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From the Archive: I, Daniel Blake

Nothing Concrete text
1 Dec 2020
18 min listen

This week, we step into the issues and drama of Ken Loach’s Palme D’or winning masterpiece 'I, Daniel Blake'.


The way Ken films is there's no vast crew in the room. Nobody's touching up your makeup before scenes, the cameras in the corner. He doesn't tell you what lenses on the camera. So there was times in the scenes when I forgot I was in a film.


Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast I’m Ben Eshmade and this week, we once again step into the issues and drama of Ken Loach’s Palme D’or winning masterpiece I, Daniel Blake. Back in 2016 this landmark film told the story of two individuals battling to feed themselves and their families in Newcastle.

‘You live the characters life so there is no where to hide. The thing you have to do in these scenes is you have to listen, you have to find the truth and you have to play the honesty and the truth, and that will look right on screen’. – Dave Johns

Most of us will have grown up seeing one or many more of Ken Loach’s dramas with perhaps his second film in 1969 Kes being the most famous. In Kes he explored shattered childhood dreams in Northern England…other major themes for his film and television career include exploring poverty (Poor Cow), homelessness (Cathy Come Home), and labour rights (in Riff-Raff and The Navigators). Back to the story and the modern issues the two main characters face. In the film Dave Johns plays Daniel and Hayley Squires plays Katie, two strangers who are suffering misfortune, when a chance meeting develops into friendship and they somehow help to keep each other afloat.

Excerpt from the film:

Job Centre Assistant: ‘You have to apply online sir…’

Dave Johns as Daniel: ‘Listen, here. You give me a plot of land and I can build you a house. But I’ve never been anywhere near a computer.’

Job Centre Assistant: ‘Do you know what, we’re digital by default.’

Dave Johns as Daniel: ‘Oh, we’re we gan. I hear this all the time on the telephone “we’re digital by default.” Well, I’m pencil by default.

BE: Comedian, writer, and actor Dave Johns spoke to me about the film, giving some fascinating insight into Ken Loach’s film making process… Dave Johns Interview

BE: How did you get the opportunity to play Daniel Blake?

DJ: Um, well, a lot of years ago, yeah, 2003. We did, did 12 Angry Men up at the Edinburgh Festival at the Assembly Rooms, which was a massive hit. And then we did the next year we did one for the Cuckoo's Nest and, and the odd couple with Alan Davis and Bill Bailey and so I've done a bit of stage acting, and then the producer of that texted me last year and said: 'Oh, Ken Loach is looking for somebody. Geordie, your age - for this film he's casting'. And I hadn't heard anything about it. He said 'you should send your stuff in'. So you know, I thought 'Oh, right.' And so I just texted Kayleen who was the casting director and said, 'Look, I'm a comic. Have a look at my website.' And so then, I didn't hear anything for two weeks and then they said, 'oh come and have a meeting with Ken.' Came in, chatted to Ken...he doesn't want to know anything about what you've done. He just wants to talk about you, talk about football.

Then I came in and did three castings, different improvisations with different actresses, and was offered the part...which blew me away, really because I was thinking, well, at least I'll get to do some improv with Ken Loach, that'll be great fun yeah. And that'll be a story in itself, you know, to meet him. And I got offered the part which was amazing. And I'm so honoured.

BE: How would you describe Daniel Blake?

DJ: Dan is an ordinary guy. He's 59 years of age, he's been looking after his wife, he's an old guy. And, you know, a joiner, worked all his life, you know, neighbours in the same place, you know, knows all his neighbours has a heart attack, you know, believes that "All right, well, I'll get sickness benefit until my doctor said I'm able to get out to work", then it's a system that isn't geared up to do that. It used to be called 'social security' now it's called 'benefits' and, and 'welfare'. I think that's, there's a reason behind that. Because 'benefits' and 'welfare' sound like a handout. 'Social Security' is what I used to know it by, when it was something that if you were ill, there'd be something there to help you. Security. And so he hits a system that isn't helpful, isn't geared up to help him. Meets a young single mum with her two kids that have been moved out of London to Newcastle, and they are having problems.

And they become friends and the both of them rely on each other to get through this nightmare system of how the benefits system has been set up, which is to brand everybody who was on welfare scroungers. What's great about Daniel and Katie in the film is I think more people buy into it is that you suddenly realise 'No, these are just ordinary people'. It's just ordinary working class people who are decent, who, you know, we've got away from seeing people who need help as ordinary people. It could be anybody, could be your neighbours, to these 'Benefit Street' and all that.

