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Honest men are turned into liars and good comrades turn on each other as privatisation turns railwaymen into competitors for work, Ken Loach explains to Andrew L. Urban, talking about his new film, The Navigators.

It’s 9.30 am on a Thursday workday, but it’s called early in London’s Wardrour Street in Soho, known as the ‘street of shame’ – where the world of sleaze shares a postcode with England’s film industry. Ken Loach has arrived at his office ‘early’ to take the call from Australia, where it’s the end of the day. “We often stay back to talk to people in Los Angeles, which means finishing about 7 pm,” Loach explains.

"a determinedly socially aware filmmaking ethos"

Loach is low key, speaking softly, almost like a shy English teacher, perhaps, but amenable and articulate. His work is a testament to a determinedly socially aware filmmaking ethos that has endeared him to those who like cinema that attempts to put to rights the many wrongs of a wicked capitalist world (Hidden Agenda, Riff Raff, Land and Freedom, Bread and Roses…)

In Loach's films the problems faced by characters are rarely simply personal and psychological (as in most mainstream films) but also economical and social. The Navigators follows the fortunes of a group of rail track workers based at a South Yorkshire depot, as the privatisation of British Rail takes effect. When Harpic, the depot boss, gives Paul, Mick and the rest of the gang their new working brief - the company’s Mission Statement - performance related pay and unpaid holidays seem like a joke. But before long, the choice is very clear to the gang: take their chances with redundancy cash and life as casual agency workers, or work for the new company under the new rules.

With its title, Loach pays tribute to the original 'navigators' or 'navvies' who constructed the railways in the nineteenth century The idea for the film came from the late Rob Dawber who worked for the railways for eighteen years and was encouraged by Loach to write a script based on his experiences. Dawber died before filming was completed.

At the end of the film, after a trackside accident, the men are faced with a moral predicament. The truth would probably cause them serious economic loss, so they lie about it. It’s a crucial element of the film’s moral position. But the accident is not based on an actual incident. “Yes, the authenticity of that scene is very important, ” Loach agrees. And while it isn’t taken from a real accident, “incidents like it did happen,” he explains. “Crews were working without lookouts. They didn’t have the resources to work safely. Railwaymen have said to us numerous times that they see The Navigators as documentary, not as fiction, which is important as regards to that accident, because the validity of it is very important and yours is a very fair question. Rob wrote an event that fitted the characters…he was absolutely justified by the circumstances. 

“There is a danger you make it up to fit…but we were very concerned not to invent something that was not reasonable,” he says. “It was a discussion we had a lot. Is this justified? But there are stories after stories of people being killed or injured on the track because there was no lookout, carrying gear along the track in a way they shouldn’t have been…”

"all the key moments were scripted"

And while Loach is known for using improvisational techniques, in The Navigators, all the key moments were scripted; “the shape was worked out and there was maybe some improvisation around it a little bit.”

Casting a mixture of actors, comics from the local club circuit – and railwaymen, Loach wanted authenticity in all the parts. “The railwaymen took all the small parts. I was casting on basis of who will the audience believe? In this film, the capacity to do the job was really important.”

Reactions to the film have varied from country to country. “In Britain,” says Loach, “where we got the funding from a tv company, it went straight to TV. It got a good audience right after it was made, which is good. But all the public bodies ignored it, as we knew they would. The rail union, the workers, were very supportive, and lots of screenings were followed by rigorous discussions.

“The reviews were excellent, and also in Venice at the film festival. And in France, it opened in over 100 cinemas, and the rail union put on a big special screening and invited people from the railways and also the railwaymen from England. In Britain they just didn’t want to know about anything that attacks the notion that privatisation is the best thing since sliced bread.”

Is it a political film, I ask. “I tend not to call it that because when people read that they think they’re going to be bored rigid for an hour and a half – and so I prefer to let people get from it whatever they get from it.”

For Loach, the privatisation of the railways was part of a politically driven economic trend which ignored the human element. “Honest men are turned into liars and good comrades turn on each other because they become agency workers, employed by a small subcontractor, who gets the job because his is the cheapest bid, to be cheap they have to cut corners and cutting corners they do things wrongly, and if they get caught they won’t work again so they have to lie…and it’s all brought by the economics of the change. What is so disgraceful is the people who brought about this change know all about it yet they allow it go on and promote it. That’s what is absolutely shocking.

"just guys doing their jobs"

“A railway gang would have responsibility for a section of the line, and they would know that, so they would see problems arising, there was some pride in the work. That culture was deliberately destroyed, and the identification of a group with a certain section track went and the number inspections was reduced –now you have people doing the job who don’t have decades or generations of safe practice passed on."

The workers, he says, are “just guys doing their jobs, neither heroes nor villains, forced to work in dog eat dog way.”

Published August 8, 2002

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