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Loach takes the high road
Ken Loach.

Ken Loach's politics may have remained immovably left of centre over the years, but as a filmmaker the 76-year-old firebrand refuses to stand still.

Where his last film, Route Irish, was a furious gut punch in response to the Iraq war, Loach's follow-up, The Angels' Share, is something altogether more heart-warming - which is quite a feat when the central characters are a group of unemployed youths from a deprived part of Glasgow.

All the ingredients for a grim experience are in place: gritty violence, liberal use of the "C" and "F" words, and - as you would expect from the man behind the conscience-pricking TV play Cathy Come Home, the heartbreaking Kes and the explosive Palme d'Or-winning Irish War of Independence drama, The Wind that Shakes the Barley - a clear-eyed engagement with the desperate social and economic realities that blight many working-class lives. Far from being a downer, however, The Angels' Share has been tooled as a comedy.

Of course, it is not unusual to find humour in Loach's work. But it is hard to remember an ending as upbeat as the one he delivers here. The UK might be in the political and economic doldrums, run by a government whose values the socialist filmmaker despises, but Loach, on screen at least, has rarely been sunnier.

Is it a sign that the veteran flag- bearer for British realist cinema, and champion of the underdog, is getting mellower with age?

"No, tougher," Loach claims, after the world premiere of The Angels' Share at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the jury prize. "You just can't always be on the same note. And you can make a comedy that is a serious film."

That he has succeeded owes much to the soft-spoken director's ongoing collaboration with lawyer-turned-screenwriter Paul Laverty. They first worked together on the 1996 Nicaraguan love story Carla's Song and The Angels' Share, which screens next week as part of PIAF's Lotterywest Festival Films program, is their 11th feature together. The relationship works because they "see the world in the same way, have the same priorities, laugh at the same things," Loach says. This has encouraged them to "try to go for tougher options all the time", he says, pointing to the new movie's attempt to find laughs where you'd least expect them.

They were inspired by the spirit of the kids they met and compelled by an anger at the way they're often stereotyped as "people who don't want to work, who are lazy, who just live off handouts from the state. Obviously, we found the opposite is true," Loach says. "They are desperate to work."

The problem in areas like the one in the film is that there aren't any jobs, adds Laverty. "When you go to these areas in the east end of Glasgow it's fifth-generation unemployment now," he says. "That's almost unimaginable. People self-destruct. There's a lot of problems with gangs, because they need something to do. There's a lot of self-abuse through drink. And then if you look at the expectancy of life in some of these areas, it's worse than some places in Africa."

The youngsters in the film aren't lazy but energetic, silly, smart, loyal and resourceful. Led by Robbie (newcomer Paul Brannigan), a young father doing community service for violence (Loach doesn't whitewash his thuggish side), they set out to improve their lot by stealing a portion of an expensive malt whisky being auctioned in the Scottish Highlands.

"The predictable thing would have been to tell something very sad and downbeat," Loach says. "But we thought we'd try and reflect the spirit of the kids (we met) and give them a project they can care about, which will be a victimless crime, really."

Raised in Glasgow, where he still lives, by drug-addict parents, Brannigan identified with Robbie. Expelled from school aged 14, he was sent to jail at 16 for nearly four years after joining his uncle in a shoot out. The scar down his left cheek is real.

Now rehabilitated, he knows what it is like not to be able to get a job, like Robbie, because of the way people look at you. Cannes is a world away from where he comes from, he says. "I've led a pretty chaotic lifestyle," Brannigan says. "I had a pretty harsh upbringing. I was involved in drink and drugs and alcohol and gangs. I'm just like any boy from Glasgow, really. And any boy that's struggling."

Brannigan got lucky when Laverty, who'd been advised to talk to him by Strathclyde Police, got in touch. "Paul came and saw me and had a chat, told me about the movie, and I told him about my life," Brannigan says. "They just reflected each other." Brannigan almost blew his chance by failing to turn up for his first two auditions. Laverty didn't give up on him, though. "If he had, who knows what would have happened to me?"

Robbie wants to make a better future for his newborn daughter and Brannigan wants to do the same for his four-year-old son, Leo. "When I'm really nervous, I think about him, how much this matters to me, and where I've been," he explains. "It's a case of if I don't do this, am I going to go back there?"

He hopes The Angels' Share will show viewers like himself that the future isn't hopeless, that things really can get better.

Meanwhile, if Loach's desire to give voice to people written off by much of society makes him seem like someone shouting into the wind, he doesn't see it that way. He's met plenty of aspiring filmmakers with a social conscience and enquiring minds, he says. The problem is finding funding. Loach's long track record means that he is able to source money from sympathetic parties in different countries. For new directors, it isn't so easy.

'When you go to these areas in the east end of Glasgow it's fifth-

generation unemployment now.'