Ken Loach's third film for cinema release, Black Jack, is a near forgotten feature based on a Leon Garfield book his children had enjoyed. It's an unusual project for Loach (certainly in light of his later works we have come to know and love) it's inception seems to stem from two things; the first being that following the success of the previous film, 1971's Family Life, across Europe, producer Tony Garnett secured funding for the National Film Finance Corporation by making Black Jack a co-production with France (this also led to Jean Franval's casting as the titular Jack, changing the character's nationality to French) The second being the fact that Kes had delighted and spoken to working class children everywhere. As such a children's film seemed the way forward.
Loach's naturalistic approach to film making and performances continues here with the hesitant acting of its juvenile leads, specifically Stephen Hirst as Tolly and Louise Cooper as Belle. For both, Black Jack would be their only film appearance. Their timid and occasionally faltering delivery, specifically Cooper's, does not detract from the film, rather it enhances it; seeming somehow apt and heightening the realism Loach excels in, whilst Franvel's Jack is a curious mixture of bogeyman and paternalistic guardian.
There's a gem of a film straining to break out here but sadly its only briefly glimpsed at. The film's narrative drags somewhat at 110 minutes, suggesting Loach seems at times more concerned with capturing a snapshot of authentic working class Georgian life than in propelling the story forward. He seems particularly happy to explore the extended fairground family of dwarves, cooks, strong men and snake oil salesmen that Jack and his young companions hook up with, and its infectious upon the audience, making these scenes come alive with witty, earthy lines and believable amateurish performances.
Loach has described this film as 'one that got away' professing an unhappiness with time constraints and a poor edit that saw dubbing occur in just one weekend. Yet for all its flaws, Black Jack remains a beautiful, striking and engaging portrait of 1700s Yorkshire with an easily empathetic core regarding the children's plight. There's just enough magic here to make this a very special addition to children's cinema, but with a tighter focus and a better edit this could have been a real classic of the genre.