An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King;
a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady;
a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest,
a Musket for a Holy water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave.
From The Boke of St Albans, 1486, and a Harleian manuscript.
Used as an epigraph to Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave, 1968.
See that you do not look down on one of these little ones.
For I tell you that their angels in heaven
always see the face of my Father in heaven.
Over his more than four decades as a director, Ken Loach has built a body of work unsurpassed in world film and television for its relentless analysis of social and political injustice. Not that Loach has much use for the auteur theory, modestly considering himself a collaborator rather than a shaping visionary. Alongside the groundbreaking 1966 television docudrama Cathy Come Home, Kes, from 1970, remains his (and his colleagues’) best-known film. Certainly, its blend of wry comedy and tragedy has made it his most enduringly popular. It could be considered his masterpiece, if one were prepared to set aside such other vital examinations of coercion and subjugation as Family Life (1971), The Gamekeeper (1980), Riff-Raff (1991), Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird Ladybird (1994), and Sweet Sixteen (2002). That judgment would also risk implying that Loach peaked early. What, then, of his propulsive war dramas Land and Freedom (1995) and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and the epic miniseries Days of Hope (1975), or his underrated conspiracy thrillers Singing the Blues in Red (a.k.a. Fatherland, 1986) and Hidden Agenda (1990), the last two both worthy of reappraisal? A few Loach films have disappointed (their maker not least), but the larger project—to reclaim working people’s rights, to show how, if possible, they defy oppression, and to relish their energy and wit—has been a triumph of compassionate humanism.
Kes nevertheless stands apart in Loach’s career as his first full engagement with cinema—his only previous theatrical film, Poor Cow (1967), being a transitional work following three years in television—and for other reasons: its remarkable blend of the magical aura of a children’s film with grim adult realities; its tacit belief in the transcendent power of nature; an indelible performance by the young lead, David Bradley, supported by an exceptional cast of non- and semiprofessionals; and a stunning verisimilitude, new to British cinema at the time, that suggests Barry Hines’s story has been turned into nothing less than filmed truth. Above all, however, is the film’s singular narrative of an undervalued youth—Bradley’s Billy Casper, who owes something to both Oliver Twist (minus the cloying innocence) and the Artful Dodger—struggling to define himself on his own terms, which has made him an unlikely icon of resistance.
A puny fifteen-year-old schoolboy in the Northern English coal-mining town of Barnsley, Billy goes bird nesting in the nearby countryside one Saturday morning, spots a kestrel hawk living in a hole high in the surviving wall of a medieval monastery, catches it, and begins to train it. In the face of educational and state employment systems that would crush him like a beetle, Billy’s endeavor to acquire skills in falconry shows his resourcefulness and potential—and a passion that contrasts with his downtrodden demeanor. The British love underdogs and despise officiousness, bumptiousness, and authoritarian cruelty of the kind exhibited by some of Billy’s teachers, and this perhaps further explains why Kes has remained a favorite in the UK. But for a film that sets up a life of misery—the long years as a miner or unskilled factory worker that stretch ahead of Billy—it’s also surprisingly funny. When, for instance, Billy’s teacher takes morning attendance and calls the name Fisher, Billy spontaneously exclaims, “German Bight”—the North Sea area mentioned after Fisher on the BBC’s radio shipping forecast; wit is the mark of a survivalist in the North. The humorless teacher, of course, is irate.
Loach himself was born (in 1936) in an industrial town, Nuneaton, in the Midlands. One of his grandfathers was a miner; his father was an electrician. After doing National Service, studying law at Oxford, and working briefly as an actor, Loach joined the BBC as a trainee director. His debut was the stand-alone drama Catherine (1964), now lost, which featured an actor named Tony Garnett (a toolmaker’s son, born in Birmingham, also in 1936), who would eventually story-edit Loach’s Up the Junction (1965) and produce ten of his plays and films, including Kes. Loach and Garnett moved in the same left-wing circles as such other directors, producers, and writers as Roland Joffé, Kenith Trodd, and Trevor Griffiths. Loach has described himself as an “anti-Stalinist socialist” who “was once close to a Trotskyist position” and sought to present a Marxist analysis of why Labour politicians were protecting capitalist interests; Garnett has described himself as a “humanist and democratic socialist.” Their politics would greatly affect not only what they filmed—the travails of emotionally deprived and socially marginalized working‑class people, and of those among them who organize to struggle against class oppression—but how they filmed it.
