Loach referred in an interview to the three films that have influenced him most: Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miloš Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1965) and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966). De Sica's film had a particularly profound effect. He noted: "It made me realise that cinema could be about ordinary people and their dilemmas. It wasn't a film about stars, or riches or absurd adventures".
Throughout his career, some of Loach's films have been shelved for political reasons. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian newspaper he said:
It makes you angry, not on your own behalf, but on behalf of the people whose voices weren't allowed to be heard. When you had trade unions, ordinary people, rank and file, never been on television, never been interviewed, and they're not allowed to be heard, that's scandalous.
Loach argues that working people's struggles are inherently dramatic:
They live life very vividly, and the stakes are very high if you don't have a lot of money to cushion your life. Also, because they're the front line of what we came to call the class war. Either through being workers without work, or through being exploited where they were working. And I guess for a political reason, because we felt, and I still think, that if there is to be change, it will come from below. It won't come from people who have a lot to lose, it will come from people who will have everything to gain.
Many of Loach's films include a large amount of traditional dialect, such as the Yorkshire dialect in Kes and in The Price of Coal, Cockney in Up the Junction and Poor Cow, Scouse in The Big Flame, Lancashire dialect in Raining Stones, Glaswegian in My Name Is Joe and the dialect of Greenock in Sweet Sixteen. Many of these films have been subtitled when shown in other English-speaking countries. When asked about this in an interview with Cineaste, Loach replied:
If you ask people to speak differently, you lose more than the voice. Everything about them changes. If I asked you not to speak with an American accent, your whole personality would change. That's how you are. My hunch is that it's better to use subtitles than not, even if that limits the films to an art-house circuit.
Loach was amongst the first British directors to use swearing in his films. Mary Whitehouse complained about swearing in Cathy Come Home and Up The Junction, while The Big Flame (1969) for the BBC was an early instance of the word shit, and the certificate to Kes caused some debate owing to the profanity, but these films have relatively few swear words compared to his later work. In particular, the film Sweet Sixteen was awarded an 18 certificate on the basis of the very large amount of swearing, despite the lack of serious violence or sexual content, which led Loach to encourage under-18s to break the law to see the film.
Feminist writer Julie Bindel has criticised Loach's recent films for a lack of female characters who are not simply love interests for the male characters, although she praised his early film, Cathy Come Home. Bindel also wrote, "Loach appears not to know gay people exist".
A member of the Labour Party from the early 1960s, Loach left in the mid-1990s. In November 2004, he was elected to the national council of the Respect Coalition. He stood for election to the European Parliament on a Respect mandate. Since then he has broken with Respect.
Loach supported the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in the London Assembly election, 2012.
With the support of the activist Kate Hudson and academic Gilbert Achcar, Loach launched a campaign in March 2013 for a new left-wing party which was founded as "Left Unity" on 30 November.
In February 2013, Loach was among those who gave their support to the People's Assembly in a letter published by The Guardian newspaper. He also gave a speech at the People's Assembly Conference held at Westminster Central Hall on 22 June 2013.
In August 2015, Loach endorsed Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership campaign. The following year, in July, he endorsed Corbyn again in the second leadership election. In September, Loach's one-hour documentary during the run-up to the Labour leadership election called In Conversation with Jeremy Corbyn was released.
In May 2017, he directed an election broadcast featuring a profile of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party's general election campaign.
Together with John Pilger and Jemima Khan, Loach was among the six people in court willing to offer surety for Julian Assange when he was arrested in London on 7 December 2010.
In a letter send to The Guardian in 2009, Loach advocated support for the Palestine Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) along with his regular colleagues Paul Laverty (writer) and Rebecca O'Brien (producer).
In 2007, Loach was one of more than 100 artists and writers who signed an open letter calling on the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival "to honour calls for an international boycott of Israeli political and cultural institutions, by discontinuing Israeli consulate sponsorship of the LGBT film festival and not co-sponsoring events with the Israeli consulate". Loach also joined "54 international figures in the literary and cultural fields" in signing a letter that stated, in part, "celebrating 'Israel at 60' is tantamount to dancing on Palestinian graves to the haunting tune of lingering dispossession and multi-faceted injustice". The letter was published in the International Herald Tribune on 8 May 2008.
Responding to a report, which Loach described as "a red herring", on the growth of antisemitism since the beginning of the Gaza War of 2008–2009, he said: "If there has been a rise I am not surprised. In fact, it is perfectly understandable because Israel feeds feelings of anti-Semitism". He added that "no-one can condone violence". Speaking at the launch of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in March 2009, he asserted that "nothing has been a greater instigator of antisemitism than the self-proclaimed Jewish state itself".
In May 2009, organisers of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) returned a £300 grant from the Israeli Embassy after speaking with Loach. He was supporting a boycott of the festival called for by the PACBI campaign. In response, former Channel 4 chief executive Sir Jeremy Isaacs described Loach's intervention as an act of censorship, saying: "They must not allow someone who has no real position, no rock to stand on, to interfere with their programming". Later, a spokesman for the EIFF said that although it had returned £300 to the Israeli Embassy, the festival itself would fund Israeli filmmaker Tali Shalom-Ezer's travel to Edinburgh from its own budget. In an open letter to Shalom-Ezer, Loach wrote: "From the beginning, Israel and its supporters have attacked their critics as anti-semites or racists. It is a tactic to undermine rational debate. To be crystal clear: as a film maker you will receive a warm welcome in Edinburgh. You are not censored or rejected. The opposition was to the Festival’s taking money from the Israeli state". To his critics, he added later: "The boycott, as anyone who takes the trouble to investigate knows, is aimed at the Israeli state". Loach said he had a "respectful and reasoned" conversation with event organisers, saying they should not be accepting funds from Israel.
