The feral nature of employment in post-industrial Britain is laid bare in Ken Loach’s 27th film, ‘Sorry We Missed You’, currently touring in the Screen Machine.
A harrowing portrait of a working-class family in crisis, this is a solid entry in the Loach canon, now into its seventh decade of bearing witness to the social damage inflicted by free market dogma, to the little guy versus the state. No film-maker has documented UK society as forensically as Ken Loach. The desperation that comes from poverty, the bad choices that often seem like the only choices available, are his stock-in-trade. ‘Sorry We Missed You’ is another compelling exemplar of what the man is all about.
Married parents Ricky and Abbie did all the right things. They followed the rules and worked hard and were on the brink of becoming homeowners when the Northern Rock building society collapsed, taking their dreams with it. Now mired in debt, they are shunted from one shabby rental to another along with surly son Seb and smart daughter Liza Jane.
Ricky’s skills are no longer in demand. Even though he is a “grafter” who has done every job under the sun, proper jobs – with set hours, agreeable conditions, and a decent wage – are like hen’s teeth. So he takes a punt, persuades his wife to sell her car, and buys a nearly-new van.
The outfit that takes him on, Parcels Delivered Fast, is a product of the gig economy, and has the touchy-feely jargon to sell its message. Ricky doesn’t work for PDF, he works with them. He doesn’t get a wage – he charges fees. He is a self-employed knight of the road, free to make as much money as his speed around Newcastle will allow.
The illusion is soon shattered. His boss at the depot is a bullet-headed bruiser with all the empathy of a shark. That’s because he himself is trapped in jungle of competition with other depots. He may be an apex predator, but he’s only a substandard quarter away from losing his crown.
The gig economy is sold with promises of self-empowerment and personal agency; the reality for Ricky is 14-hour days, a black box all-seeing eye that has timings down to the second, and financial penalties if a shift is missed – for whatever reason, whether family emergency or personal injury. The god of just-in-time delivery doesn’t care about any of that. Neither does Ricky’s boss, the self-appointed “patron saint of nasty bastards.”
There isn’t even enough time to go to the toilet. On his first day with PDF, Ricky is handed an empty plastic bottle by a co-worker. For male drivers in a hurry, it is an essential piece of equipment.
Ricky’s machine-tooled existence is mirrored by his wife’s. She is a care worker on a zero-hours contract who has only minutes to attend to the basic needs of her elderly charges. One of them, Rosie, used to cook for striking miners in the 1980s. When Abbie tells her that her own working day is from 7.30am to 9pm, Rosie counters with: “What happened to the eight-hour day?”
It is a pivotal scene. Losing what we once took for granted has been a Loach motif for decades. ‘Sorry We Missed You’ is another powerful chapter in his social history of post-war Britain.
Article by Michael Russell