In the spring of 1964, the television writer Troy Kennedy Martin published a highly influential article called “Nats Go Home” in the theater magazine Encore. It attacked the prevailing naturalism of small-screen drama and called for the use of Brechtian distancing strategies to encourage a critical social and political perspective. With John McGrath, Martin had written the 1964 BBC series Diary of a Young Man, and on the three episodes Loach directed, he put Martin’s ideas to use, employing voice-overs, stills, and music and even drawing attention to the camera. That October, Harold Wilson’s Labour government was elected to power after thirteen years of Conservative rule. The same month, the BBC launched the Wednesday Play anthology series with a mandate from its creator, Sydney Newman, to avoid politically safe drama—Shakespeare, Ibsen—in favor of “agitational contemporaneity” and “art in the service of the people.” Loach would eventually direct ten Wednesdays Plays (five of them produced by Garnett), which helped to liberate middle-class television drama from the dominant posh-accented, proscenium-arch theatrical style by taking 16 mm cameras into working-class areas and further harnessing the experimental techniques Martin had advocated.
Up the Junction, the most controversially “permissive” Wednesday Play and the work that established Loach as a director with a social agenda, is a kaleidoscopic docudrama impression of South London life adapted from Nell Dunn’s book of short stories. The film swirls around three boisterous young women; the shocking scene of one of them convulsed by pain after a backstreet abortion drew attention to the issue at the time of a parliamentary debate on the Abortion Law Reform Bill. Loach incorporated pop songs, voice-overs, direct address, and responses to questions from an unseen journalistic presence to interrupt the narrative and comment on women’s sexual and economic exploitation, but also to show the vitality of locals at work and play. He tightened the docudrama style on Cathy Come Home, a wrenching story by Jeremy Sandford, shot in Birmingham, about a young mother whose children are snatched by social services after she and her husband are evicted from their flat and forced to live apart and she ends up on the streets. Seen by a vast audience, this key television event of the sixties stoked a debate in Parliament and empowered the charity Shelter in its fight against homelessness and poor housing.
Next came In Two Minds (1967), David Mercer’s story of a young woman whose tyrannical, right-wing mother drives her into schizophrenia, which formed the basis for Loach and Garnett’s harrowing feature Family Life. The team’s last two films for The Wednesday Play were shot in Liverpool: The Golden Vision (1968), written by Neville Smith, more on which later, and The Big Flame (1969), a story of striking dockers by Jim Allen, a former miner, docker, and labor organizer who became one of Loach’s most important collaborators—the crucial theme of their work being the notion that labor leaders, whether politicians or union officials, have historically betrayed the rank and file. More overtly political than Loach’s previous dramas, The Big Flame prophesied militant action in the docking, shipbuilding, and mining industries in the next few years and expressed the far left’s disillusion with the Wilson government, which fell in June 1970, a month after The Wednesday Play went off the air.
Whereas the workers of The Big Flame take industrial action to remedy their grievances, the protagonists of Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home, and In Two Minds, Loach’s most influential Wednesday Plays, are disenfranchised. In the words of the British academic Stuart Laing, these plays “depicted individuals caught in a web of circumstances which they could not fully understand, and from which they could not engineer solutions or any form of escape; political analysis or solutions were absent or only implicit.” So it is with Joy, a sexually free young mother (played by Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home’s Carol White) involved with criminals in inner-city London in Loach and Garnett’s Poor Cow, from a Nell Dunn novel. And so it is with Billy Casper.
