Released in 1969, Kes has been widely regarded as a classic of British cinema. Among other accolades, it came seventh in the British Film Institute’s list of the top ten British films. Its director, Ken Loach, and producer, Tony Garnett, are well-known for their socialist politics. Both had a background in television, and specifically in the more socially realist dramas of the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot; and Loach in particular has of course gone on to enjoy great success (and numerous international awards) as a committed, left-wing director.
Kes was their second feature film. It initially had only a limited release, and (as William Stephenson has documented) it took a concerted campaign before it was able to reach a wider audience. It failed to gain traction in the US, perhaps largely because of the northern English accents (and despite some partial over-dubbing, which remains on the DVD version). The film is based on the novel Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, published the previous year; and the book and the film have been a staple of secondary school English courses ever since.
Briefly, Kes tells the story of Billy Casper, a boy in his last year of school in a mining town near Barnsley in Yorkshire. Small for his fifteen years, Billy is bullied by his older half-brother, Jud, and by his schoolmates. He has difficulty paying attention in school, and is picked upon by his teachers. Billy’s mother is a single parent, who despairs of Billy’s future prospects: Billy himself is insistent that he will not be working ‘down the pit’, but he seems to have little other hope. However, Billy occasionally escapes to the surrounding countryside, and early one morning he takes a kestrel from a nest on a farm. In attempting to find out about falconry, he goes to the local library; but when he is required to produce adult authorisation, he steals a book on the subject from a secondhand bookshop. Despite Jud’s claim that he cannot read or write, Billy uses the book to teach himself to train the kestrel, christened ‘Kes’. He is also praised by his English teacher, Mr. Farthing, for delivering an impromptu talk in class about training Kes.
The story moves towards its climax as Jud leaves money and instructions for Billy to place a bet on two horses. After being told by another gambler that the horses are unlikely to win, Billy spends the money on fish and chips and intends to purchase meat for Kes. However, the horses do win, and when Jud finds out, he is enraged, and takes revenge by killing Kes. Grief-stricken, Billy retrieves the bird’s broken body from the waste bin and then buries it on the hillside overlooking the field where he had been training her.
Billy’s life is clearly represented as one of poverty. He has to work delivering newspapers in the early morning, his clothes are torn and shabby, and he doesn’t have the right sports kit for school. His house is dirty, and he has to sleep in the same bed as his brother. Although Jud is earning money, he is also dependent on gambling to make extra cash; and Billy’s mother frequently leaves him to feed and look after himself. Although Billy claims that he has given up ‘nicking’ things, we later see him steal milk from a milk cart. Billy is victimized by the other, bigger boys, and is clearly failing at school. His brother repeatedly says that Billy is unable to read and write, while his mother writes him off as ‘a hopeless case’.
The film persistently aligns us with Billy, both through the editing and the narrative. We see things that only Billy can see – for example, in one scene we ‘read’ a comic book with him – and point-of-view shots invite us to see the world through his eyes – as in the sequences where he is training Kes. There are very few scenes where Billy is not present. We generally learn of events (such as the outcome of Jud’s horse race) at the same time as Billy does, and we frequently share narrative information with him that the other characters do not. We are encouraged to see Billy as the victim of unfair treatment, but also as more intelligent (at least in a non-academic sense) than any of the adults gives him credit for.
To some extent, Kes can be aligned with the social realist tradition in British cinema, dating back to the late 1950s – the tradition of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The northern, working-class setting; the use of several amateur actors, including David Bradley, who plays Billy; the observational, documentary-style cinematography (by former documentary cameraman Chris Menges); the natural lighting and settings; and the focus on mundane, everyday details are all characteristic of this ‘kitchen sink’ style. At times, the documentary elements are very much to the fore – especially in one sequence where Jud and Billy’s mother go for a Saturday night outing to a local pub, and in the briefer scenes of the pit.
