Until May 26, Ken Loach is still the reigning king of Cannes. The 70-year-old British director was a surprise winner of the Palme d'Or in 2006 with his eighth film in Competition at Cannes, Irish civil war drama The Wind That Shakes The Barley. The socially conscious director previously won special jury prizes in 1990 for Hidden Agenda and in 1993 for Raining Stones.

He sees Cannes as the only must-attend event. 'It's the whole industry in one place for 10 days,' Loach says. 'Somebody who is involved in films tends to go or at least really wants to be there.'

Cannes has changed since Loach first arrived with Kes in Directors' Fortnight in 1970, he says. 'The biggest change is the building. Before the Palais was there it was on a slightly smaller scale. It seemed more intimate then - it has got bigger and bigger.'

However, the growing scope of the festival doesn't mean it neglects personal film-making. 'It has stayed very important for the international film,' says Loach. 'It's the most important film event.'

As a Cannes regular, winning the Palme d'Or took him by surprise. 'We'd had the first screening in Competition. We thought people would have forgotten about the film by the end of the festival. We (he and producer Rebecca O'Brien) did press interviews for three to four days, then went home and put it out of our minds. I was contemplating cutting the grass when Rebecca called to say they wanted us to go back.'

They got back to Cannes for the ceremony without knowing they were taking the big prize. 'We're sitting in the audience and to compound my anxiety, a French distributor sitting in front of me said: 'If you win anything they expect you to say something in French.' So I started to panic about that and then suddenly we were on the last award.'

The only problems with winning were stepping on the train of presenter Emmanuelle Beart's dress and not having his whole team there. 'That was the only drawback. The film was such a team effort, you wanted everyone to share it.' He did, however, manage a few gracious words in French.

His next project, contemporary drama It's A Free World (formerly known as These Times), is still in post-production (Pathe is handling international sales). It stars mostly unknowns in the story of an employment agency for immigrants in the UK. Modestly, he says: 'The shooting is always quite exciting. But when you're so far into it, you tend not to know if it's any good or not.'

Loach will be in Cannes this year with his three-minute contribution to shorts compilation Chacun Son Cinema. 'It'll be a surprise when it's unveiled,' Loach says.