Ken Loach does for the railways in The Navigators
what he did for the construction industry in Riff-Raff
(1990). As ever, his sympathies lie firmly with the ordinary working blokes, not above of bit of banter and skiving, but essentially trying to do a decent job and stay loyal to their mates in the face of managerial double-talk and corporate devotion to the bottom line.
It's 1995, and the Tories have just carried out their disastrous, pea-brained scheme to break up the railways. We follow the fortunes of a gang of track workers in South Yorkshire as they find themselves confronted with all the fallout of privatisation--redundancies, cost-cutting, corner-cutting and the wholesale junking of any concern with safety or quality of work. Accidental deaths, one hapless time-server explains, "have got to be kept to an acceptable level".
Two scenes encapsulate the tragic-comic tone of the film. At one point the disbelieving workers are ordered by managers to smash up a load of new equipment; it's surplus to requirements, but can't possibly be sold to "the competition", their former British Rail workmates at the depot down the line. Later, called to a derailment, the track workers pass a whole series of hard-hat wearing managers, each paying no attention to what needs doing but muttering fiercely into a mobile phone trying to pass the buck for the accident to another company.
Loach cast the film using local actors and comics, and there's a strong sense of authenticity in the flat accents and dry Yorkshire humour. But ultimately this is a lament for the destruction, not only of what was once a great rail network, but of the pride and camaraderie of those who worked on it. The film's ending is fittingly bleak. --Philip Kemp
Set in and around a South Yorkshire railway depot, Ken Loach's film follows what happens to a group of rail workers after the 1995 privatisation of the British rail network. The choice facing the men is clear: they can either carry on working for the depot and see the conditions granted them in their previous labour agreement ignored or they can take the step into the open market and begin working for an agency. Some of the men take the second option and soon discover that agency work often falls short of the proper safety standards, creating conditions which soon lead to tragedy for one of their number.