Yet Kes has elements of other genres as well. One extended sequence features a school football match, in which Billy is victimized by a self-important, sadistic PE teacher. The match is played for laughs, with brass band theme music reminiscent of TV football programmes, ironic captions showing the scores, and a bravura performance by Bryan Glover as the obnoxious, vain teacher – although it turns nasty later on, when Billy is ritually humiliated in the changing rooms. Likewise, the scenes featuring the school’s headteacher – his disciplinarian address to a school assembly, and a subsequent monologue in which he bemoans the failings of the younger generation – also come close to comic caricature. While the younger English teacher, Mr. Farthing, presents a more humane and caring face, the film’s critique of the school system seems almost parodic.
More significantly, the film has elements of sentimental melodrama, which are partly cued by the music. The scenes in which Billy escapes from the town into the countryside, and is seen running through the woods, are accompanied by lyrical folk-like music, featuring harps, flutes and strings. Sequences of the flying kestrel are frequently accompanied by a theme on the flute, sometimes played solo. The physical spaces of the film establish a straightforward opposition between industrial and rural (or indeed pastoral) settings. And it is the rural – and more specifically, the symbol of the kestrel itself – that represents the possibility of freedom and escape, not only from the present, but also from the future that is marked out for Billy.
Indeed, the central narrative is clearly posed in these terms. Right at the start, Billy announces ‘I’m not gonna work down the pit’, and the recurring question (posed at various points by his family and his teachers, and most directly in a sequence where he attends an interview with a careers adviser) is whether he has any alternative. In a discussion with Mr. Farthing, Billy presents himself as a victim of injustice: he claims that the teachers are ‘not bothered about us’, and that he doesn’t have ‘much choice’ about work. And yet, as he points out, the fact that he doesn’t like school doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s going to like work.
However, Billy’s difficulties – and his options for escape – are partly specific to him as an individual. It’s interesting in this respect to consider the theatrical trailer, whose American voice-over suggests that it was intended specifically for the US audience (or at least for industry executives). ‘This is Billy Casper,’ it intones over a montage of clips. ‘Billy Casper cheats, steals, lies, fights. Because, well, because he has to. You see, if you’re not like the others, if you simply don’t belong, then you have to manage alone…’ Billy manages alone, the commentary goes on, but with the help of a ‘special friend’, Kes, who doesn’t mind that Billy is ‘different’, and with whom he can share his ‘secret’.
On this account, Billy is a misfit, a lone individual rather than a representative of a class. While I doubt that it would have been acceptable to Ken Loach, this is an interpretation that the film certainly permits: by isolating Billy from his peers, by representing him (in his brother’s words) as ‘a weedy little twat’, and by seeing his potential escape (via Kes) in individualistic terms, the film sanctions a psychological, as distinct from a more political, analysis. Likewise, the film’s rather overdrawn critique of the school system leads to an individualistic, autodidactic solution. With the help of his stolen book, Billy teaches himself to train the kestrel, and acquires a kind of unofficial expertise. Mr. Farthing, the liberal teacher, comes onto the scene somewhat late in the day to offer him support. He is visibly impressed both by Billy’s technical knowledge and by his lyrical account of the experience; but he is not in any way responsible for Billy’s success. Indeed, in these scenes, it is Billy who is teaching his teacher, rather than the other way about. Escape might be possible, but it is inevitably an isolated, individual form of escape: there seems to be little prospect of change within the formal education system itself.
Loach has always been keen to present his work as a manifestation of class politics. He sees himself as taking the working-class ‘side’, and presenting the ‘value and dignity’ of working-class people; and he is particularly concerned with ‘people’s attempts to be articulate or to come to some understanding of their situation; their attempts to develop a class consciousness’. The moving scene in which Billy speaks to the whole class at length, capturing their attention, is the most obvious example of this here. Yet while this kind of political analysis is potentially apparent in Kes, it is somewhat undermined by the drift towards pathos – especially at the very end, where there is little option but to take pity on poor little Billy as he mourns the loss of his only friend.