Ken Loach on gig economy drama Sorry We Missed You
Consider the rumours of Ken Loach's retirement well and truly quashed. Following I, Daniel Blake, the tireless filmmaker is back with Sorry We Missed You, another powerful drama exploring austerity Britain
To say the films of Ken Loach are considered landmarks of British social realism would be putting it mildly. From Cathy Come Home (1966) to Riff-Raff (1991) and Ladybird Ladybird (1994), he’s renowned for his sympathetic tales of those at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, whose hardships and struggles he articulates with an activist’s energy. It’s not surprising then that his best work tends to arrive during periods of heightened austerity, like his latest, Sorry We Missed You – a brutal but ultimately moving drama about Britain’s booming gig economy.
Set in Newcastle and inspired by real-life accounts of those forced to take on casual and insecure jobs, the film follows in the footsteps of Loach’s 2016 Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake. “We’ve been aware of the way working conditions have been changing for a while,” Loach tells us when asked how he and long-term collaborator Paul Laverty developed their script. “When we were filming I, Daniel Blake, we noticed that a lot of the people who were reliant on food banks were in work, many of them on zero-hour contracts.”
Giving a voice to those affected by the rise in precarious employment, the film follows Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a struggling labourer who's proudly never signed on. “I’ve got my pride,” he declares during a job interview at a local parcel delivery firm, “I would rather die.” Afterwards, Ricky convinces his wife, Abby (Debbie Honeywood), to sell her car so he can buy a van and become a freelance delivery driver. His plan is to use the flexibility of the job to work extra hours and save towards a deposit on a home. However, as the demands of the job mount up, so do the fines and sanctions he receives for each missed delivery, and an enveloping inevitability begins to loom large over Ricky and his family.
‘I think people see a union as something you join as a consumer. It's the wrong attitude. It's our collective strength’ – Ken Loach
In May 2019, the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that the rise of zero-hours contracts had left 1.6 million people in Northern England earning less than what they needed to live. Some have argued this is an unfortunate aftershock of the 2008 financial crisis, but Loach believes it stretches back much further than that. “It began under Thatcher, and the destruction of the mining communities,” he tells us. “People were used to having jobs that would last a lifetime, and wages they could bring up a whole family with. They went from secure jobs, with a guaranteed 40-hour week and eight-hour days, to casual work and zero-hour contracts.”
Unemployment in Britain has fallen to the lowest levels since the mid-1970s amid an employment boom that followed the recession. However, many of these jobs are temporary and precarious. Some economists believe the reason job security in Britain has been undermined is due to the decline in trade union membership. “One of the big unspoken questions in the film is the need for unions,” Loach explains. “When Paul was researching the script he met with drivers like Ricky, but they were all very anxious about being seen talking to us.” With inequality on the rise, and more and more people being exploited in the workplace, the ingredients are all in place for a resurgence in the beliefs, policies and practices of trade unionism. So why are so few people signing up? “I think the main problem is people see a union as something you join as a consumer,” he suggests. “It's the wrong attitude. It's our collective strength, that's why you join a union. I hope the film can be used to show this.”
A large portion of the film is set in Ricky’s home, where the high-stress demands of his and Abby’s jobs begin to eat away at the supportive structure they’ve cultivated for their children. “People put on a brave face when they're at work,” Loach says, “but the tensions and the tiredness tend to come out at home and it's the family that pays.” This focus on family and the home resulted in a strikingly minimalist aesthetic, something Loach felt was important to get his message across. “The situation is so extreme, you just want the most economical way of portraying it. It's like cooking. Providing all your ingredients are perfect, the simpler you make it, the better it turns out.”
His style might seem unassuming, but Loach’s latest work is considerably more complex than it appears, continuing the director’s fascination with the politicised language used by the state to dehumanise those trapped within the system. It’s a subject he explored in I, Daniel Blake, in which the title character finds himself caught in a Kafkaesque struggle with a mysterious and never-glimpsed “Decision Maker”. Ricky first encounters this style of obfuscating language when he discovers he isn’t being ‘hired’ by PDF (Parcels Delivered Fast), but ‘onboarded’. “There’s no clocking-on,” he’s told by the boss. “You become available.”
“It's all management jargon,” Loach laments. “If I hear one more person say ‘going forward’ I might just strangle them!” He’s joking, but it’s clear there’s something in the way words are carefully chosen to confuse and conceal that infuriates him. “It's basically propaganda. It’s manipulative language used to make you agree to something. For example, when someone is sacked we talk about ‘letting them go’… as if you're keeping them against their will! It's fraudulent language.”
The digital revolution is another important factor in the film. Technology was meant to free us from work, but instead of experiencing a ‘technology dividend’, in which workers can luxuriate in the free time created by automation, the reality is increased expectations surrounding efficiency. It’s a subject Loach cares passionately about, even if he seems proudly – even defiantly – happy to admit that it’s a topic he’s not particularly familiar with. “It fascinates me, but from a position of total ignorance. I'm from the wrong generation. I can barely turn my phone on let alone anything else,” he confesses, before returning to the film. “Ricky’s sold this idea of being his own boss, of being free, but nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a slave to the technology in his cab.”
Ricky realises this pretty quickly when he’s handed his scanner, a small handheld device that not only tracks every package he delivers, but his every move. In the end, the only tool Ricky is given that helps make his job any easier is an empty plastic bottle so he can go to the toilet in between drop-offs. “Maybe it’s because I'm old, but to me it seems much healthier to engage with people face to face, not via a screen. It’s so disconnected, but it makes it easier for these companies to be inhumane towards their workforce and control them. There's no need for a boss to come and shout at you, they just tap a message on a screen. But it’s not the technology that’s to blame; tech is neutral. It's about who owns it and whose benefit it is used for.”
Sorry We Missed You is Loach’s second film after a short-lived retirement following the release of Jimmy’s Hall in 2014. “Filming is a long commitment, you're away from home for maybe six to nine months,” he explains, when asked why he wanted to move away from narrative fiction. “When you get older you have grandchildren and family to visit, and let's be honest, you're never entirely sure how far the future will extend.” It might sound like he’s finally winding down after a career that’s spanned five decades, but a third film in what could become a 'trilogy of austerity' might not be off the cards. “I guess it’s possible,” he says. “I keep returning to fiction because.... well, I just want to see if I can still get around the course!”
Sorry We Missed You is released 1 Nov by Entertainment One