B R I E F   S Y N O P S I S
From acclaimed director Ken Loach (My Name Is Joe, Riff-Raff, Sweet Sixteen) comes a humanist drama about a close-knit group of rail-workers. Bound by jobs and class, their lives are forever altered with the privatization of the British Railroad. Even though the company triumphantly announces to the workmen that privatization will offer a source of new richness, the men are skeptics and can think only of the immediate consequences. The Navigators is a profound, relevant observation about the effects on laborers everywhere that stem from changes in world markets.
  The Navigators

Rob Dawber was not the type of man who'd take no for an answer. He first dropped me a line in 1997, and told me he was writing a script for a film that I just had to make. He said it was a very important story about the privatisation of the railways, and that I had an obligation to tell it. If I was susceptible to being bullied, I would have been bullied. But, to be fair, Rob had a point. His confidence was amazing. What script work have you done previously, I asked. None, he said. Rob had been a maintenance man on the railways all his working life when he got pushed out. The railways had just been privatised, and the new company was recklessly turning full-time jobs into casualised labour. Rob was asked if he would take voluntary redundancy. He refused. So they made him redundant anyway. The title he originally wanted for the film was Freedom of Choice. He always said the railway workers had freedom of choice so long as they chose redundancy.

He was from a working class family and had gone to university where he studied English. But he didn't fancy spending the rest of his life working with the people you tend to find in middle-class jobs. He wanted to work with people he got on with; people he'd grown up with. So he chose to be a railway man. And he loved his work, not just the company, but the physicality of it too. He was in his early 40s when they sent him on his way.

For eighteen years, he had been a rail worker and trade union activist. He became a branch secretary for the National Union of Railwaymen, and wrote for Socialist Organiser and Off The Rails, a bulletin for rail workers. His Fat Controller column mercilessly lampooned the rail managers who squandered the opportunities of the nationalised industries.

After the railways, he started to write more. I'd seen his reports in the Socialist Organiser on the railways. So I recognized his name when he came with his script. There were little nuggets of good dialogues and situations camouflaged by his idea of what a proper script should be. I asked him if he could just write short stories, so we could see the material plain and unadorned. He was up for that. Rob was so full of the subject that he'd return the stories no sooner had we talked about them. Too quick for me. We were working on My Name is Joe and Bread and Roses and I was trying to buy time. Then the stories were whittled down and the number of characters were thinned.

I always felt confident that the script would work. We had a gang of people working together, which is always fertile ground, because they spark off each other, the humour and the emotion comes from their relationships. Also, the basic story we had was very dramatic—Rob wanted to show how so many workers had been made redundant with such apparent disregard for safety that a horrendous accident would inevitably happen.

I also felt it would work because of Rob. He was such a positive man; a fighter. Yes, he had been made redundant, but he never allowed himself to become mired in self-pity because he knew that what was happening to him was part of a bigger political picture. He knew he wasn't just fighting for himself, he was fighting for all people who had been laid off. So we commissioned Rob, and managed to get some money through for him to write the script. What happened next was savage. Rob had always been on the phone or e-mail to us with new ideas or suggestions, but suddenly he went quiet. We heard nothing. We had the feeling that something was wrong.

A few weeks later he rang and said could he come to see us. Shortly after Christmas, he and his wife Lindsey arrived at our office. He told us he was ill. He'd had problems with his breathing, hadn't considered it anything serious, but had gone to the doctor for a check-up. The diagnosis was mesothelioma, a lung cancer derived from asbestos. According to the records, only one person had ever survived mesothelioma, Rob said, and he thought the one person may have been an urban myth. He'd been given between six and twelve months to live.

It was traumatic for everybody. We all left feeling completely shattered. But Rob was determined to make the most of whatever time was left. He had two teenage daughters as well as Lindsey and was determined to stay strong for them. He decided that he would be open about the illness, and carry on as best he could, rather than live in its shadow.

Making the most of his time meant looking for a cure, which was incredibly unlikely, and of course getting the film made. As ever, there was a problem. Bread and Roses was under way and we were contractually bound to finish that before starting The Navigators. Anyway, he reworked the script and a project that had been somewhat distant became a matter of urgency. By the time we approached backers, all we had was a commission for an unknown former railway man to write about something considered deeply unfashionable.

So it was down to Parallax producer Rebecca O’Brien to raise money. As usual, the French, Spanish, Italians and Germans were enthusiastic. The only ones who showed no interest were, typically, the British. In the end Channel 4 agreed to back it. In every other European county, The Navigators will be screened at cinemas, over here [Britain] it will be shown initially on television.

We knew that if Rob did die within six months, there was no way we could complete the film by then. There wasn't even a chance of raising the money by then. But Rob never accepted what he had been told. Once he got over the initial shock of diagnosis, he convinced himself there was a possibility of beating it. He spent hour after hour on the Internet looking for the latest research. It was part of his instinctive bloodymindness not to believe the experts; to be a non-conformist; not to accept propaganda. That scepticism is fundamental to most political people. He also started a campaign to raise money for people suffering like him, from cancer caused by working with asbestos.

He searched for treatments throughout the world, prepared to try the most aggressive therapies that were still in their infancy. He went to America to visit a consultant he'd found on the net. But the consultant told him that it was too late, the disease had spread too far.

By now, Rob had far outlived his prognosis. He held a party after twelve months to celebrate his continued existence. Then another one to celebrate his two years. Rob was no Dave Spart who thought of nothing but politics. He gave great parties, and had a huge appetite for life.

He seemed to be fighting on all fronts in his last year. Not only to get the film made, and to get a cure, and to raise funds for his charity, but also to get himself compensation from the railways. He had to prove the mesothelioma was caused by his employer's negligence. The railways fought his claim, saying that he had only worked intermittently with asbestos and that he worked outdoors. But the asbestos was clearly the cause of his illness. Alongside other workers, he had been given the job of breaking up troughs and other items, known by British Rail to contain asbestos, in a decrepit shed with an asbestos roof. The mesothelioma which resulted lay dormant for nearly twenty years.

Rebecca and I went to court to argue that Rob had an outstanding career ahead of him as a writer. The lawyers for the railways argued that the script was a one-off and he would not be likely to write anything so good again. But we said that was nonsense and pointed to ex-miner Jim Allen as a writer who had come to the trade relatively late, and gone on to produce a portfolio of great work. We said that there were few writers with the ability to explore the tensions and drama of the workplace like Rob.

Rob phoned up shortly after the case had finished. He said he'd won almost £500,000 compensation. It was a landmark victory, and paved the way for others. But he was far from elated. Rob still wanted to find a cure and the judgement was based on the fact that he would die very soon.

We shot The Navigators as soon as possible. Time was of the essence. Rob would often come down to the cutting room to chat about how it had worked out. The last time he came down we had just completed the fine cut and we had to walk half a mile to the viewing theatre. He had been a fit man, but this really took it out of him, and we had to keep stopping. He was getting weaker all the time. His approach to life was as positive as ever. He was still talking politics, discussing the possibility of standing for the Socialist Alliance at the general election.

Rob wasn't the type of man to be effusive or sentimental. But I think he felt satisfied that the film was a fair telling of the story he wanted to be told. And, when the film is shown, he would have loved the chance to kick the backsides of those fake left Labourite politicians, who have let our railways and railwaymen continue to rot in their privatised hell.


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