In terms of story and tone, The Navigators, Ken Loach's somewhat overlooked 2001 film, is the kid brother to his earlier film Riff-Raff. Both films are relatively light in tone and deal with the corrosive effects on an industry when management insist you start to cut corners, and both films were written by men who had worked in those industries, making for a deeply authentic and believable atmosphere.
The Navigators was written by first-time screenwriter and former railwayman Rob Dawber, who based it on his own experiences and what he saw as a result of the privatisation of the railways in the mid 90s. Tragically, this film also shares another link with Riff-Raff; like the writer of that earlier film, former labourer Bill Jesse, Dawber died not long after the work on the film was completed, cruelly cutting short a promising secondary career in film. His death from mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer, is all the more poignant when you consider it was likely caused by handling asbestos in his work on the railways. As Ken Loach said in Dawber's Guardian obituary, 'working people have lost a champion'. He received a posthumous BAFTA for Best New Writer for the film.
The Navigators follows five railway workers – pragmatic John, young divorcee Paul, cautious Mick, sensitive Jim and union man Gerry – who work in a Sheffield depot affected by the privatisation of British Rail in 1995. The men are informed by their useless and pompous supervisor Harpic (so called because he's 'clean round the bend') one morning that they are now working for a company called East Midlands Infrastructure (and pretty soon after, that company is bought out by another; Gilchrist Engineering, which refuses to recognise all previous agreements made between management and the union) and that from now on they will either be competing with rival track companies or they can take voluntary redundancy. Pretty soon, the gang realise that's not all they're competing against either; as work dries up and agencies dominate the market offering well paid contracts but no job security or adequate health and safety precautions, their backs are against the wall and they're left to contemplate whether the grass is really greener on the other side of the track.
The Navigators is a very funny film filled with an authentic working man's bone dry, witty dialogue that could only ever have been written by a genuine working man. There's a very funny joke that is played across several scenes revolving around the greediness and slow-wittedness of a secondary character, the depot's cleaner, that never fails to have me chuckling, but this lightness of tone effectively hides the darker, more serious undercurrent, making its bite all the more sharper when it strikes. The scene featuring Gilchrist Engineering's slick corporate video, full of empty yet impressive sounding buzzwords is satirically and dolefully amusing at first, but, with hindsight and the poor effects of privatisation apparent to all, we can see just how hollow and insulting such a facile veneer truly is. Worse of all, the film showcases just how damage these private contractors did to the community of the rail workforce, ushering in their dog eat dog methodology that effectively set the industry back a century in terms of workers rights and protection as is shockingly witnessed in the film's final reel.
It's bewildering to think that a gem such as this is all too often overlooked in Loach's cannon. It needs to be seen by more people and will almost certainly be appreciated. It's central message is all the more topical in this world of zero hour contracts and a substandard living wage and, in its central theme of nationalisation being better than privatisation, it should undoubtedly strike a chord with anyone who felt politically energised by Jeremy Corbyn's recent Labour manifesto which pledged the renationalisation of the railways.