While at the BBC producing The Wednesday Play (1964-70), producer Tony Garnett was first alerted to the talents of writer Barry Hines by BBC North radio producer Alfred Bradley, who recommended he read Hines’ first novel The Blinder about a working class footballer.
Garnett met and offered Hines an opportunity to write for The Wednesday Play, but he deferred as he was keen to complete his next book, A Kestrel for A Knave, which Garnett and his frequent collaborator director Ken Loach would adapt for the screen as Kes in 1969.
After Hines sent him a copy of the novel’s manuscript, Garnett contacted Loach, then editing his first feature film Poor Cow (1967), and suggested the book as an ideal project for them to collaborate on. In 1968 he set up an independent production company, Kestrel Productions (named in honour of the film Kes) with Loach, writer David Mercer, producer Kenith Trodd, agent Clive Goodwin, and solicitor Irving Teitelbaum.
Working within Kestrel Productions, Loach felt he would have greater freedom to pick projects and collaborators without enduring the pressures he had experienced with the making of Poor Cow. There, he was caught within the commercial demands of producer Joseph Janni and the friction between Janni’s film crew and Loach’s own team assembled from his television productions.
A Kestrel for a Knave was inspired by Barry Hines’ own childhood and upbringing in Barnsley. He had a keen interest in birds and animals as a youngster, and his brother Richard, inspired by T.H. White’s memoir The Goshawk, trained kestrels found nesting in a crumbling old hall near Hoyland Common. This experience, walking the same country paths as his book’s alter ego Billy Casper, his keen recollections of secondary school shenanigans, and working life as a PE teacher, fed into the novel. Richard served as a technical adviser on the film and went on to train the film’s lead actor David Bradley in falconry.
US distributor National General originally agreed to finance the film, but they pulled out just before shooting began, fearing it would cost far more than the £157,000 budget Garnett had indicated. This was not unusual at the time. Hollywood’s enthusiasm for British film production throughout the 1960s was dwindling, and the majority of distributors were taking their money elsewhere. The British industry was being left to wither and raising money for production was becoming increasingly difficult.
United Artists eventually funded Kes when director Tony Richardson intervened and secured a production deal for £160,000 with his company Woodfall. It seems appropriate now that Kes fell into Woodfall’s orbit, linking the film with its own successful track record making key British realist films of the 1960s, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). As John Hill noted, although Kes initially suggested a continuation of the British New Wave’s depiction of the embourgeoisement of the working class under the influence of mass consumerism and suburbanisation, the film actually dispelled this idea. It provided a much harsher, critical examination of the thwarting of working class ambition and potential that was in tune with the sense of disillusionment that had settled on the end of the 1960s.
Taking its queue more from Loach’s previous work, Kes examines how working class people become enmeshed and trapped by the power of institutions as they enter the world of work. Rather than the upwardly mobile, rebellious figures featured in Woodfall’s films, Graham Fuller notes that Loach’s films “draw attention to situations where people routinely undercut or actually destroy the equality, liberty and livelihoods of others—in the workplace, in the home, and in society at large.” It’s also disturbing to witness that “the betrayal and disenfranchisement of working-class people comes, invariably, at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and support their interests.”
Filmed in and around the mining communities of Barnsley, and on the streets Lundwood, Kes explores the family and school life of young Billy Casper (David Bradley). He’s about to leave school and, with his academic failure leaving him little other alternative, faces the prospect of becoming a miner like his older brother and the majority of the men in the town. Resisting this destiny, his delinquency takes him on another path when he finds and begins to train a kestrel. With guidance from a stolen book on falconry he establishes a bond with the bird. However, when Billy forgets to put a bet on for his brother Jud, his potential escape from social entrapment is cruelly ended.
The film marked a turning point in Loach’s own aesthetic, then formed by the docu-drama realist approach he’d nurtured while working on The Wednesday Play. His techniques of shooting on location, and integrating professional and non-professionals within his casts, continued to evolve in Kes. The casting of the film was integral to the authenticity and realism that Loach sought to evoke.
