Directed By: Ken Loach
Written By: Barry Hines; Ken Loach; Tony Garnett
David Bradley– Billy Casper
Freddie Fletcher – Jud
Lynne Perrie– Mrs. Casper
Colin Welland– Mr. Farthing
Brian Glover– Mr. Sudgen
Bob Bowes– Mr. Gryce
Language: English Genre: Drama
Kes is a 1969 film by Ken Loach based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. Set in a mining town in Yorkshire, it tells the story of Billy (David Bradley), a working class boy. A fifteen year old who has nothing to look forward to in life. The only possible career option for him is to join his brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) in the mining pits or some other similar blue collar job.
His daily struggles have to do with either combating or knuckling under abuse. It’s both his abusive older brother who uses him as his help, or his teachers and classmates who pick on him.
The teachers are jaded because none of the students show any involvement. It is after all understood that they will, in terms of profession, follow in their parents’ footsteps and end up in menial jobs. So the principal, Mr. Gryce (Bob Bowes), who was once passionate about his job is now an automaton who doles out advice and punishment in a mechanical fashion. Even his ‘lectures’ on discipline has an element of rote learning.
The school tries to instil values of mercy and compassion through religious passages but they are mere words that mean nothing. For instance, the morning assembly reading of the Parable of the Lost Sheep is immediately followed by the principal calling the students who were day-dreaming or yawning or coughing during the reading (including Billy) to his office for punishment. The narrative then abounds in such ironies.
Even the sadistic coach, Mr. Sudgen (Brian Glover), who uses Billy as a scapegoat for his failings and tortures him in the name of discipline in the shower room, by making him stand under a cold shower.
The truly uplifting moments in the film are when Billy takes up falconry and trains a kestrel that he names ‘Kes’. His concern for animals and his understanding of their behaviour patterns, belies the usual opinion that he is useless. An opinion his mother (Lynne Perrie) also holds.
Billy doesn’t see his kestrel as a pet but as someone with autonomy. The kestrel in fact, is a symbol of Billy and as an extension, the working class. They are free, untamed, proud yet fragile, they need to be protected, fed when hungry, taken outdoors away from controls and trusted to return.
The film gives no easy, quick fix solution. There is an English teacher who does attempt to draw out Billy but this isn’t a narrative of a teacher triumphing a student’s odds because they both come from a similar setting.
Kes is an unvarnished, darkly comic take on the English working class life.
What drew me to watch this movie was David Morrissey’s comment that this film made him hopeful to know that working class life could be the focus of a film. What kept me involved was the poignancy of Billy’s relationship with Kes.