But it was the tireless work of Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys and her powerful descriptions of a shocking British forced immigration scheme that convinced him to break his vow.
It’s a good thing he did, as the resulting feature film, Oranges and Sunshine, from the Oscar-winning producers of The King’s Speech, lays bare in an absolutely compelling way the devastating experience of up to 150,000 children, some as young as three, who were forcibly removed to outposts of the British Empire between the 1940s and 1960s.
Previous films, such as the made-for-TV drama The Leaving of Liverpool, have dealt with the scheme’s chilling facts. Of its deportees, an estimated 7000 to 10,000 were sent to Australia where, under the "populate or perish" policy of the time, young British stock was highly valued.
Whatever the intentions, for many of the children the promised land of Oranges and Sunshine’s title proved instead to offer deprivation, loneliness, hard labour, brutality and physical and sexual abuse. Another stolen generation? Absolutely, Loach replies after the Australian-British co-production’s Rome reception.
"That’s a very apt description. They were stolen from their parents and their childhoods were stolen from them," he explains.
"The story itself was shocking and amazing, all the more because the children were told that their parents were dead or that, being unwanted, they were being sent to a better life. The family [was] lied to; parents — many, unwed mothers suffering social stigma of the times who placed their children in temporary care — were told they had been adopted or fostered out to a better life elsewhere."
Most were deprived of an education and enslaved in domestic service for the charitable and religious institutions responsible for their welfare.
"What made it more chilling and morally reprehensible was the indifference of successive governments up to the present, which hid behind inefficiency and apathy," screenwriter Rona Munro adds. "They assumed that if they kept fudging long enough the problem would eventually go away. And for decades their strategy of refusing to engage with it was a very successful one."
The scheme might have remained a closed chapter of history if not for the relentless investigative work of Humphreys, who stumbled on the British government’s social engineering scheme through a couple of individual and unrelated inquiries. What she unravelled was huge. She has since made battling officialdom her mission, reuniting and assisting survivors her crusade.
Humphreys’s 1994 bestselling book, Empty Cradles, documenting her investigation and the plight of many child migrants, became the source for this first feature film on the subject, with Emily Watson starring as Humphreys and Hugo Weaving and David Wenham as adult child migrants.
"She was a remarkable woman battling against the odds to find out the truth about this shocking scandal," Loach says.
"Her tenacity was inspirational," Munro says. "Most people would have given up yet she kept focused on the central moral question: When you discover an injustice, how much do you need to address that?"
Humphreys’s determination to bring authorities to account drives the movie. "Until Margaret brought it to public attention, nobody attempted — or cared — to investigate it," Munro says.
Humphreys’s crusade, which took her across the world and exerted a heavy toll on her health and family amid a campaign of intimidation and death threats, is the film’s heart and locomotive.
Wenham, one of the cast’s standouts and the father of children aged two and seven, says he was "gobsmacked" by the story.
"In all honesty, I tried not to think about the parallels," he says.
"My youngest is two and some of the kids were only a year older. It was very hard to wrap my head around that, particularly as I grew up in a large working-class household of seven kids where there wasn’t much money but a great deal of love.
"You can’t help but be moved, touched and angered by what these little, defenceless innocent children went through. The damage to the lives of people is completely inconceivable. Those scars are so deep that I don’t know how on earth over a lifetime they can heal fully.
"But as an actor I thought the combination of Margaret’s quest and the child migrant stories made for very compelling drama," adds Wenham, who plays Len, a feisty, wry, self-made wealthy survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of priests in West Australia’s Bindoon. His return there with Humphreys is one of the film’s key scenes.
Wenham admits he "couldn’t get a handle on" the character initially and his prickly relationship with Humphreys. "It was only when I spent some time with the gentleman on whom the character is based that I began to understand him and came to value his difference. His scars are just deeper, less visible. It shows how we are all so different in the way we deal with life’s crises."
Humphreys’s mission has not only transformed survivors’ lives but also ignited the career of its director. Loach freely admits that he and his sister long ago vowed not to go into filmmaking, a field where their father, Ken — director of dozens of highly regarded documentaries and docudramas often focusing on issues of class and injustice in British society — "cast quite a long shadow. I swore I would have nothing to do with film."
So what made him succumb?
Journalism led to documentary, then a foray into television series drama — Footballers’ Wives, Waterloo Road, Shameless, The Bill, Coronation Street — although that was still at a far remove from his father’s social conscience interests.
"For my gran nothing my dad had done before or since could top Corrie [Coronation Street]. She regarded it as the pinnacle of an artistic career," Loach says with a grin of his own achievements.
Then he read Humphreys’s Empty Cradles, and "instantly I knew it was a film I wanted to make". Persuading others to entrust him with the project was another matter.
"It took me years to get Margaret to agree to sign over the rights of the book," he says.
Their first meeting, when he arrived at her small office above a Nottingham fish-and-chips shop, was lively but ultimately unproductive. "She received a lot of approaches from filmmakers and media, but she devotes a great deal of time to reuniting the child migrants with their families and she’s very protective of her charges," he explains.
Still, they agreed to stay in touch. In fact, the eight-year quest to make his first feature, described by Variety as "a stand-out debut", has been instrumental in exposing the plight of child migrants. It has also highlighted Humphreys’s work at the Child Migrants Trust, which she established with offices in Nottingham, Perth and Melbourne.
Some of the delay in getting it made, Loach confesses, was due to his hesitation. He was compelled by the story but daunted by its scope, including the logistics of filming across two continents and the moral responsibility to the children.
