Scotland on Screen: Paul Laverty on The Old Oak

Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty talks to us about The Old Oak, his latest – and probably last – feature film with Ken Loach

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 28 Sep 2023
  • The Old Oak

One of cinema’s most successful partnerships has reportedly come to a close. It’s been widely suggested The Old Oak is the final film from Ken Loach, and thus his last collaboration with long-time writing partner Paul Laverty. We’ve heard that old chestnut before, though. Rumours of Loach’s retirement have been rife for years, but the 87-year-old firebrand’s passion for cinema continues to burn bright. In fact, I’d argue it’s been burning white hot in his supposed dotage.

In 2016 he made I, Daniel Blake, a knockout drama about an ailing joiner wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK welfare system, and it was his best film in years, winning Loach a second Palme d’Or at Cannes. Sorry We Missed You, about a couple trapped in precarious zero-hour contract work, was similarly blistering. Both were set in the northeast of England and fizz with anger at the state of breadline Britain after years of Tory rule.

That would have been a powerful one-two punch to bow out on, but when we catch up with Paul Laverty, speaking to us over Zoom from his home in Edinburgh, he explains they had more to say. “Ken and myself and [producer] Rebecca [O'Brien], we sat down and we felt there was unfinished business after the last two films.” How so? “Well, they're both quite tragic in how they ended. Now of course you have to be truthful to the characters and premise, but we just felt we had to dig in to see how these human tragedies come about. So I went back to the villages around Newcastle and Durham.”

This has been Laverty’s technique since 1996’s Carla's Song, his first film with Loach. On-the-ground research is key; ​​authenticity is everything. One of the people he met was a retired nurse from Easington, who was working on the day that 187 miners were killed during a major collapse at the local colliery in 1951. “I met her in her little street, she was in her 90s, and she was amazing,” recalls Laverty. “Her house was fantastic, modest, beautifully cared for; she had a great poise about her. But many of the people out in the street around her, some of the new people who had just moved into town, they were lost souls.”

After a bit of digging, Laverty discovered houses in that street had been selling for four-figure sums to mysterious online buyers. “What was happening, I discovered, was that local authorities from down south were sending up problem families,” says Laverty. “So the people who live there in that street, felt they were a dumping ground.” While he was conducting these interviews in 2016, the Syrian refugee crisis was very much on his mind. The Old Oak shows what happens when this crisis is added into the mix.

“We're not trying to balance out and say one trauma is the same as the other," says Laverty. "What the Syrians went through is of its nature, just unbelievable. What I was interested in was seeing what happened within this village. How do people lose hope? And then how do they actually turn on each other? How does that happen?” This is where Laverty’s skill for dialogue and drama comes in. “You can't copy a screenplay from the street, you know,” he laughs. ”Even Bertolt Brecht said, if there's no fun, there's no show.”

The Old Oak revolves around a local pub, in an unnamed County Durham village that’s seen better days. The pub has too. It’s frequented by middle-aged men – most of them sons of miners – who’ve long forgotten the solidarity of the miners' strike. They’re bitter about being stuck in a dead-end town and angry when they see Syrian refugees housed in their community. The pub’s landlord, TJ (Dave Turner), isn’t quite as embittered and strikes up a friendship with young photographer Yara (Ebla Mari), one of the refugees, who has an idea to bring the community together.

The Old Oak is of a piece with I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You – “I hope, in time, people will come to see the three films as a trilogy,” says Laverty – but what sets it apart is a hopeful ending that unashamedly pulls at the heartstrings. “Some people see hope as a kind of empty, punch-in-the-air slogan, but it's the opposite,” says Laverty. “Hope is actually massively political, because when people give up hope, they become nihilists – they do nothing. And then they get angry and they become isolated. Hope, on the other hand, is intelligence, it's imagination, it's empathy. It's a massively creative part of us. So we really wanted to tap into that.”

As for those rumours that this is Loach’s last film, it looks, sadly, like they might be true. “I don't think he’ll do another one,” says Laverty. “I mean, he's still massively active. I can see him doing documentaries. But the physical effort of making a feature film – it would be unfair of me to ask him to do another. I’ve already dragged him into his mid-80s to do these last three features, so he’s already slagged me off for roping him into those. He’s just turned 87, he has a remarkable energy, but I think Ken deserves a moment to rest.”

The Old Oak is in cinemas from 29 Sep via StudioCanal

Paul Laverty filmography: Carla's Song (1996), My Name is Joe (1998), Bread and Roses (2000), Sweet Sixteen (2002), Ae Fond Kiss... (2004), Tickets (2005), Cargo (2006), The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), It's a Free World... (2007), Looking for Eric (2009), Route Irish (2010), Even the Rain (2010), The Angels' Share (2012), Jimmy's Hall (2014), I, Daniel Blake (2016), The Olive Tree (2016), Yuli: The Carlos Acosta Story (2018), Sorry We Missed You (2019), The Old Oak (2023)