London audiences have a rare opportunity this week – to attend the first public screening of a film that so incensed its funders they wanted it incinerated. In 1969, Save the Children commissioned Kestrel Films, established by director Ken Loach and producer Tony Garnett, to produce a film for the charity's 50th anniversary. But the resulting documentary, scheduled to be screened by London Weekend Television, appalled the organisation's leadership and, after considerable legal wrangles, it was consigned to the British Film Institute's archive – where it has remained for four decades, unseen other than by archivists and film scholars.
The untitled 53-minute film is the centrepiece of a six-week Loach retrospective at BFI Southbank marking the 75th birthday of the director, who is arguably Britain's greatest living filmmaker. Although it is still unfinished – it is not dubbed, the sound is not mixed and there are no credits or titles – that is no barrier to discerning its politics, or to understanding the charity's initial response.
"It was a rough cut that we showed them," says Loach, "but that was enough – the steam was coming out of their ears. They wanted to burn the film, to physically destroy it."
Opening with a quote from Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, the film proffers an analysis of race, class and colonialism that eschews charitable giving to alleviate poverty at home and in Africa, citing socialism as an alternative. "I think it'll be interesting to see what people think now," says an unrepentant Loach. "You didn't think that you'd go back to hearing about the 'deserving poor' and the 'undeserving poor' 40 years later, and yet now it's part of the political chat."
The film's analysis is consistent with the radical perspective that Loach developed while working with Mancunian writer Jim Allen in the mid-1960s. It permeates their television plays, including The Big Flame (1969), The Rank and File (1971) and the controversial four-part TV series Days of Hope (1975), the full seven hours of which will be screened in one day at the BFI. It also finds expression in Loach's controversial TV documentaries: Questions of Leadership (1983), a four-part critique of rightwing trade union leaders was deemed "unbalanced" and censored by Channel 4.
Although Allen was a radicalising influence on Loach, the latter's early television output suggests a young director out to challenge perceived injustice. Following a brief stint as an actor, the Oxford graduate had joined the BBC's drama department as a trainee director in 1963, just as the corporation was entering a period of experimentation. In 1964, Troy Kennedy-Martin published Nats Go Home, a manifesto challenging the dominance of naturalism in TV drama and championing instead a Brechtian-inspired aesthetic practice; Loach emerged as a central figure in this rich cultural milieu.
The retrospective, which will screen almost all Loach's 50-plus feature films, television plays and documentaries, should challenge assumptions that his work is all the same or that it derives from a British kitchen-sink realist, even miserabilist, tradition. There are wider influences. Some will remember the political controversy provoked by Cathy Come Home (1966), a searing tale of homelessness that revealed unpalatable truths about British society. Yet the play's formal qualities, the utilisation of documentary techniques to create an illusion of authenticity, were also controversial. Similar criticism was levelled at Up the Junction(1965), which explored the lives of working-class women, with its focus on multiple characters, its episodic narrative and experimental editing techniques.
"When you're young you pick ideas from all over the place," says Loach. "[Pioneering theatre director] Joan Littlewood was a big influence with things like Oh, What a Lovely War! Brecht was also an influence in terms of the very pared-down way in which he would stage things.
"Their fascination with Jean-Paul Belmondo didn't interest me one bit, but technically there were interesting things about the French New Wave. But the biggest influences were things like World in Action, the current affairs documentary."
Most people place Kes (1969) at the high-water mark of Loach's career. Certainly the making of that film (about a lonely working-class boy's fascination with a kestrel) influenced much of his subsequent output. He worked with Chris Menges – who previously shot Loach's debut feature, Poor Cow (1967), and who had worked as assistant to the Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek on If …, directed by Lindsay Anderson the previous year.
"Chris was very taken with the lighting," says Loach, "which was very sympathetic but naturalistic, not studio lighting, and with the kind of lenses they would use; there was a simplicity to it. We thought that what happened in front of the camera was more important than the camerawork, so in order to get the best out of what was happening in front of it we had to find a very simple way of shooting. It became about observation rather than chasing.
"Kes was the first film we worked on in that way, and it set the pattern for later work."
Loach is currently editing his latest film, The Angels' Share, a light comedy set in Scotland. His description of filming Kes is recognisable even today: his camera (predominantly a solitary one) is almost always positioned at eye-level and, apart for occasional close-ups, placed as far as is practical from the actors with long lenses used to capture the action. While many film sets are replete with monitors and technological paraphernalia, a Loach set is pared down. For this director, it is the performance that's crucial. Noticeably, just as filming is about to commence, Loach asks crew members to "tuck away" – those who are not needed at that moment secrete themselves out of sight and those whose presence is essential hide their eyes from the line of the actors' vision. As one crew member suggested, every scene is shot with the level of unobtrusiveness that many directors create only when shooting a sex scene.
The approach has helped bring consistent critical acclaim for Loach's films – with The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) lifting the Palme D'Or at Cannes – but also the opprobrium of certain British critics and commentators. But overtly political films have been accompanied by work that pragmatically intertwines the political and the personal through the focus on individuals, such as the tragicomic Raining Stones (1993) or the harrowing, at times almost unwatchable, Ladybird Ladybird (1994).
In more recent years, Loach has established a successful working relationship with producer Rebecca O'Brien and writer Paul Laverty, often shooting in Scotland. Perhaps the most successful of these collaborations was My Name is Joe (1998), for which Peter Mullan picked up the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role as the eponymous recovering alcoholic.
Most of Loach's recent output has been considerably less didactic than earlier work, but no less political: "The politics are embedded into the characters and the narrative, which is a more sophisticated way of doing it," he says. "It's a balance, because on the one hand you don't want it that embedded so that only film professors can read it but, equally, you don't want to be that crude that every film ends with a fist in the air."
Loach rejects the auteur label, tending instead to stress cinema's collaborative nature; but watching him in action it is apparent that his directorial approach involves close involvement in all aspects of the arduous process, whether chairing production meetings or skipping across to whisper a note to an actor just before he starts shooting.
"Well, you can't do it from a chair," he says; "you've got to get up, chase around, put energy into it and speak to people directly not through assistants and you can't from a remote situation."
Notoriously tight-lipped about future projects, he tells me when I ask him what the future holds that there are numerous possible projects in the pipeline. "It'd be nice to do a documentary again," he says, "but I don't know."
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.