"When you make a film like this you naturally carry the hopes and expectations of people who have trusted you to be faithful to their stories," he says. "In truth I probably walked around with the story in my head for a couple of years. Dad was very encouraging, until one day he sat me down and said, ‘For god’s sake, get on with it. Just make the bloody film!’ "
The tide turned in 2005 when Loach discussed the project with Munro, award-winning scriptwriter of his father’s drama Ladybird Ladybird, coincidentally also about a woman whose child is taken away from her by authorities. At first Munro, inundated with similar story proposals, was reluctant to revisit the topic.
But she, too, found Empty Cradles irresistible. She accompanied Loach on another, more productive, visit to Nottingham. "Rona and Margaret had a really sparky relationship, and that’s when the script really got motoring," Loach says.
Munro’s first priority was "to weave together the various elements of the book: chronologically disjointed, with various story strands, a multitude of characters [and] detail, spanning over a long period".
"We spent a lot of time looking into the story," Munro says. "What intrigued us is how complex, contradictory and heroic the story is: the more we found out, the more compelled we were."
"She has a very special combination of strength and empathy in equal measure that is the essence of the character: there was no question of her being sentimental or maudlin," Loach says.
Munro describes the internal contradictions in the story of a woman who wants to nurture her own family while trying to fix those of others. Among her extraordinary achievements is the creation of a new notion of a wider extended family of former child migrants who are depicted not as victims but as survivors.
"For us it was a much bigger human interest story about identity," Loach says. "What makes us who we are and what happens when everything you know about yourself is taken away? How do you cope? It’s something that hopefully speaks to people all over the globe."
And so far it has. At its world premiere at the Busan film festival in South Korea, Asia’s largest film event, it screened in the lead-up to Red Cross-organised reunions between North and South Korean families separated since 1953.
At the Rome film festival in packed screenings, the usually animated Italian audiences were hushed, mesmerised by the powerful performances.
"I was instantly grabbed by the script, so moving and beautifully written," Weaving says. He plays Jack, a gentle, vulnerable soul who had attempted suicide, is reunited with his sister, but whose search for his mother ends when he discovers she has recently died. "The film depicts the journey that Margaret takes to attempt to heal them, [to] give them some sense of identity, acceptance and recognition," Weaving explains. "We all loved Hugo Weaving’s work: his capacity for gentleness, compassion and vulnerability," Loach says. "And we hugely admired David’s sense of anarchy and the way he brings his own kind of rebellion and undermines situations in a very positive way."
Yet the film’s remarkable feat is its restraint, with Loach and Munro refusing to indulge Hollywood’s penchant for redemptive catharsis.
"We wanted to avoid a pornography of suffering," Munro says. "While we attempted to convey the child migrants’ reality and bear witness to a story faithfully told, we didn’t intend to wallow in it.
"I don’t know what purpose it serves for us to be harrowed in the way characters on screen are. What is the point at the end of the film to come out of the cinema, after you’ve wept your eyes out, feeling it’s all better?
"The point is that for most [of] the migrants things are not better. They’ve experienced tremendous loss. If that fundamental connection to original family and identity is severed, inevitably they’re really messed up, unanchored for the rest of their lives," Munro says.
"They will never have their mothers, they’ve had to wait decades for an apology, experience the anxiety of searching for years for their parents or siblings. So there is no planet on which it’s going to be better."
According to Humphreys, formal apologies from governments are pivotal to the healing process as "milestones which give the child migrants the recognition they have sought for so long".
The movie has certainly acted as catalyst for official acknowledgment.The day Weaving flew out to shoot in Britain, in November 2009, a tearful Kevin Rudd made an apology to the "forgotten Australians", those children mistreated in Australian orphanages and institutional care. The formal apology specifically included the child migrants, describing their experience as "an ugly chapter of colonial history".
"This caused quite a buzz with the British press," Weaving recalls. "All of a sudden there was pressure on [then British prime minister] Gordon Brown to follow. In fact both apologies took place while we were shooting the film."
Brown’s historic apology was witnessed by 60 child migrant survivors and families, flown to London for the ceremony.
Describing the scheme as "shameful", he acknowledged that the children "were let down, sent away at a time when they were most vulnerable", and that "instead of caring for them this country turned its back", leaving many with wounds "that can can last a lifetime".
Munro insists government apologies should be only the beginning of the reconciliation process. "Now that it is finally out in the open, the admission of liability is on [the] public record, no one can pretend it hasn’t happened," she says. "So it will be interesting to see what transpires."
All sorts of possibilities, including legal ones, are on the table, she says.
"A lot of people are talking about what the government, the Catholic Church and the charities should do to compensate." But "it is difficult to locate documented evidence, perpetrators of sexual abuse are now allegedly too old or fragile to stand trial, and the simultaneous involvement of successive governments and charity organisations has made it difficult to pin it on one group".
"There’s really no easy solution," Loach adds. "Margaret’s efforts have been tireless but for so many child migrants it’s too late. The damage has been done."
Soon after Brown’s apology the mother of a then 81-year-old child migrant was tracked down still alive, but most commonly parents or children die before they can be reunited, or child migrants cannot afford air fares to attend funerals.
In 2006 Humphreys was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia. But despite some allocation of government money by both countries, she and her team are desperately working against time and financial constraints.
"The film is in no way conclusive — rather, it’s a tiny part of what should be an ongoing campaign to make government and charities acknowledge responsibility," Munro says. "These people have been disempowered in the past so at least now they should be consulted about the adequate reparation. After issuing an apology you go to the people you’ve injured and ask: How can we make this up to you?"
But how are decades of emotional and psychological damage compensated for? There is a legacy of neglect, physical and sexual abuse, of deprivation, pain and suffering, frustration and despair.
How do you quantify loss of identity, love and family?
How do you compensate for stolen lives?