WHETHER IT'S FILM festivals or award shows, lifetime achievement prizes these days seem to be given out with alarming regularity - and often for people who aren't anywhere near the twilight of their careers. But if there is one man who truly merits such an accolade, it's Ken Loach. Coinciding with his 50th year in the industry, the British director was at this year's Berlin International Film Festival to collect an honorary Golden Bear in recognition of his titanic body of work.
He is, of course, best known for his social-realist dramas such as Ladybird Ladybird (1994), My Name is Joe (1998) and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), which won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or that year. As far back as 1966, his television drama Cathy Come Home, about a family's slide towards homelessness, made such an impact it caused the formation of the charity group Crisis and saw a law changed so that homeless fathers could stay with their wives and children in hostels.
Still, as hard hitting as his cinema is, Loach pricks even the bleakest of situations with humour. Take the opening to 1993's Raining Stones, for example, as Bruce Jones' cash-strapped character Bob decides to steal a sheep (let's just say he's no rustler). "I think comedy is quite difficult to be honest," says the filmmaker. "But you just try and tell the truth about the characters and the story, and then funny things happen, and they should make you smile … as in life."
Another of Loach's winners at Cannes (this time of the Jury Prize), The Angels' Share is the perfect example of the way he weaves comedy and drama together into a tapestry. Set in Glasgow, the director's most recent fiction feature follows the volatile Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a reckless youth who, we discover early on, attacked a young man in the street without provocation, leaving him blind in one eye. "We wanted to really risk alienating the audience," says Loach, "hoping they would want him to succeed in the end. It just seemed a bigger challenge."
Sentenced to community service, Robbie befriends his supervisor Harry (John Henshaw), who introduces him to the pleasures of whisky tasting. What follows is an affectionate heist tale, as Robbie sets about stealing some precious whisky from an auction - a robbery that could set him up financially for life. "I think you could take the same characters and tell a tragedy or a comedy," says Loach.
"In a way, the essence of the situation the characters are in is the same. It's just the tale you happen to tell. And this is a happier little tale."
The film is Loach's 10th outing with screenwriter Paul Laverty, a rock solid partnership that began with 1996's Carla's Song, in which Robert Carlyle's Glasgow bus driver becomes embroiled with a Nicaraguan exile. And by the director's modest standards it's become one of the biggest hits of his career in Britain.
In Loach's native land, the film's success was built on Scottish viewers, and it marks the fifth film that the Nuneaton-born director has set in Glasgow. "Glasgow has the same quality that Liverpool has," he says.
"It's a very strong working-class culture, built out of political and social struggle. It's had big industries which have faded away, so there's a memory of all that that entails. Because the culture that grew out of the ship building [industry], the humour is very strong, and the language is very sharp. It's a vivid culture, and the people have a lot of energy."
The Angels' Share deals with earnest issues about the way British youth are struggling to cope in the wake of the economic downturn. "I think it's desperate," says Loach. "The worse thing is you see young people with no possibility of work, and the work that is there … it's short term, it's agency work, it's 'no hours' contracts where you're guaranteed no work at all. There's no way they can build a career or even establish a skill that would define them."
This is typical Loach, who has spent his career and life giving the poor, the disenfranchised and the exploited a voice. Think of 1991's Riff-Raff, set around those earning minimum wage on a London building site, or 2001's The Navigators, which dealt with the privatisation of the railways seen through the eyes of the workers. Perhaps closest to The Angels' Share comes the Glasgow-set Sweet Sixteen - awarded the best screenplay prize at Cannes in 2002 - in which the teen protagonist tries to raise money for a family home after his mother comes out of prison.
At least The Angels' Share comes with a happy ending - that being the success of its 27-year-old star Paul Brannigan. "He's not had an easy life," says Loach, diplomatically. "He's been in some tough situations."
His teenage years were involved with drugs and gangs, and he'd spent time in Polmont, Scotland's young offenders' institution, after he was charged with "discharging a firearm" - the result of a long-running feud. Later, he turned to community work, volunteering to help with gangs in Glasgow.
It was in a local community centre that Brannigan first met Loach's screenwriter, Paul Laverty, who urged him to try out for the film. But by the time they met again, the younger man had lost his job. "I just felt really low," he says of that period in his life. "It would've been easy for me to turn to drugs, or maybe stealing. I didn't know where to turn. I didn't know where to go. When you've got a kid and a girlfriend, and me and her were arguing all the time … things were just s***, real s***. I reckon it saved my life."
If this sounds dramatic, his work for Loach - which earned him a Bafta Scotland best actor award - has truly established him as an actor. Brannigan has since appeared opposite Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's acclaimed sci-fi film Under the Skin - joining the ranks of other Scottish actors such as Carlyle and Peter Mullan who got a boost to their careers from working with Loach. Yet how many more performers he will help nurture remains to be seen.
Now almost 78, the director admits it's getting harder to make movies. "Physically, is demanding. It is quite knackering. Documentaries aren't. You can lead a civilised life. But when the alarm goes at 6am for about two months, by the end of it you're on your knees."
So how does he keep going? "I don't know," he shrugs. "My wife [Lesley, to whom he's been married since 1962] keeps asking the same question."
Since shooting The Angels' Share, Loach has completed The Spirit of '45, his documentary about Britain after the second world war. He's also editing his next feature film, Jimmy's Hall, the story of political activist Jimmy Gralton, who was deported from Ireland in the 1930s. Word is it will most likely be his last feature film. "It's a privileged position, really, so you don't let it go easily, but I'm beginning to think it's a job for a younger man," he says.
At least he can look back on a lifetime of real achievement.
The Angels' Share opens on March 6