Playing Billy Casper was David Bradley, who was cast from 200 auditions across three schools in Barnsley. Bradley had some experience of doing Christmas pantos at the same school where Hines taught and was chosen from a shortlist of 40 boys that Loach and Garnett auditioned. They were given two audition pieces to play: the fight scene in the playground on the pile of coke, and Billy’s visit to the library to find a book on falconry. Like his character Billy, Bradley’s imperative was to escape his fate as a miner’s son and avoid ending up down the pit. Even though Loach and Garnett were worried about the impact the film would have on him, Bradley saw it as an opportunity to forge a career as a professional actor.
Bradley also worked closely with Richard Hines and trained every day one of three young kestrels (named after shoe shop chain Freeman, Hardy and Willis) close to fledging for the duration of the eight-week shooting schedule. One of the very first scenes he shot was the finding of the kestrels at the old manor, which required him to shin up the wall and bring a kestrel down out of its nest.
Consequently, Loach then brought together well-known actor-writer (and former teacher) Colin Welland, as sympathetic teacher Mr. Farthing, with stand-up comedian and singer Lynne Perrie, spotted singing by Loach and Garnett in Barnsley’s Ba’ Ba’ Club after they’d auditioned over 40 other actors for the part of Billy’s mother. Kes ultimately brought her to the attention of Coronation Street‘s casting director, where she established her role as Ivy Tilsley from 1971 onwards. Comedian Duggie Brown, Perrie’s younger brother, also appears as the milkman and Joey Kaye, a cabaret stand-up from Liverpool, sings the ribald song in the film’s nightclub scene, and went on to appear in a number of Loach’s plays and films.
Joining them was teacher and professional wrestler ‘Leon Arras the Man From Paris’, otherwise known as the much-loved Yorkshire character actor Brian Glover. Suggested to Loach by writer Hines, this was Glover’s first acting job, playing PE teacher Mr. Sugden, who labours under the impression he’s Bobby Charlton. Freddie Fletcher, who played Billy’s violent and cruel brother Jud, was a painter and decorator, and Billy’s teachers and classmates in the film were auditioned from the staff and pupils, including David Bradley’s form master Trevor Hesketh, of St. Helens secondary school in Athersley South, Barnsley, where writer Hines had also taught and where most of the school scenes were shot.
The other important facet in the development of Kes was Loach’s collaboration with cinematographer Chris Menges. Menges had previously worked as a documentarian on Granada’s World in Action (1963-98) and had been the camera operator on Poor Cow. The shooting style of Kes was inspired by Menges’ collaboration with Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček when they shot Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) and by the humanist and naturalist principles of Czech New Wave director-writers Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel.
As Loach later observed, the shooting of Kes was determined by “how light should be photographed, about which lenses were sympathetic and which weren’t, and about how to contain the action.” Kes combined “a more reflective, observed sympathetically lit style of photography” with distanced, static cameras and long-focused, narrow lenses. This, in turn, freed up the actors who were able to perform without consciously having to hit marks.
Loach then mixed this sparse approach with non-naturalistic, witty touches, such as the score captioned football match, the use of the Grandstand theme tune on the soundtrack, and a marginal use of the docu-drama style of previous television work, where Billy, in voice-over, imparts the knowledge he’s gleaned from his stolen library book on falconry and, in the night club scene, when Loach eavesdrops on Billy’s mother and her conversations and concerns about Billy’s future.
However, when Loach completed the film, United Artists couldn’t comprehend what they had in the finished product. They worried that the film featured no star actors, did not suggest a positive resolution to Billy’s plight, and was a story communicated in the indecipherable Yorkshire accents of the Barnsley area. The company was also tied to the Rank organisation and the Odeon cinema circuit and their ambivalence toward the film also delayed a full release.
