Whenever I think about social-realist directors from Britain, two names come to mind: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Whilst Mike Leigh has roots in theatre and has films characterised as ‘Kitchen-Sink Realism’, Ken Loach, though an actor briefly, has roots in television drama. His films are deemed as socially-realist as, like Loach’s belief, the films are sensitive to socialist issues in communities in the north of England. Kes is set in Barnsley, Yorkshire, and – in the hope that this may spur you on to watch the film – I would recommend the American readers to pop on the subtitles to clearly understand the dialects used by the actors (as I would put on subtitles to watch The Wire).
The Poor Boy
It is interesting to note that 10 years prior saw the release of The 400 Blows from Truffaut – a story about a poor boy in a broken family. Billy Casper (David Bradley) is from a single-parent family. Mum (Lynne Perrie) struggles to cope with the two sons – both of which are reckless and, in the case of Jud (Freddie Fletcher), aggressive and selfish. The first scene we see is Jud and Billy sharing a double-bed, as Jud bullies his younger brother by refusing to reset the alarm and leaving the door open as he leaves the room.
But it is Billy who we follow. Billy completes a daily paper round which takes him around the estate and area. We see him enjoy his own space as he reads the ‘Dandy’ and walks through farms, interested in the wildlife and birds. He has stolen from others before and so his newsagaent employer always reminds him that he will lose his job if found stealing from him. We see Billy at school and he is mocked by bullies in the school and the teachers also fail to truly support him – and instead remind him about his hopelessness. From this perspective alone we see how challenging life is for ‘Casper’ (as his friends call him) and, a line from The 400 Blows comes to mind: “Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I
prefer to lie.”
On one visit to a farmyard in the morning, he see’s a Kestrel and asks about how to train a creature. The farmer explains how much hard work is neccessary, but Billy doesn’t mind and before long he is besotted by the animal. He slowly trains the kestrel – naming him ‘Kes’ – through the assistance of a book he steals from a local bookshop (he inistially tried to borrow a book from the library but was refused as he couldn’t join the library without his Mum’s signature…).
The parrallel between young Billy and ‘Kes’ is clearly set out. The patience, effort and time Billy needs to give to ‘Kes’ is in contrast to the lack of patience, minimal effort and short-time given to Billy in school. This lack of support is clearly portrayed in a ten-minute sequence consisting of a P.E. lesson whereby the class play a game of footaball.
The teacher is high on his ego – in addition to “teaching”, he also designates himsef as lead striker and referee. This results in a completely unfair game whereby the rules are changed to suit his own ends. A penalty is taken twice after he fails to score on the first attempt. The small and thin Billy, amongst the tall footballers, is not in his comfort zone. We are told how he never brings his kit and so doesn’t take part – but the teacher this time scrambles together scraps of ill-fitting clothes forcing Billy to look a state before even playing. He is last picked and forced to stand in goal.
The weather is appalling (true British weather) and, upon losing the match, the teacher forces Billy to have a shower and, when in the shower, he turns the cold tap on. On the one hand this is a sequence whereby you can laugh at how horrible the teacher is – but, within this realist context, you understand the truth of the situation. Billy is abused in this manner every day. His lack of money and attititude has permanently placed him in the “unimportant” sector of society. This teacher preys on his weakness and give the students plenty of opportunity to mock him further. A school to educate only seems to reaffirm social-status. This is not right.
The patience, time and effort Billy gives to a kestrel is better than the treatment he recieves in the society around him. This is tragic and heart-breaking. The child didn’t have a chance.
Set within Yorkshire, the community is in an important time whereby coal-miners are still active and the beauty of nature and the countryside is in conflict with the industrial factories. Chris Menges (The Reader, The Mission, The Killing Fields) is cinematographer and he manages to depict a fascinating environment whereby Billy runs through the dirty streets in deep shadow highlighting the deprived area he resides within. Even his clothes are dull and grey, as if the coal and soot from the mines has tainted the children around the town.
In true realist fashion, the film ends in tragedy. Kes is the one passion and hope for Billy. Kes focuses Billys’ attention on other things. The distractions of teenage life are put on the side as he see’s the beauty of the creature in flight. Billy mentions that he has been “doing alot better” since he hasn’t hung around with the bullies in the school and, through his careful rearing of ‘Kes’, he begins to trust others and gains respect from the people around him. There are many facsinating monologues as Billy talks about his observations of Kes.
He explains how he doesn’t see Kes as a pet – you can’t control a creature like Kes. He has to be free and has to be admired and respected.
But it is not anyone from outside of this community who destroys his dreams – indeed, it is his own family and the desperation for money that indirectly kills the one hope Billy has. His brother Jud kills Kes as an act of revenge when Billy fails to place a bet at the bookies. Is Loach hinting at how sometimes the people closest to you can be the people who hold you back? Is he noting how money is the destructive element – and the unspoken desperation for escape from the working class that is destroying communities from the inside? Considering the film was made in 1969, maybe the education system has changed dramatically and pupils like Billy are much rarer to find. But watching it in 2012, you can see how the hope of the uneducated is still shot down as working-class jobs are moved to other countries and carried out by technology. The uneducated and deprived areas still exist and still need jobs. Billy is not a 14 year old in school now – he is the 17 year old without any qualifications. Where do they go?