From creating the striking on-screen persona of the young, mischievous Billy Casper in Kes, to casting a surprisingly philosophical Eric Cantona in Looking For Eric
, Ken Loach has always highlighted nuances of the human condition that we so often fail to notice. His films have not only won critical acclaim (The Wind That Shakes The Barley
set in 1920s civil war-torn Ireland took the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival), but have helped bring attention to some uncomfortable subject matters as well as often highlighting abrasive personal relationships.
During the past decade Loach has built up a solid relationship with Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty and their new film, The Angels’ Share
, focuses on the personal journey of discovery into single malt whisky from the perspective of a young Glaswegian delinquent, Robbie, an ex-offender and new father. What starts out as an unlikely encounter soon develops into a wonderfully funny, heart warming tale of hope and a route to a new life, away from the troubles encountered on some of Glasgow’s most disaffected council estates. As well as featuring brilliant performances from a virtually unknown cast of actors, it also showcases Whisky Magazine
’s very own Charlie MacLean as the out-going Scotch whisky expert, Rory McAllister.
As I sit down with Ken Loach on the eve of the film’s first preview screenings, I’m keen to find out where the initial idea to feature whisky as the central plot vehicle came from. “Well Paul and I were endlessly nattering about the way of the world and the starting point was the massive alienation that you find among young Scottish people,” he explains. “Where they’re often victims of a system that gives them nothing. We spent some time with them and were really struck by their wild senses of humour, how inventive they were and how they don’t fit the stereotype of what you’d imagine. From that, we started to think of a story that would really reflect this and give people a positive view of those who are often disregarded.” He continues: “Paul had the idea of marrying that with the ‘national industry’ and the arcane and extravagant language that whisky lovers use. To tell you the truth, Paul has much more of a taste for whisky than me!”
So did you have any previous knowledge of whisky and its rich history?
“Not a lot, but I do enjoy nosing it a lot and discovering the different aromas,” he points out. “Paul was struck more and more by the phrase the ‘Angels’ Share’ – it says a lot about the whisky and the kids in the story and it’s great to sit the two things side-by-side; these kids from Glasgow, with their arses hanging out of their trousers metaphorically and the rarified world of fine malt whisky. It seemed that we could have a lot of fun with the two.”
Does the film draw parallels to any of the other films you’ve worked with; perhaps Kes
and the alienation encountered by the young Billy Casper?
“In a way you could say that,” points out Ken. “The common denominator with a lot of the films I’ve made is that people have extraordinary abilities that the world doesn’t recognise: talent, complexities and possibilities that the economic system and society doesn’t take account of. The stereotypical view of these kids is that they’re worthless and yet, get to know them and they’re funny and rounded and caring.”
"Charlie really took the scene by the scruff of the neck and did it. I didn’t tell him it was meant to be difficult, so I think he thought it was a piece of cake"
So do you think that whisky making could have a wider connection with younger people, like it does with Robbie (the lead character in The Angels’ Share
), especially as the inner city estates of Glasgow are so different to the idyllic countryside locations of where most distilleries lie?
“Appreciating whisky is about taking great care and enjoying it. It’s the opposite of just getting wasted. So, like anything, it’s about catching the imagination of younger people. It has the added bonus of requiring the drinker to keep focused to discover what they really like.”
We discuss the remarkable longevity and job security often experienced at many of Scotland’s well-known distilleries and the fact that the whisky business is one of the only industries where people have remained with the same employer for decades, helping to maintain the sense of local community in rural Scotland.
Did the director find this aspect a huge source of inspiration for the film?
“Yes, we went to a number of distilleries when we were filming (a lot of the footage was shot at Balblair) and without exception, they were all delightful people and I think that comes from a sense of security and pride in what they’re doing,” he explains. “People are defined by their work, an electrician, a writer; we’re all defined by our trade. So to have a craft that is respected and secure is exactly what people who are unemployed need. The kids portrayed in the film have no chance of real work; if they do get work, it’s casual or temporary and that’s no basis to build a life or a family around.
“Underneath the film there’s quite a revolutionary message.”The Angels’ Share
features a superb performance from John Henshaw as a fatherly community service supervisor (Loach worked with him previously in Looking For Eric
) who helps plant the seed of appreciation for malt whisky. I ask Ken what it was like working with such a varied, yet hugely talented cast.
“It’s tough, as it’s such a whimsical business, but Paul Brannigan, (who plays Robbie) has certainly got the ability and he’s gone onto make a couple of films after this, so he’s got a great chance of making it. Also William (who plays Rhino, one of Robbie’s friends) has done four films with me.”
And Charlie MacLean?
Ken chuckles: “He’s a terrific guy! What a performer. Charlie really took the scene by the scruff of the neck and did it. I didn’t tell him it was meant to be difficult, so I think he thought it was a piece of cake. Even though a lot of the film might seem improvised and spontaneous, it is tightly scripted by Paul, and Charlie certainly embroidered around it, which is his speciality!”
I have to ask the rather clichéd question about his career and whether he would agree that like a great whisky, his cinematic work is maturing perfectly with age.
“Ha!” he laughs. “I really don’t know. But sometimes the phrase ‘sell by date’ certainly comes to mind! I just keep pedalling away.”
So what do you hope the film will achieve?
“At the end of the day, I hope it will achieve a really good hour and a half spent in the cinema”, he says. “It will make you smile and hopefully you’ll come out with a warmer view about people you’re accustomed to seeing being presented as of no value. Maybe you’ll even enjoy a lovely malt whisky too.”