Rank simply sat on the film, denying it a release, while United Artists attempted to make the film more accessible by re-dubbing some of the dialogue, unbeknownst to Loach and Garnett at the time. Garnett arranged a special screening for critics to countermand this lack of support and the film was shown at the London Film Festival in November 1969. However, Rank then handed the film over to the ABC chain and even then it only received a premiere screening in Doncaster in March 1970 and a limited run in the North of England. After generating much press acclaim and sell-out screenings, ABC finally opened the film in London and the rest of the country some two years after filming. It finally became a success and eventually gained a reputation as one of Loach’s best films.
There is perhaps a tendency today for those of us of Billy’s generation to fall into the trap of associating Kes with pure nostalgia. It is evocative of the days of the secondary modern school and the good and bad teachers the education system offered at the time. There is a sense of recognition with the uncontested use of corporal punishment, the ritual of rejection on the sports field and the reluctant visits to the careers officer. However, nostalgia can cloud a fuller appreciation of Kes, softening the blow of the bad old days of eleven-plus failure toughed out through resilience and survival. The caning scene (as does the football match) offers, as Jacob Leigh notes, “the best examples of a sequence that has sad ‘total implications’ about education and society while at the same time containing ‘immensely funny’ details.” We laugh with the boys during the caning but we’re also very aware of the stinging tears it produces.
A contradictory film of incisive social critique and shared experience, physical comedy and bitter anger, Kes still demands an answer to the central question—why do we write-off generation after generation of children in the education system? As Richard Hines reflected on his brother Barry’s inspiration to write the novel: “he told me that while he had been teaching in secondary modern schools in London and Barnsley, he’d come across lots of clever kids who’d failed the eleven plus exam, and that he wanted to produce a book that was critical of an education system which wrote off the majority of children when they were eleven years old.”
Loach builds on this critique and uses the ‘fact and fiction’ (as chalked up on the board by Mr. Farthing in the film when he asks his pupils to tell their personal stories in class) of narrative filmmaking to open up the script and interrogate the culture within education and the family that dooms Billy to his fate. There is a generational clash that fuels the class and social pessimism in the film. The truculent headmaster Mr. Gryce (Bob Bowes) bemoans the failures of the younger generation and beats them for it, the fish shop owner (Bill Dean) believes these kids are all the same and the careers officer (Bernard Atha) is bewildered by Billy’s lack of ambition for his future.
The education system that Billy’s caught and bullied within is one dominated by masculinity. Most of the teachers we see in the film are men, and most of them, apart from Mr. Farthing (a lovely Colin Welland performance), to an extent, are loud and violent bullies. What the film seems to suggest is that this potent masculinity stifles creativity and any latent talent a pupil might demonstrate. Billy suddenly bursts into articulate life in the classroom when Mr. Farthing asks him to talk about his true passion, flying his kestrel. The only female figures of note in the film are Mrs. Casper (the terrific Lynne Perrie), overwhelmed by her social circumstances and only just able to keep the peace between Jud and Billy, and the librarian who is powerless to allow Billy to become a borrower unless he can get a parent to sign an application form.
However, Mr. Farthing’s delight at Billy’s latent talent will be extinguished by the prospect of Billy being forced into the realm of working class manual labour. This is another realm where any talent and independence will be crushed by alienation and oppression. To this end, Loach regretted turning Billy’s brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) into the villain of the film as it should be understood that Jud’s own resentment and violence, his spite and vindictiveness, are a projection of his curtailed ambitions and social circumstances. As John Hill points out, as a coal miner with no other prospects, Jud is himself a victim of alienated labour and cultural disadvantage. Menges’ cinematography also underlines this by placing Jud and Billy within a juxtaposition of verdant landscape and the noisy, smoking environs of the colliery or the deprived streets.
Billy and his family are trapped, and Loach steadfastly remind us of how Billy’s mother, Jud and Billy are desperate to escape their circumstances. Billy’s mother confesses repeatedly that she’s sick of the antagonism in the household and does not see a way out of it unless she remarries and, in the process, achieves social mobility to escape her current domestic prison. At the centre of this social trap is Billy, who briefly finds a sense of freedom training his kestrel. David Bradley is perfect in this role and the entire film rests on his truthful naturalism and ability to communicate Billy’s respect for the wildness of nature and the inevitable loss of hope.
