Retro Heaven

Revisiting Kes

Reviewing the 1969 film version of Kes…..

kes_1It must be over thirty years ago since I last saw Ken Loach’s film of the novel A Kestrel For A Knave (1968) by Barry Hines, a Barnsley-born author whose book inspired Loach to make the film a year later. A staple of school’s English Literature classes it was probably best known amongst schoolchildren at the time for its two scenes of explicit language, I recall laughing nervously as we all watched it with our very upright lady English tutor who must have been bracing herself for our reaction.

It was made on location in Barnsley using both professional and non-actors, the latter evident in some minor stumbling speaking parts which accentuate the realism of the film rather than detract from it. The dialect is naturally broad and not one for the less-travelled, I couldn’t help but wonder how this would have been sold to an American audience but then would Loach have cared? I doubt it.

Although it was made at the end of the sixties the film still had resonance when I watched it in the early eighties, my school had a Billy Casper or two, my town had its fair share of social and economic problems and the broken families which inevitably came with it. The bullying, the fights, teachers shouting, discipline by the stick, it was all a familiar scene for our classroom but Casper, a most unlikely anti-hero was not.

It is a remarkable film in many ways, not least because it shows how, in the depths of under privileged towns buried in the quagmire of poverty and illiteracy can be found the potential for astonishing talent. We used to see it in the sporting world when a George Best or an Alex Higgins or a Mike Tyson could rise from nowhere to astonish the world with a sparkling, unpolished talent to defy every odd and prejudice. This, to a lesser extent is Casper who unwittingly develops a self-taught ability to tame and train a wild bird which he steals from a nest and learns to care for from a book he steals from a bookshop.

The ensuing relationship between Casper and his bird shows us the boy’s yearning for escape from his dismissive mother and bullying brother, school teachers who pick him out for undeserved punishment and classmates who revel in his misfortune. The bird is solace from the fate which awaited any young adolescent without an academic bent heading helplessly towards a life at the bottom of a mine shaft.

But for me it was a reminder once more that behind every face, no matter how muddied, lies a story and within it an ability at something perhaps as yet undiscovered. Casper stood no chance of escape from his life and the film offers no happy ending, nor should it. Young people today have never enjoyed so much freedom and material benefits, Casper and his ilk had no expectations of their future lives, no shelter from the truth was offered. Today we smoother our young in a blanket of false hope, ridicule-inducing job titles and meaningless qualifications hoping to snuff out the ticking time bomb of the reality of adulthood. It does perhaps, beg the question of which generation has, in the end, been harder done by, Casper’s or today’s?


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