Billy lives with his dismissive mother (Lynne Perrie) and his embittered, spiteful coal miner brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher), in a house—so small the boys share a bed—on a drab public-housing estate. Billy is evasive, disengaged, and light-fingered, but there is a spark in him that most of the grown-ups in his life, beginning with his family, would extinguish; only his compassionate English teacher, Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), recognizes his promise. Loach’s films have consistently probed the dynamics of the class war. In Kes, the classes divide on generational rather than economic lines. The antagonistic, manipulative upper echelon are the adults, specifically the teachers and a youth employment officer, who enforce the social structures that keep people poor, uneducated, and exploitable as a steady source of cheap labor, and the oppressed underclass are the schoolchildren, the future rank and file of the mines and factories.
How appropriate that one of these kids, a girl, should read from the book of Matthew’s parable of the wandering children (quoted at the beginning of this piece) in the school assembly sarcastically presided over by the headmaster, Mr. Gryce (Bob Bowes). Shortly afterward, Gryce waxes splenetic about the moral malaise of modern youth, and canes Billy and several of his schoolfellows for minor or nonexistent offenses, the youngest of them (framed by the others and bullied even by Billy) being entirely innocent. Comically vicious, Gryce is a twentieth-century update of Wackford Squeers, the appalling Yorkshire headmaster of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby. Similarly bigoted are the newsagent who employs Billy to deliver papers and a surly chip shop owner, who repeats a version of the ancient complaint “All kids are the same.” The teachers, save Mr. Farthing, represent the wholesale failure of the educational system to support working-class youth in the Britain of the time.
Billy is about to leave school but has given no thought to employment, knowing only that he dreads following Jud down the pit. He professes that he can barely read and write, though this may be an idea he’s received from his teachers—he steals a book on falconry and devours it, quickly absorbing its arcane terminology. His identification with the trained but untamable Kes alleviates the impact of the enmity of his family and his school; he simply ignores the officer of the government-backed employment scheme (Bernard Atha) who would lure him into a soul-destroying, low-paying job like his brother’s, the fate of so many working-class British boys, generation after generation. These institutions are subtly revealed to be forces of betrayal, as are the social services, union leaders, and parents—all of which are supposed to protect and support—in other Loach films.
Jud eventually curtails the hope and freedom Kes represents for Billy. “He’s absolutely trapped,” Loach has said. “In the film, through the story, you see a whole side to life that the world cannot afford to see, that it can’t afford to acknowledge. At the time, in the North of England, boys like Billy were needed for unskilled labor. People who saw the film said to us, ‘Couldn’t he get a job in a zoo?’ which misses the entire point, because if it’s not Billy who’s going to be exploited as unskilled labor, it’s going to be someone else who’s in that predicament . . . The world just isn’t prepared to take on board the fact that he has talent and imagination, because he’s expected to work down the pit all his life, like his brother, and that’s if he’s lucky.”
Kes was adapted by Hines, Loach, and Garnett from Hines’s 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave. Hines, too, is a socialist. His father and grandfather were coal miners: the former was injured in the pit; the latter was killed there. Loach and Garnett originally approached Hines to adapt his first novel, The Blinder (1966), the story of a gifted school soccer star who dreams of playing professionally, thus avoiding the kind of fate likely to befall Billy. Hines declined the offer because he was then writing A Kestrel for a Knave. (In the event, Loach and Garnett did make a soccer docudrama, 1968’s The Golden Vision, about the real striker, and former miner, Alex Young, of the Merseyside soccer club Everton. The dream sequence showing a middle-aged fan scoring for Everton is echoed in the legendary sequence in Kes in which Billy’s sports teacher, the ridiculous Mr. Sugden, fantasizes on the soccer field that he is the great Bobby Charlton of Manchester United—himself a miner’s son.) Loach and Garnett would later work with Hines on the two-part drama The Price of Coal (1977), about the struggles of beleaguered Yorkshire miners dealing with a visit from Prince Charles and a pit disaster, and Loach also directed The Gamekeeper (1980) and Looks and Smiles (1981), Hines’s adaptations of his own novels, which address class exploitation in a rural setting and youth unemployment, respectively, and worked with him on A Question of Leadership (1980), a discussion-driven documentary that explores how Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government defeated striking steelworkers with the collusion of union leaders.
