Produced at the height of the Swinging Sixties, Ken Loach's first movie is a decidedly un-swinging affair, and all the better for it (give or take the odd beehive). Sticking to the course he set with his seminal BBC play ‘Cathy Come Home’, Poor Cow is an ultra-naturalistic, semi-improvised kick in the nutsack to orthodox drama.
Carol White, an actress whose personal descent into drink and drugs and early check-out at the age of 48 lends her strong performance here an added poignancy, is Joy, a young women of limited intelligence but laudable optimism in the face of some frankly terrible choices in men. First off there’s Tom, played with palpable menace by John Bindon, a real-life hard-man who would shortly lend his cockney swagger to Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance, a film that shares a generous dosage of Poor Cow’s creative DNA. Not being the sharpest card in the pack, Tom promptly bungles a bank job and gets himself banged up. With casual inevitability, Joy moves swiftly on to handsome Dave, one of Tom’s fellow hoodlums, played by ‘60s icon Terrance Stamp. But if Dave represents a tiny ray of hope, think again, for Joy is something of a feather in the storm, her baby son the only constant in her life.
With the sleight of hand he's shown many times since, Loach suckers us into caring for, rather than judging, someone we might otherwise dismiss as a gullible idiot best suited to The Jeremy Kyle Show. We feel for poor Joy as she contemplates “going professional” while scratching a living working in a pub where she gets groped and leered at by the regulars. Oh yes, there’s some absolutely king leering in this movie; at one point Joy and her barmaid pal Beryl (Love They Neighbour's Kate Williams) decide a spot of ‘modelling’ for the local “Photographic Society” might generate a few extra bob. Cue a phalanx of the most odious, sweaty losers ever to grace the silver screen, all steamed up glasses and drooling chins, relics of a bygone age when that room upstairs at the local pub was a haven for amateur David Baileys to get their sexually-retarded rocks off. The movie’s intrinsic voyeurism is reinforced by Loach’s penchant for secretly capturing shots of real people and integrating these into his narrative. Time and again his camera lingers on some poor unsuspecting 1960s fizzog on its way to the pub, the bookmaker or (hey, its 1967) the boutique. This culminates in a scene where Joy and Beryl indulge in a cathartic spot of revenge-leering at random passing geezers. You go, girls!
The semi-improvised dialogue is a wonder; people stutter, repeat themselves, talk over each other. You know, like we actually do in real life. It’s so bracingly naturalistic you’re left wondering just how these results were achieved (Terrance Stamp has attested to Loach whispering conflicting directions into his and White's ears, deliberately catching them off-guard then letting them sink-or-swim). Loach also largely avoids a musical score, relying instead on the endlessly parping sound of the radio, its tinny melodies and moronic DJ banter a humorous counterpoint to the on-screen misery (although the less said about nominal soundtrack provider Donovan, the better).
Funny, sad and ultimately uplifting, Poor Cow is shining example of social realism cinema done right. Still compelling after nearly 50 years, it is The Jeremy Kyle Show you actually want to see. Forget the lie detector test; this one’s the Daddy.
POOR COW / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: KEN LOACH / SCREENPLAY: KEN LOACH, NELL DUNN (FROM HER PLAY) / STARRING: CAROL WHITE, TERRANCE STAMP, JOHN BINDON/ RELEASE DATE: JULY 25TH