The Spirit of ’45 Review

After swanning out of the comforting beige and suede cocoon of Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema , tipsy on free red wine and schmoozing, I day-dreamed of what could be achieved collectively, on the walk back through an old industrial quarter.

Taking a short-cut through the back streets of one of Sheffield’s old manufacturing areas, now empty and silent, I wondered about how much could be achieved if these buildings were handed over to the enterprising and creative people of Sheffield. Even for only a few times a year – during Tramlines the Doc Fest and St Patrick’s Day maybe – this area could be transformed into a bustling independent quarter.

What had inspired this radical and dangerous thinking? Who else but Ken Loach! Returning from watching his new film, The Spirit of ’45, a celebration of collectivisation and old fashioned Socialism, I found myself invigorated.

After the film, always up for a freebie, I went upstairs to screen 5 where the new Sheffield Centre for Research in Film was launched, with free wine and a chance for a little schmooze. These events tend to put the champagne in socialism and the irony wasn’t lost on those schmoozing, many of whom had worked with Ken Loach as researchers, sifting through and selecting the archive footage that the film is based on.

The Centre has been set up as a joint venture between The University of Sheffield and the Showroom and seeks to “…connect the city’s academic and wider communities in analysis, investigation and debate on the relevance and fascination of the moving image”. They have a series of events planned in the run up to the Sheffield Documentary Festival so keep your eyes open for them if you’re in the South Yorkshire area.

Now, I digress…

The Spirit of ’45, Loach’s most comprehensive documentary of the British working class struggle to date, is a fierce and impassioned celebration of workers’ power and the possibility of collective organisation to ensure services are delivered for people and not profit.

Using interviews and archive footage – public information films, news bulletins, footage of election campaign speeches etc – Loach weaves together a narrative that explains how Britain utterly transformed itself after the Second World War.

De-mobbed troops returned home instilled with a feeling that they could achieve anything, so long as they did it together. Tony Benn, a young RAF pilot officer at the time, described the huddled political conversations of troops returning home, wondering what life would be like, determined it should be better than the squalor, slums and social divisions of the 1930s.

The film triumphantly portrays Clement Atlee’s landslide election victory in 1945; his victory speech in Westminster Hall was drowned out by cheering as he announced he intended to form Britain’s first socialist government. The achievements of that government are then listed: the nationalisation of the railways, electricity, gas, steel and the coal mines and, more significantly than all, the foundation of the NHS.

Old interviews with GPs describing the first time they could tell worried patients that treatment will now be free, are poignant reminders that free universal medical care has not always existed. Indeed Loach includes grainy footage of an interview with a debt collector, who used to stalk poor areas demanding payment plus interest for a doctor’s visit a week before.

These first-hand accounts of life before the safety net of the welfare state are interspersed with interviews with people today who could remember being young when the changes began to take force and the powerful impression it had on their parents.

Deborah Garvie, a present-day housing worker, shows us the letter that told her father he had been assigned a brand new council house in the new town of Stevenage. He kept it with him in his wallet for the rest of his life.

The housing programme initiated by Atlee’s government, along with the NHS, is probably the most long-lasting achievement of the spirit of 1945. Whole neighbourhoods were constructed on the edges of big cities to house people who had been bombed out or were living in incredibly cramped conditions in the central slums. Footage of the significant figure of Aneurin Bevan, in charge of the NHS and the housing programme, interspersed with clips of the new houses being built and the deprivation of the slums, really brings home the massive changes that took place.

Throughout the triumphant first two thirds of the film, the sounds of Jerusalem are heard in the background, the mystical William Blake poem that was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916. It seemed Jerusalem really was being built in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’.

However, a fade to black after footage of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and we’ve fast forwarded to 1979. Thatcher has just won the election after the fall of Callaghan’s government and she begins to roll back everything that had been achieved in the 40s and 50s.

This sudden jump of 28 years is supposed to drive home Loach’s message of how collective nationalisation was achieved and then sold off, but the failures of both left and right-wing governments in the intervening period, the reason for the rise of Thatcherism in other words, was not explained. Seeing as Loach is assuming people are familiar with 20th Century history it probably doesn’t matter so much, but the time jump did jar a little bit.

This part of the film is as morose as the first section was triumphant. Steel, coal, electricity and even water are sold off at a tiny cost to private companies and even some of the NHS is sold off to profit-making enterprise. There are interviews with left-wing economists who describe very eloquently about natural monopolies, something I found very interesting and I think is often under-reported in the media. Why are there 5 or 6 separate pieces of track for the different rail companies? Isn’t that a bit silly?

Loach ends the film with footage of protest movements like Occupy and Save the NHS, reminding us that there is still remnants of the spirit of ’45 that exist today, institutions that need defending from a ‘Thatcherite’ Tory administration.

I’m pretty sympathetic to the ethos of this film already. I believe in the re-nationalisation of the railways, feel angry about the miner’s strike despite not being alive and despise Thatcher and the effect her policies have had on UK politics. However, there were still parts of this film that taught me something new and made me feel that I wasn’t alone believing that collectively, people can pool their resources and use the small amount of money left to improve rather than cut.

The huge political divisions that exist in this country have come to the surface over the past few days following the death of Margaret Thatcher and this film has become that much more relevant for the reflectiveness it has sparked. If you can remember life under Thatcher, or have read about and heard from close family the huge upheavals under her premiership, then you can’t fail to have a strong opinion on her and her policies, one that would also colour your judgement of this film.

Ken Loach’s opinion on her is well documented, indeed his comments on Thatcher’s funeral have pretty much gone viral over Facebook and Twitter.

“Let’s privatise her funeral,” he suggested. “Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted.”

This film is for lefties and Loach fans but everyone else needs to see it too, if only to plant a seed of doubt in a Tory-voter’s head and to inform people who may not have realised, that there is a different way of running a country other than gambling on the free market and letting profiteers close nurseries.

Together we can achieve a lot. It’s a shame it took something as horrific as the Second World War to make people realise; we need more people like Ken Loach to help us realise our potential through films like this.

About The Author

Alex is a budding journalist, studying an MA in Web Journalism at the University of Sheffield after spending 5 years staggering through a BA in Journalism and Contemporary History in London. A Sheffield lad, Alex is enjoying living back in the north, even if he is secretly and surprisingly missing Babylon slightly. His only experience with critical film theory was a module in British Horror in 2nd year but his love and appreciation for film is huge, with tastes taking a jog from Groundhog Day to Herzog documentaries to Brazil and back, looping back across the patch of wasteland and into Ken Loach land.

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