Programme Notes: Sorry We Missed You


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Ken Loach has been a thorn in the side of unjust institutions since the start of his career. He’s tackled capital punishment (Three Clear Sundays, 1965), anti-abortion laws (Up the Junction, 1965) and the UK benefits system (Raining Stones, 1993; I, Daniel Blake, 2016). He’s made contentious films in support of the miners' strike (Which Side Are You On?, 1985), about The Troubles in Northern Ireland (Time, 1989; Hidden Agenda, 1990) and the collateral damage at home caused by the Iraq War (Route Irish, 2010).

His rabble-rousing has seen several of his films shelved. When charity Save the Children asked Loach to make a documentary in celebration of their 50th anniversary, they were so appalled by the director's take on charity in a capitalist society that they asked for the negatives to be destroyed[1]. The right-wing press have been heavily critical of his work. His historical epic The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), about the violent birth of the Irish Republic in the 1920s, was particularly despised. Writing in The Telegraph, Simon Heffer’s response was to call the film ‘poisonous’ and Loach a ‘bigoted Marxist’ before admitting he hadn’t even seen it[2]

In the face of a hostile media at home, Loach has emerged as the UK’s most celebrated filmmaker abroad. No director has been invited to compete at the Cannes Film Festival competition more often (14 times), and he’s among a handful of filmmakers to have won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, on two occasions, for The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake. Despite his success, Loach’s cinema has always stayed close to the ground; the real-life concerns of ordinary people are his chief subject.

His most recent Palme d’Or-winner followed a middle-aged carpenter from Newcastle who is wrongly declared fit for work by the UK benefits system and Loach’s latest film, Sorry We Missed You, is very much a companion piece. Trevor Johnston notes in Sight & Sound that where the earlier film was a story of ‘the deserving poor receiving appalling treatment from social services,’ Sorry We Missed You is the other side of the coin, concerning ‘ordinary people trying to better themselves through work’[3]. Also set in Newcastle, it centres on a couple, Abby (Debbie Honeywood) and Ricky (Kris Hitchen), who are workers in the gig economy. ‘We’ve been aware of the way working conditions have been changing for a while,’ Loach said. ‘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.’[4]

Abby is a carer for elderly clients, whom she both wakes up and puts to bed on her 14-hour shifts. Ricky, meanwhile, has just been brought on as a driver for a parcel delivery firm that looks to offer prosperity, but is not all it seems. Rather than being hired, Ricky is ‘performing services’ as part of a franchise. He doesn’t clock on: his zero-hour contract means ‘he becomes available’. He doesn’t receive wages, only ‘fees’. As with I, Daniel Blake, Loach’s regular screenwriter, Paul Laverty, shows a talent for exploring the euphemistic language used by people in power to obfuscate the true nature of their draconian systems.

Like all Loach films, Sorry We Missed You has been forensically researched and is flecked with authentic details. Laverty spent months observing and interviewing delivery and care workers. Speaking of the former, Laverty has said: ‘Some of them are delivering 200 parcels a day. They’re exhausted. They don’t have enough time to eat. There are pictures of their children on the dashboard but they don’t get time to see them.’[5]

Loach’s search for authenticity extends to his shooting methods. Sorry We Missed You’s core cast is made up of both professional and non-professional actors, with real-life gig economy workers in supporting roles, and like all of Loach’s films, it was shot in chronological order. Rather than be given a full script to commit to memory, Loach drip-feeds lines to his actors, allowing performers to react to their characters’ plots and arcs, rather than act in the conventional sense. Trevor Griffiths, a former Loach collaborator, has said that ‘if Loach could make a film without a camera, he would. He just wants the actors to be themselves so that everything looks as though it has just happened.’[6]

When Loach’s alchemy of rigorous research, naturalistic filmmaking and heart-on-sleeve performances work, the results are raw and bone-shakingly powerful. One has to just think of his much-adored second feature-length film Kes (1969), which captures both the heart-soaring joys and heartbreaking hardships of a working-class youngster growing up in hardscrabble Yorkshire, or Cathy Come Home (1966), his landmark TV film that was shot to look like a documentary and directly led to the charity Crisis being established the following year. Only time will tell if I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You can have similar impacts. 

Jamie Dunn 
Film Editor, The Skinny
November 2019


[1] Stephen Bates, ‘Ken Loach documentary to get first screening after 40 years’, The Guardian, 20 Jul 2011

[2] Simon Heffer, ‘Bribe your own voters first, young George’, The Telegraph, 03 Jun 2006

[3] Trevor Johnston, ‘Sorry We Missed You review’, Sight & Sound, Nov 2019

[4] Patrick Gamble, ‘Ken Loach on gig economy drama Sorry We Missed You’, The Skinny, 15 Oct 2019

[5] Mark Aitken, ‘Paul Laverty interview’, The Sunday Post, 28 Oct, 2019

[6] Christine Aziz, ‘Shoulder to shoulder’, The Observer, 22 Mar 1987 via http://loach.online.fr/constructing-individuals.pdf


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