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A man they like to ban

Ken Loach talked to Kirsten Cale about the problems of making films in censorious Britain

Ken Loach and the censor have rarely seen eye to eye. Loach's documentary on trade union leaders, Questions of Leadership, has never been shown in Britain. Another documentary, Which Side Are You On?, was dropped by the South Bank Show after rows in the cutting room. Loach's production of the anti-Zionist play Perdition was pulled from the Royal Court Theatre 36 hours before the first performance. Hidden Agenda, his political thriller set in Ireland, was taken off the air by Channel 4 after the Warrington bombing earlier this year. 'Censorship in Britain', Loach observes, 'has been fairly constant.'

On the Continent Loach's work has won critical praise. Hidden Agenda and Riff Raff both won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, as has his latest film, Raining Stones. Which Side Are You On? won first prize at the Florence festival.

In Britain, however, Loach has been smothered in critical silence, largely for political reasons. Hidden Agenda was panned by the critics and decried by the establishment when it came out in 1990. Tory MP Ivor Stanbrook condemned it as an 'IRA film'. A group of British journalists campaigned to have it dropped from the Cannes Festival because it didn't 'represent' Britain. The Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker, 'who has a strong loyalist background', Loach recalls, 'made a spectacle of himself' at the press conference.

What did Loach feel about Channel 4--which supposedly supports independent film makers - removing Hidden Agenda from the schedule after the IRA bomb in Warrington? 'With Channel 4', says Loach, 'the declared issue was that the audience would be so emotionally involved in Warrington that anything to do with Ireland would not be seen fairly. The undeclared issue is that anything that isn't overtly condemnatory about the IRA is in bad taste and unacceptable, especially when people are distressed. Our argument against this is that people are more open to discussing the Irish situation when something like Warrington happens.'

Loach points out that the media completely divorced the bomb in Warrington from the Irish War. 'Warrington was presented as if it had nothing to do with the British being in Ireland. The unacceptable things that Britain is doing there have not only had a devastating effect on the Irish, but have further corrupted British political life.'

His description of the treatment of Which Side Are You On?, the 1985 documentary about the miners' strike, casts light on the way the media twist current events. Executives on the South Bank Show claimed that Loach's film was 'politically weighted' and particularly objected to a sequence which showed the police baton-charging miners at Orgreave. 'We had arguments in the cutting room', recalls Loach. 'Melvyn [Bragg] came along a bit but the key figure was Nick Elliott, one of the guys who's just paid himself £2m in a hand-out. He turned into Hitler and said, "if you cut that, we will broadcast". We said, "No, we won't cut it".'

After Which Side Are You On? won an award in Florence, 'Melvyn negotiated with Channel 4 to put it out'. But Channel 4 was also at pains to maintain 'balance': 'The pay-off was giving Jimmy Reid [the ex-Stalinist shop steward turned rabid anti-union commentator] half an hour straight to camera attacking the miners' leadership the next week. That was somehow their balance.' Loach points out that 'censorship is more acute when there is something at stake like the miners' strike', but 'ten years after, they would tolerate Which Side Are You On? because they know the end of the story: they know they won'.

Loach argues with fluency that state censorship is both insidious and discreet: 'The government appoints people to the key posts in the media who have a very subtle understanding that they are guarding the long-term strategic interests of the state. These people are in turn involved with the people who write the news and so on. They'll often be quite anti-government, but not 'anti' the long term consensus on which they feel the state is based. So they can be very critical of say, Thatcher or Wilson, while being quite censorious on class issues. It's not censorship imposed in a crude way by the government. The state has a very subtle, very British way of doing things, so it appears that the government isn't censoring.'

He argues too that censorship is nothing new. 'We think of the sixties as a very uncensorious time, but that was when they banned The War Game. The worst period was the early eighties when producers and commissioning editors were in the thrall of Thatcherism. I was particularly censored but other people were as well then.'

So where does Loach himself stand on the issue of censorship? 'All censorship is dangerous', he says - but then concedes that some censorship is neces-sary. 'It's a difficult case to argue', he says, choosing his words carefully. 'You have to make a political judgement about the things being said. It's a liberal dilemma. We say we are opposed to censorship on everything; but we therefore allow the fascists to say what they want. I am not in favour of allowing something that promoted fascism or racial hatred or the equivalent against minorities who are vulnerable. If you had a contemporary film which actively encouraged supporters of the far right, I would', he says, 'not want it shown.'

Isn't it dangerous to give the state which he rightly says 'operates censorship in its own class interests' more power to do so? Loach ducks the issue: 'It's not up to me. It's an entirely academic question.'