This is poverty porn, it makes people look like everybody's on the make and take and it's to turn people against, I think, to turn the working classes against each other, really. And it's about time when classes realise that, like, you know, everybody, we pay into this system. And if you don't need the system, and if you don't need to use it. That's fantastic. It means you're doing well. But isn't it great to pay into a system where you can be proud of the National Health Service and the welfare, your social security? So I think to me, it's a no brainer. I think that's what's the core issue in this film. And this is what gets people, they sit down they go: 'Oh my god, that could be anybody I know.' Rather than the scroungers that everybody's trying to make them out to be, you know.

Excerpt from the film:

Dave Johns as Daniel: I've been told by my doctor, I'm not supposed to go back to work yet. Desk attendant: Then you should apply for employment and support allowance.

Dave Johns as Daniel: I have. I've been knocked back by some quack. And now I'm trying to appeal.

Desk attendant: Okay, well, that's your choice, Mr. Blake.

Dave Johns as Daniel: No, it's not my choice.

BE: Ken's films cover a whole breadth of topics, trigger different emotions and different responses. When did you go from knowing you had the role, and it was this, you know, maybe a little sketch of the character to the sheer enormity, as you were sort of talking about there of what you had ahead of you?

DJ: Well, I mean, you know, the way Ken works, you don't get the script. So when I got on set, I only knew I was Daniel Blake. I'd been looking after my wife who had died. I'm a joiner. So each day, and the way Ken works is chronologically, so you live the character's life. So you know, the first day on set, I was a bit, being a stand-up comic, my first film, I was like, 'Oh, my God, what have I done?' But the way Ken works, and he's had a crew for years, and Paul Laverty script is brilliant. And the way it works as you know, Ken said to me, You know, there's no music in this film, Dave.

So the actors very exposed. It's a very stark film. It's very, it's very, so there's nowhere to hide. The thing you have to do in these scenes is you have to listen. You have to find the truth. And you have to play the honesty and the truth. And that will look right on screen’. And so for me that, I went 'yeah, can understand that.' So all I did during the scenes was, I played it. Honestly, I played it truthfully. I listened to what Katie was saying, I wasn't just going 'Oh, that's her line...'

BE: 'What am I saying next? Kind of...'

DJ: Yeah, it was it was I just listened. I reacted truthfully. And it came across and hopefully it's came across that way. Ken, the way Ken films is there's no vast crew in the room. Nobody's touching up your makeup before scenes, the cameras in the corner. He doesn't tell you what lenses on the camera. So there was times in the scenes when I forgot I was in a film. And I was just talking to the kids. I was talking to Katie, you know, and I think and because he puts it in real situations. It feels I think for the audience, like you've just come across this, like that scene in the opening scene in the job centre. When Katie comes in and there's an argument. You know, people said to me, it feels like you've just opened the door to go in yourself. And it's like: 'Oh, something's kicked off here!' You know what I mean? Because it feels so real.

And that's the way and that's because of the way Ken works. And he gets. And I think he's brilliant at casting. I think he saw something in me and Katie, me and Hayley, it was the chemistry. And maybe in Hayley felt that as well. We felt it was funny, when he offered Hayley the job. He said, ‘I want you to do it’. And she was great. And she said 'next question is, who got the part of Daniel?' and he said, 'Dave', and she said, 'Oh, brilliant!' That's what Dave said, when we told him you've got the bob. So while we should, there was some connection there, you know.

BE: He won't waste anything there. I mean, a good example of that is, you know, you know, we're talking about you going from being a comic to to an actor in this case, but the opening scenes in the job centre, that broke the ice as well, I think in everything.

DJ: I think that form, I mean, he got me to fill that form in. 52 pages of ridiculous questions, and I couldn't do it. You know, what people must feel like when they're trying to, you know, they're ill and the stress of being ill and the stress of trying to fill that form must do to them. I don't know. But that comes from... Paul's right...because Paul saw in the form, the comedy, for instance, you know, after 20 minutes of talking to me, because that's scene supposed to be that you've come in, and it's been going on for ages, and Dan's getting sick of it. And then she says to him: 'Do you have trouble with communicating with people?' And he says, 'Can you help? You're asking me that after all that?', so, you know, sort of the comedy in the form, you know what I mean? And he wrote that, and then me being a comic, I could see, you know, the emphasis in the way to play it is what I brought to it, you know?

