Golden Oldies #9: Kes

The touching story of a boy and his bird reminds Michael Armstrong of the honest parts of childhood

One of my pet hates is the truism “school days are the best days of your life.” This phrase is usually favoured by those who have gone on to live unfulfilled lives; they translate the peculiar qualities of our childhood memories into over-glorified halcyon days of endless summers and countless adventures. No doubt we all have such memories, but often what is forgotten is how painfully acute feelings of powerlessness, loneliness and self-condemnation can be when growing up. 

In Kes, Ken Loach’s 1969 adaptation of Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, we are told the tragic story of young Billy Casper, a boy who finds hope in his dreary life through taming a wild Kestrel he encounters. Loach’s second feature film is no airbrushed vision of childhood, however, as it is brutally honest in it’s depiction of how children and adults can relate to one another. Billy comes neither from a loving home nor an overtly violent one; just a working class family with the conflicting motives and feelings that anyone could relate to. His mother (Lynne Perrie) regrets her earlier decisions in life that have left her alone with two kids, while his older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) has become jaded and cruel after years working in the local coal mines. His life at school is also painful, as Billy is picked on both by fellow pupils and teachers. 

The film’s relatively simple premise sustains our interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, the central performance of David Bradley as Billy is truly heartbreaking. The young actor was born in Barnsley (where the film is set), and manages to portray the conflicted dignity and innocence of the character with a naturalism rarely seen in more professionally trained child actors. Secondly, the film’s use of authentic Yorkshire accents and phrases, while a little hard to make out in some scenes, gives the conversation an overheard, even improvised feel, and draws us in to the reality of the character’s lives.  

The film also avoids glorifying the industrial working class, with no ill-fitting odes to the “salt of the earth” muddying the narrative. They are shown to lead often wasted and lamentable lives, with little in the way of education or job prospects, or even an awareness of their predicament. The introduction of a sympathetic English teacher, Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), only underlines how alone Billy has been and how much his bird means to him. One scene in particular is very moving, as Farthing coaxes Billy into telling the class about his taming of Kes. Billy, though nervous, quickly forgets his audience of peers and bursts into a beautiful description of the taming of the bird. It is the one good thing in his life, his one connection to happiness, and seeing him lost in his own storytelling only makes it clear to the viewer how fragile and precious this link is. We know then, long before the film makes it explicit, that this good thing cannot last. 

From all that’s been written above I may have given the impression that Kes is a wholly downbeat affair, but this is definitely not the case. A hilariously true to life scene involving a school P.E. football match is a clear highlight of the film, with the overbearing Mr. Sugden (Brian Glover) forcing the kids to play in his imagined FA cup match between Manchester United and Spurs. In a beautiful comedic touch, the score appears at the bottom of the screen as the match develops, underlining Sugden’s delusions of grandeur. Both this scene, and the wistful moments between Billy and Kes (set to perfect score by John Cameron) provide a much-needed counterpoint to the sadder sections of the film. But in its true telling of an unhappy childhood, Kes makes us appreciate not only our own past but our present and future, as unlike Billy, many of us are able to reach our potential and overcome what may have held us back before. Kes tells us the story of a boy for whom his pitiful formative years actually were the happiest days of his life, and in doing so, it should give pause to those who rush to sugar-coat our journey towards adulthood.

Golden Oldies #8: Paths of Glory

With The Wire now over, Michael Armstrong goes back to the series’ film inspiration

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