Entertainment & Arts

Jim Loach: Heritage bears fruit

Oranges and Sunshine
Image caption Emily Watson (pictured with Hugo Weaving) plays social worker Margaret Humphreys

Jim Loach is his father's son, not because his successful TV directing career has anything to do with his dad Ken's fame but because his film feature debut is a story which exposes deep social injustice.

"I don't think I had much choice," he says wryly. "I wouldn't really get away with it round the Christmas dinner table if I had directed a rom-com."

Ken Loach has always made movies that highlight social issues and, so far, his son is a chip off the old block. It's even produced by Sixteen films, his father's company.

The film is Oranges and Sunshine, the true story of how, for much of the 20th Century, thousands of British children in care were sent to Australia, usually without their parents' consent or knowledge. Some were separated from "unfit" mothers - single women who had children outside of marriage.

Many of the children suffered horrendous physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their new foster parents and other state-run Australian orphanages that were supposed to look after them.

The scandal was exposed in the 1980s by Nottinghamshire social worker Margaret Humphreys, who battled for years to bring the stories to light.

Image caption Ken and Jim Loach: sharing a concern for social issues

"It was Margaret's story that we were trying to tell and so it all started when we went to see her," Loach says.

Her office was above a chip shop in Nottingham. What emerged after speaking to her was the story of one woman battling against the odds for years. The treatment the children endured was shocking and appalling.

"It took years to develop the film though, partly because Margaret really didn't want to be involved in a film that was going to be full of mawkish emotion. Neither did we," says Loach.

"What we always came back to was the basic story that thousands of vulnerable children could be forcibly sent abroad and then systematically lied to. Many of them were separated from their brothers and sisters in Australia, and then told that their families back in the UK were dead.

"Many of them were abused in their new homes, and no one knew about it. No one was held accountable until Margaret came along. I couldn't believe that the story hadn't been made into a film a long time before, to be honest."

Oranges and Sunshine has Emily Watson in the lead role as Humphreys, who succeeds in lending the film the controlled and understated emotion Loach wanted.

'No victim'

There are no heart-rending flashbacks but the stories told by the deportees are upsetting enough, as many of these child victims confess to having no proper sense of identity as adults after suffering years of mental and physical abuse in Australia.

"In our research we met dozens of child migrants," Loach says. "You end up investing in all of them because you want to be truthful and faithful to their experiences. You feel you are carrying all their hopes, fears and expectations.

Image caption The real Margaret has given Loach's film her seal of approval

"Our problems in making the film were not just shooting in both the UK and Australia - two countries so far apart - but in the wealth of material we had. One woman appears in one of the scenes in the film, and I know that the real lady only just met her birth mother in Canada six months ago. We could have made a film just about her story."

In the end, Loach concentrated largely on a character in the film called Len (played by Australian actor David Wenham).

"The reason for choosing his story was that if you offered sympathy to the real life Len, he would tell you to get lost. He was appealing in that he was no victim, he gave that triumph of hope over adversity," says Loach.

Last year, the then British Prime Minster, Gordon Brown, offered an apology to the children who were taken. The Australian premier at the time, Kevin Rudd, also offered an apology to some half a million children who suffered abuse in the country's orphanages.

"I'm surprised it didn't happen earlier," Loach says. "It takes 23 years from where we leave Margaret in the film to where Britain and Australia finally apologise.

"She saw our film recently. We were really nervous about showing it to her, but she was very emotional and said that we had been faithful to her story, which meant a great deal to us."

Oranges and Sunshine opens across the UK on 1 April.

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