Excerpt from the film

Hayley Squires as Katie: C'mon Daisy.

Briana Shann as Daisy: Yay.

Hayley Squires as Katie: Go round that way Dylan. Good boy. Dan this one's yours.

Dave Johns as Daniel: Not for me thanks.

Hayley Squires as Katie: That's yours, all right?

Dave Johns as Daniel: Well, where's yours? Hayley Squires as Katie: I had mine earlier. I'm just having a bit of fruit. Briana

Shann as Daisy: You said that yesterday. And the day before.

Hayley Squires as Katie: Alright, eat up then.

BE: Many beautiful moments. I was reading that you sort of did some workshops in regards to woodwork so that you could make the fish but I mean, the fish is just a, yeah, and the bookcase that you make for Katie, well, it breaks your heart really?

DJ: I know I mean, I mean, like you know I went for three days to this little place and learnt how they caught all their fish and when I caught me first fish. I was really proud when I took it in to Ken as if I'd done me homework, 'Look what I've done dad.' But yeah, but that's you know, that just brings it home. You know, Dan is an ordinary person, you know, and you know, people are going 'yeah, well Katie wasn't drinking Buckfast. And she wasn't smoking 40 cigarettes a day and she didn't have leggings on and she wasn't screaming, 'get that dog in, get that dog in!' And that's what they've been fed with things like Benefit Street. So everybody goes: 'everybody is like that.' And that ain't the case, that isn't the truth.

Most people who try for help with social security are ordinary people who have sickness or who have lost their job. You know, most people are three paychecks away from disaster anyway. And I think this film resets the balance and say 'no, it's not like that. It's ordinary people', and when people ask me that, ‘why wasn't Kate like that?’ I goes, because my sister's not like that. And my sister's a working class person, and she doesn't wear leggings and scream ‘get that dog in’ and drink buckfast and smoke 50 fags a day and have a burned out couch, you know, in the front of our house, you know, she's an ordinary person, like it, and I'm sure there's lots of people who it's about saying, this has been this is a myth. This has been purposely like, of course, there are. I mean, the type of people who it's something like 0.5% of people who fraudulently disclaim a bad benefit. And if you do fiddle the benefit system, then you should be punished for it.

But think of the masses of people who...big corporates, don't pay the right tax and don't you know, you know, Apple who have paid. What is it? Something like 50 pound for every million pound they earn in Ireland, and people who live in Ireland have to pay 50 euro, just to go and see the doctor, like you can't sit back and go... you see, but I don't think it's bashing the rich, because I think, I don't think that people who are well off, all think like that. They don't think that people are scumbags. And you know, most decent people who have made a good living for themself realise that you've got to help people, you know, what, what's happened is our governments that I think we've we vote in, have hitched their pony, to them to the market, to finance, this is the big thing.

We're all individuals, we all have to go our own way. And that's not the way and I think, you know, when we've shown this film in Europe, people have come up to me afterwards and said, this is happening in Spain, this is happening in Italy, this is happening in France. Working poor, people who are working, but they're on zero hours contracts. It's like those black and white films, you see where the guys used to stand at the gates and the guys to come and go, ‘you, you, you and you - and the rest can go home.’ You get three hours work, then it'd be... and it's because they don't, they don't want people to have job security, they want a workforce that's cheap, that they can get rid of whenever they don't need them. And that's because we've all bought into this. It's sad, rather just callous, it's a sad, crying shame that people have bought into this, you know.

Excerpt from the film:

Kate Rutter as Ann: Please, just keep signing on. Get somebody to help you with the online job searches. Otherwise, you could lose everything. Please don't do this. I've seen it before. Good people, honest people on the street.

Dave Johns as Daniel: Thank you Ann. But when you lose your self-respect, you're done for.

BE: I'm not sure if this is a weakness, or it's a strength. Daniel's a very proud man. On the film where he goes to visit his colleagues at work. And he won't take any help when he's got no benefits. Yeah...

DJ: 'I'm all right.' Well, I think that's the older generation. Um, you know, I think my dad was like that as well. It's like, you know, you look after your family and you don't want handouts, you want to be able to stand on your...most people want to be able to stand on their feet. Most people want to work. You know, there's a myth that people want to lie about watching telly all day. Because it's boring. Have you seen daytime telly? It would drive you insane.