To make Kes, Loach and Garnett formed an independent company, and they shot the film in Barnsley for a reported £157,000. Loach, whose practice had been to work with actors in leading roles while weaving nonprofessionals into the fabric of his films, used primarily nonactors and entertainers from Yorkshire. St. Helen’s School, where Hines had taught PE, was used as the school in the film. Billy’s class was David Bradley’s class, the only one with which Loach met—his theory being that children like Billy and his classmates were ubiquitous. Bradley had appeared in pantomimes. Glover, a Bradford teacher and onetime pro wrestler, was a friend of Hines’s; for his audition, he had to stop a playground fight. Bowes was himself a local headmaster, and Welland, the only professional actor in the cast, had also taught. Fletcher, Perrie, her brother Duggie Brown (who plays the milkman from whom Billy steals), Atha, and Joey Kaye (who sings a risqué song in a nightclub) were Yorkshire comics; they all developed acting careers afterward (and Atha became a Labour mayor of Leeds). Even Desperate Dan, the muscular cowboy in the comic Billy reads facing a ridge of “dark Satanic Mills,” hails from England’s north. The kestrels in the film, named Freedom, Hardy, and Willis, were trained by Richard Hines, the writer’s brother, who showed Bradley how to handle them.
“Everything had an appropriate size about it,” Loach has said, “and it was helpful to shoot on such a modest scale. For the first time, we were able to achieve a situation where the film crew was there to serve the actors in the film. It wasn’t a case of just telling people what to do. I think that’s always been very important: as filmmakers, we’re not there to order people around; we’re there to listen, to absorb, and to try to draw people and serve them. And as far as we could, that’s what we did on Kes . . . It was a very happy experience.”
The visuals of Loach’s previous work had been influenced by Godard and featured handheld camera work, jump cuts, and cutting to music. Kes marked a decisive shift in style. Loach and the cinematographer, Chris Menges, who had operated the camera on Poor Cow and worked with the Czech cameraman Miroslav Ondrícek on Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968), adopted the precise, cool, observational style of the wry humanist films directed in Czechoslovakia by the likes of Milos Forman and Jirí Menzel. Loach has said that they had “decided that the effort shouldn’t be to make the camera do all the work but should be to make what is in front of the camera as authentic and truthful as possible. The camera’s job was to record it in a sympathetic way and to be unobtrusive, not to be slick. So when we came to Kes, there was a conscious move away from newsreely, chasing kind of photography to a more reflective, observed, sympathetically lit style of photography.” They used natural lighting, emphasizing clarity, dark though much of the film is.
Certain elements of the docudrama aesthetic of the Wednesday Plays were maintained in Kes. The interview comments by characters and locals in Up the Junction, intended to link the play to the BBC news in the spirit of actuality, are echoed in Kes’s club-sequence conversation scenes—when, for example, Billy’s mother describes him as “a hopeless case” and wonders if he would be prospering more if he’d been raised in a different environment, and when Jud ruminates on not tying down girlfriends who want to see other men. And there are moments of nonnaturalistic playfulness (the use of a BBC sports show theme and titles showing the score line during the soccer sequence). Still, Kes was Loach’s most realistic film up to that point. The fruits of this shift can be seen to great advantage in the likes of Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, Ladybird Ladybird, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, all photographed by Barry Ackroyd. The Loach-Menges partnership has meanwhile continued, through 2010’s Route Irish.
