P.s. I love you: The Spirit of 45 review
“When they announced the White Paper on the radio Grandad threw my brother in the air in joy. He would be going to school!”
My dad, born a year or so after the Atlee government was elected, often shares this anecdote with me. For his generation the Welfare State was a new and exciting thing that paved the way for many opportunities. For my Grandad’s generation it was so much more: it was the possibility that their children would never see poverty and destruction like they had. I often share this story with students when we read An Inspector Calls, J.B. Priestly’s 1946 theatrical masterpiece. There was a time when there was no health care, no assurance of schooling. If you were poor you lived in slums (real slums) and nothing was cradle to the grave. Ken Loach’s documentary explores the many personal stories, much like my grandad’s, available. It must reach audiences of my age and younger if it is to complete its necessary task: to galvanize millions to fight to keep it.
The Spirit of 45 is a love letter to the 1945 establishment of the Welfare State. It very much uses an oral history model of piecing together the development of the Bill politically, but also just how necessary it was. Starting in the 1930’s and ending up in the late 1980’s, Loach takes on the gargantuan task of telling the story of how it started to how it began to be finished off.
The director carefully illustrates just how poor the 1930’s were through pictures, footage and interviews with those who remember it. Descriptions of sleeping in beds that were “crawling” with vermin in the Liverpool slums remind members of the audience who have never known anything but the Welfare State, just how destitute it was. Loach clearly wanted to demonstrate the importance of the experience for those who had lived through such poverty, the second world war and then the establishment of the Welfare State. He does this successfully, and the recounts are genuinly moving. The descriptions of Welsh miners crying after the election of Atlee’s Labour government and young doctors informing patients that they will be seen are real tear-jerking memoirs. They ring true of the experience many lived through that period. For those of us who have grown up with free health care and education it is almost unthinkable that a doctor would ever turn a patient away, which I think was Loach’s main point.
There is no doubt that Loach is a great filmmaker, but in this case he slightly misses the mark in terms of narrative. The focus on the transition from no Welfare State to full Welfare State is a fair choice, but the story suddenly skips from 1951 to 1979, with the election of Thatcher. Indeed Thatcher hated the Welfare State, but major neo-liberal shifts in world economic view from the 1950’s onwards also had some part to play in the gradual dismantling of all that was glorious about the Welfare State ideal. The decision to incorporate so much history leaves Loach open to great criticism. When discussing the Welfare State in its early days (late 1940’s) how can he have forgotten to include the immigrant voice? Furthermore, his interviews with female workers at the time barely exceed nurses. He takes on a massive expanse of history with a slightly clunky narrative structure. Perhaps if he had focused on 1945-1951 he would have had a better second half to his movie, allowing more stories from more participants to come through.
Some of the criticism suggest that in The Spirit of 45 Loach is presenting a rather long party political broadcast for a Labour Party long gone, but this is unfair. What Atlee’s Labour government did was to make the lives of millions of people better, and establish a system that many felt was based on common good. Indeed it lacked democratic control, indeed it was founded by the Labour Party and it was part of wider concessions across Europe post-war. However, to those that have lived through the poverty of the 1930’s, the fact that it was set up at all was the glorious thing. Other critics have suggested it is too nostalgic, but of course it is a history documentary, using the tradition of oral history, talking to those that saw it happen. Who wouldn’t be nostalgic for a period of British history that saw such change?
The timing for its release couldn’t be better. Within days of its release, hundreds have signed up to Loach’s call for a new party, which could be a very exciting turn in Left wing politics. The only real concern about the film should be whether or not it reaches a far enough audience.