Fifty-one years ago, film director and socialist idealist Ken Loach produced his hard-hitting indictment of the UK’s welfare system and its impact on young couples with children who fall upon hard times and are forced to seek help from local authorities. The play, Cathy Come Home, featured in the acclaimed BBC Wednesday Play series and caused a storm when first aired in 1966. Its themes of cold-hearted welfare assessors, homelessness, forced separation of husband and wife, and the ease with which Social Services could separate a mother from her children raised the nation’s consciousness and even caused debate in Parliament. The play added impetus to the newly set up housing and homelessness charity Shelter and helped create a further similar charity, Crisis, one year later and, some say, contributed to various subsequent Acts of Parliament dealing with homelessness and the obligations of local councils to house homeless people.
Fifty years later, at the age of 80, Loach has done it again. Set in Newcastle, his 2016 film, I, Daniel Blake, winner of the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, tells of a carpenter, 59-year-old Daniel Blake, who suffers a non-fatal heart attack at work and is signed off by his doctor to allow time for his heart to recover. Accordingly, Dan (played with gusto and to the hilt by the Geordie stand-up comedian Dave Johns) seeks temporary benefits under the government’s Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) scheme. The film starts with an unseen ‘healthcare professional’ conducting a telephone interview with Dan and asking a series of tick-the-box questions about his ability to perform certain physical actions such as walk 50 metres unassisted, raise his hand and touch his head, and control the evacuation of his bowels (to which he replies, “Forget about me arse. That works a dream!”). Based on his answers, he is deemed not eligible to receive ESA benefits. His points score, 12, was below the 15 required to qualify. When he visits his local Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) welfare office to challenge the ruling, he is told he can appeal to a decision maker but, in the meantime, it’s recommended he apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance to tide him over pending the result of the appeal. That’s when the nightmare starts. To qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance, he must be seen to be looking for a job but if he finds one (which he does), he can’t accept it (because of his health problem) and so will be temporarily sanctioned (officialese for either reduced benefit or no benefit) by DWP—a classic Catch-22 situation. He attends a mandatory ‘How to create a CV’ class plus he comes up against the dreaded phase—everything must be done online. Dan is computer illiterate—he’s ‘pencil by default’ not ‘digital by default’—and he seeks help filling out the forms using the public computers at his local library. The scene where he first learns about a computer mouse had me laughing out loud.
Along the way, Dan meets and befriends a single mother Katie (played by promising newcomer Hayley Squires) and her two small children who have been relocated from London to Newcastle to help relieve the pressure on housing requirements in London. Katie is also doing battle with the authorities with the threat of a sanction on her benefits because she arrived late for her DWP appointment. Pending a decision by another decision maker, Katie is left to fend for herself and slides gradually but inexorably into, first, registering for charity from a food bank, followed by minor shoplifting, and subsequently into less savoury activities in a desperate attempt to feed and clothe her children. The father-daughter relationship that develops between Dan and Katie is both touching and realistic but not unduly sentimental.
I urge you to watch this film if you’ve not already done so. The acting is superb, the frustration of both the claimants and some of the authorities is plain to see, and the message is clear: the benefits system has become overly complex and highly regimented. Almost unanimously, the critics have applauded the film first and foremost for its social content and also for its cinematic qualities such as acting, dialogue, camerawork, characterisation and ability to cause a laugh one minute and tears the next. Katie’s scene in the food bank is certainly heart-wrenching and has been widely praised but, for me, Dan’s continuous battle with a system that assumes everyone is computer literate and allows no ‘out-of-the-box’ situations is the most compelling feature of the film. Dave Johns, who plays Dan, has very little film acting experience (he’s more a stage actor and comedian, and comedic panellist on panel shows) but his performance is absolutely superb and his portrayal of Dan Blake earned him the 2016 British Independent Film Award for Best Actor.
There has been much discussion recently about the benefits system in the UK and how easy it is to abuse it. Many so-called physically-impaired people have been caught out and, right now, benefit cheats and immigrant ‘milkers’ have turned the spotlight on eligibility criteria and caused monetary caps to be set on the total amount that can be received by an individual. I, Daniel Blake highlights the rigidity of the system and assuming screenwriter Paul Laverty (a frequent Loach collaborator) and director Loach have done their homework, the message is clear and stark and just as powerful as Cathy Come Home, fifty-one years ago.
I, Daniel Blake is widely available as a DVD or via online streaming. Google ‘Where can I buy I, Daniel Blake?’ to check where best to buy or view in your locality. You might also want to watch Cathy Come Home before you watch I, Daniel Blake. The play is available on YouTube and elsewhere and has lost none of its impact.