Of course, one of the symbolic readings for Billy’s attempt to free himself is the training of the kestrel. It is a wild, natural creature that can’t be tamed, and when it resists and tries to defend itself against Jud’s attack, its flight is prevented and, metaphorically, its wings are clipped. Loach remarked that “we never thought of the kestrel as a symbol. I don’t think we ever discussed the symbolic resonance of it—again tending and training the bird was just what Billy did.” It’s difficult not to interpret the bird as symbol. A half-tame, half-wild creature like Billy; an emblem of the boy’s hope and potential that is depressingly snuffed out by Jud’s actions. However, Jacob Leigh sees the film’s ending as ambiguous and suggests we are left not truly knowing how the training of Kes has affected Billy’s resilience and his taste for freedom.
To enrich the narrative and performances we also have, as mentioned previously, Menges’ observational and naturalistic cinematography, contrasting 1970s industrialism and brutalism with glowing green woodlands, rolling landscapes, and the swooping motions of Billy’s kestrel. Planted in the midst of ruined buildings and dappled woodland are the mines and terraces as a bold reminder of working-class life in Yorkshire, offering a grey counterpoint to the misty, pastoral green of the landscapes. John Cameron’s exquisite folk-tinged score (barely 20-minutes of music) suffuses the scenes of Billy flying the kestrel with a delicate innocence, and gradually introduces into the film tones of inevitable tragedy.
Kes powerfully resonates through the decades and retains its status as a key British film that still has plenty to say about the education system and family relationships. This new edition from Eureka and Masters of Cinema is a brilliantly assembled package. The high definition transfer is excellent, emphasising Menges’ superb work and coaxing detail from the industrial red-brick town and the countryside. Grain is present and correct and demonstrates Menges’ use of natural lighting, while the film’s high contrast, colour palette is faithfully reproduced. You can also watch the film with either the production soundtrack or the alternate release soundtrack with post-dubbed dialogue.
It scores even higher with its array of special features. In the excellent set of interviews on the disc David Bradley recalls his casting, the shooting of the film, and revisits some of the locations; Tony Garnett discusses the funding and setting up of the film, as well as his and Ken’s BBC background; Richard Hines offers a truly inspiring recollection of his brother’s writing of “A Kestrel for a Knave” and the discovery of his own latent talents, education and class history; Chris Menges discusses the influence of cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček on the shooting and lighting of Kes; John Cameron provides an insight into composing the evocative score; and actor Bernard Atha considers the film’s critique of the education system and younger generation.
Coupled with these are an absorbing interview with Loach at the NFT from 1992 and the informative Kes reunion panel held at the Bradford Film Festival in 2006 with Loach, Garnett, Colin Welland, and writer Barry Hines. Overall, this is a must-own release.
I am indebted to the following authors, essays, and articles for details and quotes:
- Animals in Film, Jonathan Burt, (Reaktion Books, 2004).
- Loach on Loach, edited by Graham Fuller (Faber and Faber, 1998).
- ‘Winged Hope’, Graham Fuller (Kes, Criterion Collection Blu-ray, 2011).
- Life After Kes, Simon W. Golding (Apex Publishing, 2014).
- Ken Loach, The Politics of Film and Television, John Hill (BFI Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
- ‘A Working Class Hero Is Something to Be: Changing Representations of Class and Masculinity in British Cinema’, John Hill, in The Trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema (Wallflower Press, 2004).
- Tony Garnett, Stephen Lacey (Manchester University Press, 2007).
- The Cinema of Ken Loach: Art in the Service of the People, Jacob Leigh (Wallflower Press, 2002).
Cast & Crew
director: Ken Loach.
writers: Barry Hines, Ken Loach & Tony Garnett (based on ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines).
starring: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland & Brian Glover.