Loach's latest film, Raining Stones, the story of a man on the dole scamming to pay for his daughter's communion, is a commentary on working class survival in modern Britain. How, I wondered, does Loach's portrayal of working class lives differ from, say, that of Alan Bleasdale, who wrote Boys from the Blackstuff and GBH? 'I don't want to be unfair to Bleasdale', says Loach, 'but I think the views I share with script-writers like Jim Allen are far more positive and optimistic. The last scenes from Boys From the Black Stuff were very despairing; and the working class characters were reduced to oddities and eccentrics. That's not my view at all. On the Manchester estate [where Raining Stones was set] people were really having a bad time, but we were invigorated by their strength.'

Loach says that he aims to 'give people the sense of their power to change things', a view he feels is shared by too few film-makers: 'There's always been very little oppositional material. You remember the highlights but the day-in day-out stuff has always been very anodyne. We know that the broadcasting institutions will follow a long-term political line. Our response can either be to walk away, or to struggle to get the odd programme out knowing we'll never affect the mainstream.'

Sonic the scapegoat

Graham Barnfield takes off his anorak and wonders why video games have created such a panic

ast night I performed a simulated act of reification, in which slices of immaterial code acted as living beings, arranged and treated as objects. That is, I played with my Game Boy.

That particular piece of cyberspace English came from New Left Review, the latest recruit to the ranks of video game hysterics. According to NLR, game players are 'socially maladjusted, anorak-wearing males', video arcades are like 'sex parlours', computer games manufacturers have a 'parasitic relationship to the military industrial-complex', while the games themselves involve the 'construction of a self...[which] prefigures the hideous creations of a military exploiting new applications of genetics, nanotechnology - and computing.' I'm surprised that Rupert Murdoch wasn't in there somewhere as well - after all, what could be more scary than a video game made in Wapping?

Ever since Super Mario replaced Mickey Mouse as the most recognised children's icon, politicians, journalists, social workers and doctors have rushed to alert us to the impending end of civilisation. Psychologists have warned of the connection between violent computer games and juvenile crime, and have wondered what kind of adults will emerge from the arcades. Others have worried about the addictive power of 'kiddie cocaine'. Cementing the link between games and family breakdown, the Daily Telegraph interviewed a single mum from Croxteth who had bought the kids a console, despite supposedly feeding them on potatoes and Maltesers because of poverty. The medical profession has launched an inquiry into whether games-playing leads to epilepsy. The British Board of Film Censors has slapped a '15' certificate on Night Trap, a Sega games-nasty supposedly too violent for youngsters.

Journalist Tony Parsons (the hack who thinks he's hip) has accused Sonic the Hedgehog of being the grave-digger of pop music. Writers on the Guardian's society and women's pages have been busy counselling us on how to cope with losing touch with our eight-year old as he withdraws into a world of brutal graphics and postmodern landscapes. And NLR worries about our children being in hock to the military-industrial complex. No wonder that even David Baywatch Hasselhoff spent almost half an episode preventing his son playing Streetfighter 2, an international punch-up complete with a Sumo wrestler called Honda and a fire-breathing Indian fakir.

Anyone who was a teenager in the late seventies and early eighties gets a sense of déjà vu. In those days the now quaint Space Invaders were presented as a sinister threat to society's cohesion. Extra-terrestrial jellyfish with missiles, these two-dimensional beasties wolfed our small change and were subjected to a substantial moral panic. Experts in the media and other moral custodians claimed that 'Asteroid Addiction' would lead a whole generation into truancy. TV academics warned that careers of petty crime would ensue as players sought to support their dependency. The result of the scare was that the manufacturers of the Atari console got rich, a lot of school dinner money disappeared into amusement arcades - but civilisation somehow managed to survive.

A few years later Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came in for the same treatment. The Turtles were 'objectionable', wrote critic Bryan Appleyard, because of the assumption that 'society is in disarray and the authorities are too corrupt and incompetent to do anything about it.' The message of Turtle films, argued Appleyard, was that 'Western values have failed, only those alien systems can protect us.'

It tells you something about the society in which we live when our moral guardians become terrified about children's toys. We survived Space Invaders and Ninja Turtles, and you don't need a PhD in computer programming to know that Sega, even with its new Mega-CD, is unlikely to open the gates to the barbarians.

No matter how high a score you can rack up on your consoles, the real winner in all this is games manufacturer Sega. Having spent several million pounds launching spoof cat food and washing powder ads, only to fly-post or jam them with pirate TV, it is clear that a rebellious image sells. Last year Sega Entertainment's profits were 28 billion yen outside of Japan, and its market performance for this year has rattled even the giant Nintendo corporation. No amount of hysteria will stop them coining it. If anything, the latest video nightmare scenarios were made in marketing heaven. After all, who needs to pretend to be a pirate station when every columnist and news broadcaster is already telling your target audience that you're the devil incarnate?

