Many of those impoverished workers were legally self-employed on insecure contracts where they bore all the risks traditionally shouldered by employers. They alighted on delivery drivers, Loach says, as a particularly obvious case of exploitation. “A driver has to get his own van, then has a massive repayment on it so he has to keep working. He has to get into debt to get the job. On the job, he has to spend money.” They are obvious in another sense, too. Online shopping has made their air-clogging vans ubiquitous.
Laverty began searching out drivers, asking if he could ride with them on rounds. It required some nimble footwork to slip below the companies’ radar, even to make contact with groups of drivers in the first place because, as independent contractors, they are pitched in competition against each other. “But we went to car parks and spoke to drivers before and after their shifts.” On rounds, he would wait around the corner and jump into an agreeable driver’s van as it went past.
What film is uniquely able to do, he says, is convey the felt experience behind statistics and description. “Film can be very intimate. If you spend time with them, you see them running around handing over the parcels, the monitor bleeping, you see they don’t eat during the day, you see them drinking energy drinks, you see what time they’re getting back home to see their kids, you see the pressures on them.” He heard stories of a driver who died of a diabetic fit because he couldn’t go to his hospital appointments, of another driver working with his leg in plaster. “And we did the same thing with the carers: listened to their stories. You get a sense of how it works. One girl handed over her phone. There were 36 texts there demanding she come in on her day off. If I’d had that in the screenplay, you just wouldn’t have believed it.”
Ricky is played by Kris Hitchen, who started as an actor but has spent most of the past two decades working as an independent plumber. Debbie Honeywood, who plays Abbie, has been a teaching assistant in some of Newcastle’s toughest schools. Loach says they met about 200 people up to eight times over a couple of months, working with each one on improvisations for each role. “Choosing the cast is the second biggest decision after deciding what the film is,” he says. “We just look for people you can believe in, who will bring the story to life: a driver who looks like a driver and a care worker who looks like a care worker. A film camera can see the pores of your skin, can see a working-class diet in your skin, so this is really important.”
A film camera can see the pores of your skin, can see a working-class diet in your skin, so this is really important.
Laverty says Loach, with his softly spoken gentlemanly manner, gives inexperienced actors the confidence to bring themselves to their roles. “You listen to Debbie’s stories about what goes on in schools, with teenagers who are really on the margins, and you realise she’s a very empathetic person in real life. She’s no pushover, but there’s an incredible generosity in her and I think you can sense that.” She feels like a real mother – a guilty, frustrated mother – to increasingly sulky teenager Seb (Rhys Stone) and peppy 11-year-old Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor) who, seeing her beloved parents crumbling under the weight of work, comes up with a harebrained scheme to make their lives good again.
Because – and this is crucial to the easy fluidity of a film that could easily have been unwatchably harrowing – the Turners are a happy family. There is no drinking, no violence, not even any real discord until Seb starts missing school and accusing his father of being a failure. If the parents earned enough to pay the bills and got home before 9pm, Laverty says, they would have no significant problems. “We didn’t want to provide any excuses,” Loach says. “We didn’t want you to be able to say ‘well, clearly they’re going to fail because he drinks too much’. But they’re not saints by any means. They lose their tempers, blame each other. But they do their best – and most people you meet do their best.”
Loach remains a staunch socialist believer in a planned economy and nationalised public services. Trying to regulate the gig economy won’t work, he says. “Putting in regulations – the social democratic way, where you reform the rules to make them conform – in fact never works, because capitalism is like water running downhill. If it finds an obstacle, it will find a way round it. It has to change in its essence.” Films won’t change the system. He knows that. “But I do think writers – you and us – can contribute to a change to support for the opposition. You know, you can encourage those who are saying ‘this is intolerable’. So that is a contribution.” The time may not be ripe, but it will come. It must come. “The greatest enemy is cynicism. To say ‘politics doesn’t work, get drunk and don’t care’. That is the danger. Because the moment you’re cynical, they have you beaten.”