By Maryann O’Connor
On the surface, Kes is a touching portrayal of the life of a working class lad in the 1960s but it could just as easily be the story of any working class child, in any decade. This is one of many qualities which qualify the film for inclusion in the top 10 of the BFI’s 100 films of the 20th century.
Set in Barnsley, the focus is on Billy (David Bradley) as he goes on his paper round, shares a small bed with his older brother and struggles to stay awake at school. One day, while out exploring, he sees a family of Kestrels living in the wall of a rundown stone structure. He is captured by wonder at the flight and hunting habits of the birds and goes off to learn more about keeping them (achieved by stealing a book on falconry from a second hand book shop). Soon he goes back to get one of the birds, climbing up the dangerous wall to grab one of them out of the nest. He calls her Kes.
Billy is reverential and extremely devoted to the bird: she becomes his best friend. He doesn’t want to spend time with anyone else when he can be out training her.
The beauty of the story lies in its simplicity. Watching this film will make you recall your own schooldays, the wonder of newly-discovered passions and the unfairness of life when you’re that age. Teachers who ask you to pay attention but are themselves just waiting to get out of the door and siblings or parents who are only interested in you when you’re calling them a name. Out of everything, thoughtless cruelty is the thing which most crushes the spirit and wonder of children, making sure they live up to the low standards expected of them. There is a very droll speech given by the headmaster on why he has to cane wayward children and why he expects to see the same boys in his office many more times for the same treatment. Kids today eh… They will thank him when they’re older.
All the performances are memorable, David Bradley’s most of all, with colourful teachers, Colin Welland as the devoted educator Mr Farthing and Brian Glover as the slightly sadistic Mr Sugden (does anyone remember a P.E. teacher who wasn’t slightly sadistic?!) providing good support. Freddie Fletcher plays the role of mean older brother Jud as if he’d been training for it all his life.
Ken Loach is known for making gritty and realistic films but, as with life, there is a lot of humour to be had in Kes amongst the pitfalls. The adaptation by Barry Hines of his book ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ is very clever and the native Yorkshire dialogue is funny and charming in itself, a reminder of how much some real accents and ways of speaking can add to a film.
Kes proves that you don’t need big names or a disposable story to make a film that everyone will want to go and see. Promotion of diversity and different outlooks are needed to ensure that good cinema doesn’t die a death amongst the sequels, reboots and re-imagined superheroes. The commercial success of films has a lot to do with how much they are promoted and championed: that is certainly something the British government, any government, could do to assist their filmmakers.