Kes – an iconic piece of Yorkshire cinema now ranked 7th in the BFI Top 10 British Films list
My sons girlfriend turned up at the house last week wearing a T-shirt with a picture of young Billy Casper from the film Kes sticking two fingers up. It seemed the perfect image for how I felt that day about my daughters A level results which had been down-graded temporarily by Ofqual’s algorithm!
It did remind me of what a great film it was and I thought it would make a great subject for a blog article.
My relationship to this film goes back to my infant school where we were shown the film and David Bradley who played the lead role came into school to talk to us at an assembley. Since then my son aged 11 (now 21) ended up playing Billy Casper in a scene from Kes at a school drama festival at Skipton Town Hall, the footage of which I still have somewhere filed away on minidisk. And more recently I have become a trustee of Leeds oldest charity (Wade’s Charity – www.wadescharity.org) where one of my fellow trustees is Bernard Atha, former actor and once Mayor of Leeds played the role of the Careers Master in the film.
Kes was directed by Ken Loach, now famous for his gritty Northern dramas and it came out back in 1969. It was based on a novel by Barry Hines called a Kestral for a Knave which had come out a year earlier and was Loach’s second feature film.
The plot focusses on fifteen year old Billy Casper who is picked on at home by his physically and verbally abusive brother Judd and at school by schoolmates and teachers alike. With attention deficit and little future prospects his mother even describes him as a “hopeless case”.
Billy takes a kestrel from a nest on a farm and ends up stealing a book on falconry and proceeds to build a strong bond with the bird. The training of the bird gives Billy purpose and as the relationship with the kestrel improves so Billy’s outlook expands to the point of receiving praise from his English teacher after delivering a mesmerising speech about training the kestrel to his class.
“They say it’s a pet. It int a pet, sir. People come up to me and say “int it tame?” It int tame, sir. They can’t be tamed. They’re manned. They’re wild and fierce and not bothered about anybody. Not bothered about me. That’s what makes it great.”
The kestrel represents freedom, hope, enlightenment and grace and I see Billy wishing he was the kestrel – able to fly away from his mundane life.
Sadly the positivity in his life is shattered when after not placing a bet for his step brother, where the horse romps in a winner, Judd takes revenge and kills Billy’s bird. Billy is last seen burying the bird on the hillside overlooking where he trained the bird.
The book and film take place in South Yorkshire around Barnsley and depict the grim realism of the mining areas which were the scene of some of the worst depravation in the country with wage restraints and pit closures. For added realism the film used authentic Yorkshire dialect and extras which were hired from the local area.
The film features cameos from British actors such as Colin Welland and Brian Glover, who plays a vindictive PE teacher, Mr Sugden and a classic scene involving a school football match where Glover joins in, pretends he’s Bobby Charlton as well as the referee and attempts to cheat to victory. His team lose 2-1 after Billy misses an important save causing Billy to be tortured by being forced to have a freezing shower.
50 years on the film is still a classic remaining relevant today and a timeless tale of a down trodden community and an unfair world.