Dave Turner on His Lead Role in Ken Loach's New Film The Old Oak
Starring I, Daniel Blake's Dave Turner and newcomer Ebla Mari, The Old Oak made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year
BAFTA-winning director Ken Loach returned to the North East to film The Old Oak which follows his previous two films I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You (both of which were also shot in the region). Filming for The Old Oak, which is written by BAFTA winner Paul Laverty, took place across County Durham last year in locations including Murton, Easington Colliery and Horden.
Dave, from Blaydon, plays TJ Ballantyne, a pub landlord who hangs on to The Old Oak by his fingertips. In an unlikely friendship TJ meets a young Syrian Yara (Ebla Mari). This moving drama is about their fragilities and hopes.
Dave spent more than 30 years with the fire service and retired from Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service in September 2014. ‘For most of that time I was a trade union official and through the links I’d made I was contacted in 2014 when they [Ken and Paul] started making I, Daniel Blake,’ says Dave. ‘I went into a meeting not knowing really what I was walking into but I was lucky enough, after a series of meetings and read-throughs, to get a lovely little part in I, Daniel Blake.’
Ken got back in touch with Dave three years later when he was looking into making Sorry We Missed You. ‘I got a really fabulous part in that,’ Dave continues. ‘I’d been keeping in touch with Paul Laverty, the script writer, and in 2019 we had a series of meetings and chats which culminated with driving around County Durham to look at the pit villages which have just been left to rot (where there’s been no investment, and where the pubs and shops are all boarded up). In June that year I drove Ken and Paul around those same villages.’
Dave had a phone call with Ken just before Christmas 2021, and he was offered the lead role in The Old Oak. ‘I didn’t even for one second think I was in contention for that,’ he admits. ‘He asked if I was up for something a bit meatier, and I thought “oh right it’ll be a bit of bigger role” but that came as a massive shock. It was a total intake of breath and a realisation of what that would mean for me going forward.’
Dave’s character TJ is the son of a former miner who was killed in a mining accident. ‘As a young man, his father was in the pits during the miner’s strike. He moved away, had a family and his mother bought this old pub. When his mother died, TJ came back to run the pub,’ Dave explains. ‘He’s lost his family, his wife’s divorced him, his son wants nothing to do with him and, as is the case with running most pubs now, he’s struggling to survive financially. He has a handful of regulars who keep the pub ticking over but they’re all quite angry and bitter at the way that the village has been left to rot.’
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The film is set in 2016 (pre-Brexit) and the filming locations were hardly changed. ‘I mean there are houses for sale for £5,000 in the villages where we filmed,’ Dave adds. ‘Into this community, the council brings a group of families who are escaping the war in Syria. The film is about how these two desperate communities, both of whom have gone through hard times, come together. While the families here have gone through terrible times, the Syrian families have gone through worse. The Syrian families in the film are genuine Syrian refugees. Some have lost limbs. They’ve lost family members. They’ve lost their homes. They’ve lost their country. Because of the cost of housing in the North East of England, the vast majority of refugees are sent to the North of our country because it’s cheaper. The thrust of the film is how those two communities interact and the welcome that they’re given (and the welcome that they’re not given by others).’
Dave was thrilled with the audience’s reaction in Cannes. ‘I know from speaking to people who’ve been at other screenings, and my own personal experience, that it is an emotional film,’ he continues. ‘This is a film with hope in it, but it’s also a film which exposes the real situations we’re living in now, in communities where people from a completely different background are being dumped with little or no support, into communities that have no capacity to support them. I just hope that people go to the cinema with an open mind. Don’t go with your Daily Mail or Sky News blinkers on. Just watch the film and take it for what it is. I wish people would focus on what we have in common rather than what divides us. It’s a small budget film, it’s not going to change the world, but if we can just make a few people think before they make rash statements, that’s enough. It’s a really desperate time for people at the minute looking to escape war and turmoil.’
The Old Oak could be Ken Loach's last major film. ‘This film took the best part of four years to make from start to finish (obviously a lot of that was down to Covid),’ Dave says. ‘We started filming in May last year but Ken started working on this two or three years before. He’s 87 now and he admits himself that his eyesight isn’t what it was. Because of his nature he’ll certainly be active, but I’m quite convinced he won’t make another film.’
Despite this being Dave’s third time starring in a Ken Loach film, he still doesn’t describe himself as an actor. ‘I’ve got no further ambition to act,’ he admits. ‘I’m content. I haven’t got an agent and I’m not looking for an agent, but others starring in the film have a burning ambition to be an actor. Overall, more than anything else, I hope this leads to them getting further opportunities. I hope a lot of things come out of this film for those who really want it, but for me it’s a fabulous experience. I mean, if you told me I’d be on the red carpet at Cannes I wouldn’t have believed you! I’m enjoying it, I’m taking it in, I’m certainly going to be travelling abroad to film festivals. All of that is an absolute joy. After that it’s basically going to be golf and grandkids for me.’