In June 2009, Loach, Laverty and O'Brien withdrew their film Looking For Eric from the Melbourne International Film Festival, where the Israeli Embassy is a sponsor, after the festival declined to withdraw that sponsorship. The festival's chief executive, Richard Moore, compared Loach's tactics to blackmail, stating that "we will not participate in a boycott against the State of Israel, just as we would not contemplate boycotting films from China or other nations involved in difficult long-standing historical disputes". Australian lawmaker Michael Danby also criticised Loach's tactics stating that "Israelis and Australians have always had a lot in common, including contempt for the irritating British penchant for claiming cultural superiority. Melbourne is a very different place to Londonistan". Loach called for a boycott of the 2009 Edinburgh Film Festival if it showed a film by Tali Shalom-Ezer, who had accepted £300 from the Israeli embassy for travel expenses. An article in The Scotsman by Alex Massie noted that Loach had not called for the same boycott of the Cannes Film Festival, where his film was in competition with some Israeli films.
Loach, Laverty and O'Brien subsequently wrote that:
We feel duty bound to take advice from those living at the sharp end inside the occupied territories. We would also encourage other filmmakers and actors invited to festivals to check for Israeli state backing before attending, and if so, to respect the boycott. Israeli filmmakers are not the target. State involvement is. In the grand scale of things it is a tiny contribution to a growing movement, but the example of South Africa should give us heart.
In November 2012, Loach turned down the Turin Film Festival award, after learning that the National Museum of Cinema in Turin had outsourced cleaning and security services. As a consequence, workers had been dismissed, while there had been allegations of intimidation and harassment. Some workers lost their jobs after opposing a wage cut.
Loach lives with his wife, Lesley, in Bath. His son Jim Loach has also become a television and film director. A younger son died in a car accident, aged five, and he also has another son and two daughters, one of whom is the documentary film maker, Emma Loach (born 1972), who is married to the actor Elliot Levey.
Loach is a patron of the British Humanist Association and a secularist, saying "In particular, the indoctrination of children in separate faith schools is pernicious and divisive. I strongly support the British Humanist Association.”
Loach turned down an OBE in 1977. In a Radio Times interview, published in March 2001, he said:
It's all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest. I turned down the OBE because it's not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who've got it.
Loach has been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Bath, the University of Birmingham, Staffordshire University, and Keele University. Oxford University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree in June 2005. He is also an honorary fellow of his alma mater, St Peter's College, Oxford. In May 2006, he was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship at the BAFTA TV Awards.
In 2003 Loach received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University and received the 2003 Praemium Imperiale (lit. "World Culture Prize in Memory of His Imperial Highness Prince Takamatsu") in the category Film/Theatre.
In 2014 he was presented with the Honorary Golden Bear at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.
The Raindance Film Festival announced in September 2016 that it would be honouring Loach with its inaugural Auteur Award, to recognise his "achievements in filmmaking and contribution to the film industry."Catherine ("Teletale", 1964)
Z-Cars (series episodes, 1964)
Diary of a Young Man (series, 1964)
Tap on the Shoulder (The Wednesday Play, 1965)
Wear a Very Big Hat (The Wednesday Play, 1965)
Three Clear Sundays (The Wednesday Play, 1965)
Up the Junction (The Wednesday Play, 1965)
The End of Arthur's Marriage (The Wednesday Play, 1965)
The Coming Out Party (The Wednesday Play, 1965)
Cathy Come Home (The Wednesday Play, 1966)
In Two Minds (The Wednesday Play, 1967)
The Golden Vision (The Wednesday Play, 1968)
The Big Flame (The Wednesday Play, 1969)
The Rank and File (Play for Today, 1971)
After a Lifetime ("Sunday Night Theatre", 1971)
A Misfortune ("Full House", 1973)
Days of Hope (serial, 1975)
The Price of Coal (1977)
The Gamekeeper (1980)
A Question of Leadership (1981)
The Red and the Blue: Impressions of Two Political Conferences – Autumn 1982 (1983)
Questions of Leadership (1983/4, untransmitted)
Which Side Are You On? (1985)
End of the Battle... Not the End of the War ("Diverse Reports", 1985)
Time to Go ("Split Screen", 1989)
The View From the Woodpile (1989)
The Arthur Legend ("Dispatches", 1991)
The Flickering Flame (1996)
Another City: A Week in the Life of Bath's Football Club (1998)
Poor Cow (1967)
Kes (1969) (as Kenneth Loach)
Family Life (1971)
Black Jack (1979)
Looks and Smiles (1981) (as Kenneth Loach)
Hidden Agenda (1990). Cannes Special Jury Prize.
Riff-Raff (1991). European Film Award Best Picture
Raining Stones (1993). Cannes Special Jury Prize.
Ladybird, Ladybird (1994)
Land and Freedom (1995). FIPRESCI International Critics Prize; Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival; European Film Award Best Picture
Carla's Song (1996)
My Name Is Joe (1998)
Bread and Roses (2000)
The Navigators (2001)
Sweet Sixteen (2002)
11'09"01 September 11 (segment "United Kingdom") (2002)
Ae Fond Kiss... (2004)
Tickets (2005), along with Ermanno Olmi and Abbas Kiarostami
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) Palme d'Or, Cannes
It's a Free World... (2007) Screenplay Osella at 64th Venice Film Festival
Looking for Eric (2009)
Route Irish (2010)
The Angels' Share (2012)
Jimmy's Hall (2014)
I, Daniel Blake (2016) Palme d'Or, Cannes
The Save the Children Fund Film (1971)
Time to go (1989)
A Contemporary Case for Common Ownership (1995)
The Flickering Flame (1997)
The Spirit of '45 (2013)