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.