Whenever Ken Loach is mentioned, thoughts invariably turn to class struggle, social inequity and kitchen-sink dramas. The director began to build his reputation as a socialist and social commentator more than 40 years ago when he made the BBC docudrama Cathy Come Home, which ignited a debate in the UK about homelessness and housing laws. His films have tackled tough social issues, whether it be the education system, employment law, or cross-cultural romances. He has also focused on events such as the 1984 British miners strike, wars in Nicaragua and Ireland, and the privatisation of British Rail. It's something of a surprise, therefore, to find myself talking to Loach about football and his new light-hearted comedy, Looking for Eric.
The Eric in the title is both a reference to the former Manchester United footballer Eric Cantona and the main character in the movie, Eric Bishop, played by Steve Evets. Bishop, a postman, is a single grandfather facing up to the prospect of living out the rest of his life raising a ragtag collection of children and stepchildren in a cramped house in Manchester. The only pleasure he gets out of life is watching the football team he supports, Manchester United, whose current windfall of titles and European Cups was kick-started by the arrival of the charismatic Cantona. It's no surprise, then, that the French footballer and occasional poet holds a special place in Bishop's heart. When Bishop feels particularly down, he pours his heart out to a poster of the former footballer. One day, Cantona appears in his room in person and starts giving Bishop tips on how to rebuild his life.
The 72-year-old director admits that he's always been a fan of the footballer: "Everyone, especially if you lived in England, knew him as a player. His playing was brilliant. He had a spontaneity and wit that was unique to him. So, yes, I liked him just like everyone else." The aura around Cantona is such that Loach and his team tried to play down his involvement during the shooting of the project. The fact that he was playing himself in the film was kept secret from the other actors until the day he first appeared on the set. Evets admitted he was in a state of shock when he realised that Cantona was going to star alongside him. This secrecy is typical of Loach. The director is unusual in that he likes to shoot his stories in the order that scenes will appear on screen, a technique frowned upon by producers as it makes films more expensive. Often, he gives the actors the shooting script the day before they are due to perform. It's an indulgent process, but one that suits Loach, who is far more playful and humorous in person than one would suspect from watching his hard-hitting films.
It was probably the serious side to Loach that Cantona was looking for when he approached the director about making the film. Loach recounts: "Eric said that he wanted to work with me on a film. He was particularly interested in making a film about his relationship with the fans and there was one particular fan that he thought it might be interesting to base the script on. However, when the screenwriter, Paul Laverty, came to write the script, he couldn't make it work with that person in mind. So Paul wrote another character, a fictional one, Eric Bishop, and we were all happy to go in this direction."
Laverty has become Loach's right-hand man since they first worked together in 1996 on Carla's Song, about a Glaswegian bus driver's friendship with a Nicaraguan exile and their journey to South America. Since then Laverty has written numerous films for Loach: My Name Is Joe (1988), Bread and Roses (2000), Sweet Sixteen (2002), Ae Fond Kiss (2004), The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and It's a Free World (2007).
Given their long and fruitful associations, it's hardly surprising that Loach speaks so highly of Laverty. "I guess we share the same sense of humour and see the world in the same way," says Loach. "We both follow football. He's a Celtic supporter, but other than that we tend to agree about things. Added to which - and I don't want to say this too loudly as he may go somewhere else - he is a phenomenal writer, so full of ideas."
On the pitch, Cantona was an alpha male, the first among equals. He arrived in England with the reputation of a maverick. He had a rebellious nature, was easily annoyed and often fell out with managers. It was the hard-nosed Howard Wilkinson at Leeds who signed him, and when the Frenchman helped Leeds beat Manchester to the title in his first year at Elland Road, United signed him up. The media loved Cantona, a showman and artist on the pitch who at any moment could go off the rails. The abiding memory that most people have of the player is not the goals or the passes, it's his press conference after being banned for nine months for assaulting a fan during a match.
His only comment to the assembled journalists was: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." Loach talks of this moment, which features in the film, like it was an act of genius: "He had been banned for nine months because a spectator was racially abusive and said something very racist to him, and Eric, in the heat of the moment, launched a kung-fu attack on this fan. Then he had to do a press conference and because the journalists were always making fun of him, he got his revenge by saying something they wouldn't understand and they would have to puzzle over."
Cantona took advantage of those nine months out of football to make his first foray on to the big screen, appearing as a rugby player in 1995's Le bonheur est dans le pré. Cantona, now 43, is happy with how his acting career has turned out. "It's important to start small, because at the beginning you are not the best, and it was a new experience. For me it was a bit different, because I came from a different job, and people are not ready to accept that you can do something else, and at the same time they expect a lot. It was a nice experience, but I knew before that the first five years would be difficult. I just wanted to have an opportunity to do it, and it's true now people are ready to accept me doing something else and I can enjoy it. People also seem to enjoy me on screen, which is good."
The turning point for Cantona came when he put on a fat suit and played a traumatised obese policeman who falls in love with a murder suspect in Thierry Binisti's L'outremangeur (The Overeater). The funny thing is that in his native France, Cantona is now more loved as an actor than he ever was as a footballer. For many he was not forgiven for his part in the failure of France to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the US. At Cannes this year, he was cheered on the red carpet, an event he likened to being in the tunnel before a big game. Looking for Eric received a rapturous reception, most notably at the press screening, where the audience cheered the end credits like a football crowd.
Cantona says of the career change: "I had a dream. My first dream was to become a football player and I realised it, and the second was to become an actor. I'm a lucky man." His biggest stroke of luck was in convincing Loach to work with him. He says that other than the seagull quote, his favourite aphorism is: "If you have a dream, try to have a bigger dream and meet it." He then adds: "Our dream was to work with Ken and Paul, and our dream came true."
For his part, Loach thinks it laughable that people are surprised he's made such a light-hearted film. After all, he says: "For most of the time, and during a lot of a day, one feels quite light-hearted. You don't go around every day acting like King Lear." Thankfully, some things never change and Loach weaves an anti-gun subplot involving Bishop's stepson into the story. The proliferation of guns in Manchester was one of the big news stories during the time that Cantona played for Manchester United, and it's through Bishop's reaction to discovering that there is a gun in his house that we can see how he has heeded his idol's advice.
The director even thinks that football can be used as a philosophy for life. "I think there are some good things about it, such as the whole business of the collective effort in the team," he says. "The problem is that all the things about football are so cliché now. I think what Cantona says about the pass being more important that the goal is good, because the goals are about the individual brilliance but the pass is to a colleague."
Warming to the theme, he adds: "I think we are part of a collective. We are stronger when we stop competing with each other and start working together. It's an idea that Margaret Thatcher tried to destroy when she put forward the philosophy that we're all individuals and we have to do deals with each other, that we're in a state of permanent antagonism. I think that people are getting fed up with this idea. We have to do things differently with solidarity."
Rumour has it that Loach is about to make a film about the Iraq war, although he refuses to confirm or deny this, saying only that it's a possibility. He recently made headlines after he wrote a letter to the Edinburgh Film Festival rebuking it for accepting cash from the Israeli embassy to support the attendance of an Israeli filmmaker. Such is his status in Britain that the festival returned the money. The funny thing is that when Loach talks politics, he gets serious, but as soon as he talks football, his tone quickly changes. When he discovers I'm a Fulham fan, a team he used to watch when he lived in London in the 1960s and 1970s, he's full of questions about the current side. In this moment, it's abundantly clear why when Loach made a movie about football, he couldn't help but make it light-hearted and joyous.