You'd have to be a lunatic to want to sit and watch that all the time. So most people...but they want decent work, you know, and it's the same with Dan like, you know, he doesn't want to take help, because he's always been used to helping himself and helping others. And eventually, people gather around and go, look, you need help, you know, somebody said today they went, well, you know, all the people who are in this film are 'the noble poor', and you go 'what do you mean' and Hayley said, 'What do you mean by the noble poor? Poor is poor.’ There shouldn't be... people shouldn't be working and still have to go to food banks to eat. I mean, that is totally wrong. And food banks should be we shouldn't have them...

BE: No...

DJ: Dan, and even when he goes to the food bank with Katie, he takes her there but he doesn't get himself involved in the food bank, even though I suspect in the film that Dan hasn't eaten much either. But he stands and he looks and he thinks, and I think he can feel it. He's looking around going, 'what is this?' You know what I mean? 'I can't believe it.' They'll know about this, you know, I hadn't been to a food bank until we started the film. And it shocked me, you know, that scene. I mean, we didn't know what was happening till it happened. You know, it was only Hayley who knew what was going to happen and Ken and you know, and it's the most powerful scene now in the film, and we shouldn't be tolerating food banks. It shouldn't be necessary.

BE: What did you most admire about her? I mean, we've talked about how you work so well together and the film rests on both your shoulders, she must have impressed you?

DJ: I've acted a measure of times, on stage and plays. And I've also done the improv when I'm on stage with other people, you know, because I was a stand alone by myself. And the great thing about, especially when you're acting, there are actors who give, and Hayley gives. I remember doing the first cast with Hayley and I remember coming out and saying to my partner, 'God, this girl I did this scene with. I forgot I was auditioning, with Ken. Her eyes in, when she was saying things to me, I believed them.' And she started crying in the scene, and I was like, 'wow.'

And so I was, so I got a hankie out of my pocket, and I gave her the hankie, ‘don't, don't cry, I'm not trying to make you cry. I just want to know, what's going on with you and your boyfriend.’ And that's because she gave that 'thing.' And I think, you know, and I think it works two ways, I think, I think so then what happens is, I play it real, so she played it, so you know, it's that thing and that's that. And people have talked about the chemistry between the two. And I think that was real. And I think Ken saw that in the auditioning process. You know.

BE: It does seem that the country is in a raw place at the moment and a film like this is hopefully going to make an impact.

DJ: I, I, this has happened to me. Last week. They've been doing previews all around the country, you know, and I went into a shop where I live in Whitley Bay, and this woman, she was looking at me and she said, 'you're that bloke in that film, Daniel Blake, aren't you? And I went, 'yeah', and the film has been out yet. And I thought, Oh, she said 'we saw a preview, me and my husband went, we got tickets. My daughter got us tickets. She says, 'you know, we've had this business for years.' She says, 'I've haven't stopped thinking about it.' And she said...what it made us think is that, again, what I said before, oh my god, this this is happening to people who aren't skivers, aren't scroungers, ordinary people. And she said, 'I really didn't realise what it was like.' And she said to me, my husband were talking the other day. And I said to him, 'this makes me want to think where I'm going to put my X the next time I vote.' And I think what it's doing is it's hopefully redressing the balance that, you know, people are ordinary people who need help.

BE: Last question, erm, you're going to be known for me at least, and a lot of other people as Daniel Blake for a very long time.

DJ: I thought of that, yeah, I think people will come and go 'Oh, that bloke's doing it, too. Who's Daniel Blake? That bloke?’ And I'm very I'm not Mark Steele. I'm not you know, Jeremy Hardy. I'm not. You know, I've been interested in politics, but I'm not. You know, I'm not you know, Ken's radicalised me.

I've been radicalised by Ken Loach. But no, but but, you know, I'm very surreal. You know, I mean, my comedies about you know, Van Gogh stealing the yellow paint from other impressionists and, and you know, and sort of talking to whales on the beach, I'm standing on the beach talking to whales in New Zealand and things and they'll answer me back. So people are going to go: 'Oh, that's a bit...' but you know, there is...I probably will find politics in, in just... because I talk about things that make me laugh so if so, but I think it'd be interesting to see people who see me in the film coming to see me do comedy, I think it'd be an interesting experiment.

BE: I, Daniel Blake is a must-see piece of film making, one of the most powerful things I can remember seeing in the cinema and now on DVD or streaming.

I’m Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast - here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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