A harsh, if humorous, parent to softer comedy-dramas like Brassed Off (1996), The Full Monty (1997), and Made in Dagenham (2010), as well as the more rigorous Under the Skin (1997), Ratcatcher (1999), and Fish Tank (2009), Kes has been particularly likened to Billy Elliott (2000), that celebrated movie about a northern lad escaping bleak circumstances through ballet. Kes, infinitely tougher, has its own ballet. In its central idyll, Billy dodges and twists in the field abutting his house, elegantly stepping backward and forward, leaning back on his heels, spinning a lure like a bola in the air as Kes swoops and circles before finally coming to rest at Billy’s feet. Mr. Farthing—who has been impressed by Billy’s spontaneous classroom account of training Kes—tentatively approaches. Billy tells Mr. Farthing to be quiet, for he is in command here, and the dance of boy and bird continues, an unostentatious performance enhanced by the teacher’s admiring spectatorship. Menges filmed this sequence with a series of medium, long, and medium-close shots—though the sequence is so transcendent that one is not aware of the camera or the deft cuts that organize it. A rustic melody pipes away in the background, offering a Wordsworthian strain of “the still sad music of humanity.”
Mr. Farthing’s compliments to Billy are no less heartfelt for being clichés—the calculated language of the screenplay. “The most exciting thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. “Great. Thrill of a lifetime, lad.” Afterward, Billy feeds Kes a sparrow he shot with an air rifle, and he and Mr. Farthing enter Billy’s garden shed, where the teacher remarks on the strange feeling he got when watching the bird. “Is it because everything goes quiet?” Billy suggests. Mr. Farthing agrees. It’s as if Kes were “flying in a pocket of silence,” he says. That’s a tad literary—it comes from the novel—but it captures the state of grace that Kes has transmitted to Billy, and the respect the boy and the man feel for the bird.
Respect has grown, too, between Billy and Mr. Farthing. The kindly teacher, who earlier stopped a fight between Billy and a bigger classmate and observed that Billy was always being picked on, has briefly stepped into the shoes of the boy’s father, whose absence is palpable. When Billy visits the local library to take out a falconry book and the librarian—going by the rules but as obstructive as other adults—tells him he needs to have a form signed by his father to get a membership card, Billy casually remarks that his father has left home. In the club sequence, Mrs. Casper, who broadly hints to her boyfriend that she wants to settle down again, speaks of her ex-husband as a “wrong ’un” who’s made her wary of men. The film generally adheres closely to the novel, but an episode at the end of the latter in which Billy breaks into an abandoned movie theater—where he recalls seeing a film with his father, then returning home with him to find his “mother and Uncle Mick jumping up off the settee, staring and flushed”—is not included. The film thus avoids the self-consciousness of a cinema scene and excuses Mrs. Casper of adultery—and Billy of a psychological trauma. Instead, it hints that she is worn down by her circumstances, as is Jud, whose hatred of his mining job has curdled his spirit. Loach, though, later said that he felt the film erred in making Jud “just a villain” and not more empathetic.
Most British films have their premieres in London, but Kes bowed at the ABC Doncaster, near Barnsley—its Yorkshire accents apparently too broad for a ritzy showcase in the capital—in March 1970. It performed well in the UK but received only limited distribution in the U.S., where parts of the original soundtrack were rerecorded (with the same actors) to make the voices more understandable. It has gradually achieved classic status and remains the most clear-sighted film ever made about the compromised expectations of the British working class. Its world has changed: Billy’s all-white “secondary modern” school (for children who failed the national exam for eleven-year-olds) would have become a fully streamed (academically nonselective) “comprehensive” in the early seventies, and increasingly multiethnic; Barnsley’s coal mines closed in the early nineties. But the film’s message is relevant wherever the young are maltreated and manipulated, and wherever the labor force is exploited.
Graham Fuller is the editor of Loach on Loach, from which the Ken Loach quotes in this piece are taken. He has written essays for the Criterion releases of A Canterbury Tale, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walker, The Hit, and The Last Picture Show. His website is inalonelyplace.com.