Graham Barnfield teaches cultural studies at Sheffield Hallam University

Style wars

Andrew Calcutt on the glamourisation of militarism in the glossies

Once upon a time, journalism's hip young guns used to treat the military with the same disdain as Hawkeye in MASH. Michael Herr's 1977 book Dispatches, which first appeared in the American magazine Esquire, is perhaps the best journalistic account of the Vietnam war. Herr broke with the prevailing consensus by suggesting that war could be sexy and addictive. But he patched isolated flashes of glamour into an overall description of the US army as Catch-22, made bearable only by the anaesthetising combination of drugs, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix. Herr's war was a dirty business, whichever side you were on.

No longer. For today's trendy journos war is synonymous with glamour. It's fashionable now to describe the way of the Western warrior as the route to self-realisation and unadulterated stimulation. War has joined women, cars and fashion as a staple ingredient of men's style magazines such as GQ and FHM. From photospreads on the sartorial style of US special forces to Top Gun-style reportage of the Gulf War, militarism has won sex appeal.

In 'The Jet Set' (GQ, February 1993), Alex Kershaw profiled 'ludicrously handsome' RAF fighter pilots - 'members of the two-winged master race'. After watching 'with a lump in our throats, the televised pictures of young Tornado pilots returning from sorties during the Gulf War', he went in search of 'what it was that made...[them] different from those of us down below on Civvy Street'.

Flying in the back seat of a fighter gave Kershaw an experience somewhere between an orgasm and a cocaine high: 'I've had my first real fix of G[-force] and it feels better than most sex.' He stops himself banging helmets with the pilot (as in Top Gun), because 'somehow it would be too crass, too American, too belittling of...[the pilot's] jaw-dropping skills'. He is admiring and even envious of a former college mate who has found excitement, challenge and a sense of purpose in the RAF: 'a friend had left me behind...I realise I do not, after all, have the "right stuff".'

Kershaw wants to assure us that whatever else the 'top guns' may be, they are not bloodthirsty: 'They did not join the RAF with the faintest blood-lust. If they were actually to experience combat, well, that would be just part of the job.' He quotes Gareth 'Bob' Roberts: 'None of us joined to be killers. All of us joined the RAF to fly. It just happens to be a sideline which we may or may not be involved with.'

So there you have it. The Tornado crews that wasted Iraq were really on a personal development programme. I'm sure the Iraqis who were incinerated on the road to Basra would be relieved that they were simply the unfortunate victims of a sideline.

If the RAF pilots are the new glamour boys of the men's magazines, the problem with Iraqis is that they have no, well, style. In 'Bomb Squad' (GQ, October 1992), Stephanie Cook gave an account of the work of a UN team in Iraq 'in search of Saddam's nuclear stockpile'. UN inspector David Kay is described as 'boyishly middle-aged'. In contrast Iraqi official Sami al-Araji wore 'brown trousers slung beneath an oversized belly' and 'waved his arms about like a rug merchant in a souk.' Another Iraqi official Jaffar dia Jaffar committed the cardinal sin (in a style magazine) of wearing a tie with 'a spot on it'. Now you would never catch Jonathan Ross doing that.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously declared that the Gulf War never took place, but was merely an illusion played out on our TV screens. Some British style magazines seem to think that rather it was a style war played out on the catwalks.

Even those magazines which in the past prided themselves on their anti-war stance have joined in the new Top Gun mood. In the sixties and seventies the American magazine Rolling Stone was at the centre of the protest movement against the Vietnam War. But when the American marines invaded Somalia last Christmas, Rolling Stone was all in favour. 'This is the first large-scale military operation in history', gushed PJ O'Rourke, 'to be launched for purely altruistic reasons.'

O'Rourke (a liberal turned Republican reptile) paints a picture of Somalia as a sort of more nightmarish version of South Central LA: a place filled with 'packs' of thieves and 'huge wads of filth'; a country which has experienced 'the complete breakdown of everything decent and worthwhile' (except Somali women who are 'mainly beautiful'); a place where 'the average Somali' is 'the man in the gutter'.

Into this vision of hell enters a beatific George Bush, hugging orphans. 'The expression on George Bush's face', observes O'Rourke, 'was better than decency - it was pleasure.' And I bet his tie was spot-on.

These Magnificent

Men in GQ and For Him

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993

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