I first saw this film in 1973, watched it as a shaky U-matic recording in a sociology class at school. I was twelve years old. There’s an emotional ending that some members of the class weren’t able to deal with, resulting in infantile laughter from the back row when you might otherwise have expected to hear a pin drop. Thus was the climax lost in an explosive telling off by our teacher, a Brian Glover look-a-like, who, by coincidence, was one of the characters in the movie. It was surreal, like art imitating life.
I’ve only recently caught up with the film again in full and was struck by the quality of the photography, and the power of the story. It’s certainly better in HD than it was on U-matic. And, like the death of U-matic, some things have changed in England since 1969, the year the film came out, while others remain the same, namely that among a certain persuasion of society, the poor are despised for being poor, and there’s a belief that if you’re poor, it’s your fault for not doing something about it, that you’re lazy, you drink too much, you smoke too much, that you should have worked harder at school.
Kes is the story of Billy Casper, a lad born to a broken family in a poor area of Barnsley. He’s of my generation but the kind of character I would have avoided at school because of his position on the periphery of a bad crowd. Poorly dressed, dirty, always in trouble, always being picked on by the bigger toughs, Billy finds pleasure in exploring the woods and farmland near his home.
Though town-bred, he is country-wise, has raised wild creatures inspired by a wonder at the natural world and it’s in this we see the depths of Billy, and his hopes of any kind of escape. Billy will never be a king, most of us won’t, but we all have it in us to be poets, thinkers, sensitive lovers, musicians, to develop inwardly as the spirit in us evolves, as it moves us towards discovering the meaning of our lives, and in Billy the spirit is strong. But given the life he was born into, will that be enough? If at the end of this film you have not found in yourself any compassion for Billy, then indeed you have a hard heart.
He’s not the kind of lad we’re supposed to care much about. He’s a no hoper, an under achiever and a petty thief. Billy’s family is supported in part by the wages of the older brother, Judd, a mineworker at a time when the South Yorkshire pits paid the poorest wages of any developed country. Nearing fifteen, Billy will not be staying on at school. Most likely he’ll be joining his brother down the pit. He doesn’t want to, but beyond that he hasn’t thought about it much. The family are struggling. The father is gone. Billy’s mother is hardly a nurturing, caring, motherly type seeminly permanently at war with Judd’s cock sure ego. Both lads have been dragged up, and are entirely reliant on their own wits to make the transition into manhood. God knows what will happen to them.
The titular Kes is a Kestrel Billy robs from a nest and rears himself, learning the art of falconry – supposedly the sport of kings – which he practices in the fields beyond the terraced backs of his Barnsley home. Working men have traditionally found great dignity in their care and understanding of birds, though usually of the pigeon variety. Denied a voice most of the time, Billy becomes unexpectedly and quite stunningly eloquent when picked upon to tell the class of his adventures with Kes.
The school I went to was not as bad as Billy’s, not set down in quite as poor an area, but the scenes still send a chill, and the football match with Brian Glover’s daft, pompous bully of a games master would be funny were it not also eerily familiar from my own past. It’s clear Billy would do well not to trust authority for his salvation, for in 1969 it clearly has not the competence to do so – indeed it appears crass, insensitive and stupid. Would things go any better for him now?
Of all the teachers at Billy’s school, only Colin Welland’s English master is portrayed as showing any empathy and provides at least a tentative connection with that part of the human race capable of valuing and nurturing whatever is latent in others, rather than merely commanding conformance to a set of arbitrary rules that are of no practical use whatsoever to an individual like Billy.
In ’69, Billy is nearing fifteen years old, and can leave school to become so called factory or mine fodder. If we transplant the story to the present day, Billy would be stuck in education until he was sixteen, or even eighteen, which is just as well because there are no factories or mines any more that can use his hands. But the Key Stages and Assessment Scores of the latter day tell us only what is already blindingly obvious, that Billy Casper will never get the obligatory degree, nor wear a tie to work, and no matter what the strength of his spirit, if he is fifteen or eighteen, he is still consigned to the default condition of the poor. This is not, as is the pernicious myth perpetuated by certain classes of the non-poor, scrounging on benefits for the rest of his life, but more one of enduring the tyranical trap of zero hours contracts, and minimum wage slavery.
“I don’t like school much,” he says, “so I don’t suppose I’ll like work much either. But at least I’ll be paid for not liking it.”
Billy will be nearing sixty now and I wonder how his life turned out – if his latent passions finally found room to flourish. Certainly the ending of Kes downplayed this possibility, suggesting rather the contrary, that dignity, however he sought it, was not for the likes of him, in which case Billy’s had a very hard life indeed. There were flashes of genius in him, impossible to label; they were not recognised then, nor do I believe they would be recognised now. Billy Casper flicks two fingers at the world, and I don’t blame him.