This week, I’m working on a couple of reviews for elsewhere, so decided here to recycle a review from a few years ago for Louder Than War to mark Eureka’s blu-ray release of a favourite film of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Jarvis Cocker, the iconic and much loved British drama Kes.

I’m guessing that most of you have already seen the film, so I’ll allow myself a spoiler later in this review.

Based on Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel For A Knave and mainly utilising non-professional actors, Kes was shot on location in Barnsley bookshops, bookies, chippies and the school where Hines was once a teacher and the young lead was then a pupil. It’s a bleak story with a particularly gut-wrenching finale, and the dialogue consists almost entirely of broad Yorkshire accents that people from outside the North of England might struggle at times to understand.

Put this way, it’s maybe not too surprising that Kes initially struggled to find distribution in an era where the duopoly of the Rank Organisation and ABC largely controlled the cinema distribution circuit around the country. The former turned it down flat out while the latter saw fit only to give it a run out in selected Yorkshire cinemas.

These screenings proved highly successful but it would still be a full two years after the film had wrapped before audiences nationwide were given the chance to see this captivating slice of working class life by multi-award winning director Ken Loach, or Kenneth Loach as he is credited here.

Two brothers share a single bed with a solitary pillow in a room that I doubt was going to be a contender for Good Housekeeping’s Seal of Approval any time soon. Billy Casper (David Bradley) is fifteen and on the brink of leaving school, although he looks much younger, a ‘weedy little twat’ according to half-brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher), who likes to remind Billy that he’ll soon be following him down the local pit at the end of the current school term, a scenario that Billy dreads and one he denies will ever happen.

Billy Casper and Jud in Kes

Billy though will have limited options in life. He can hardly read or write and is inarticulate. He’s no budding George Best either and lacks any exceptional artistic skill like Billy Elliot that could potentially lead him straight outta Barnsley to fame and fortune.

In his baggy two sizes too big shirt (presumably handed down from Jud) and shabby trousers held up by a snake belt, he continually looks a sorry figure. If he does manage to avoid the mines, he looks destined for a life of unemployment or maybe a low paid job as a factory wage slave.

Billy daydreams. Billy lies. Billy gets bullied by Jud, by vindictive teachers and by his fellow pupils – although he is capable of bullying too. As he waits outside the headmaster’s office, he helps ‘persuade’ a younger boy to hide his ciggies for him before he is inevitably searched along with some other members of the ‘smokers’ union’.

He steals chocolate; he steals milk and most significantly, he steals a female fledgling kestrel – a horrible theft really, snatching the startled creature from its natural environment, a nest atop an old manor house in ruins, in front of another bird nesting there.

Casper, though, does this with good intentions and quickly dedicates himself fully to feeding and training the kestrel, which he names Kes.

Luckily for us, Loach is clearly no believer in that old maxim – never work with animals and children.

Billy Casper and Kes

In contrast to Billy, Jud (Freddie Fletcher) is the ‘cock of the estate’, an arrogant loudmouth, drinker, gambler and womaniser. He’s likely trying his best not to let the bastards grind him down but this almost perpetually angry young man, you sense, will ultimately be fighting a losing battle. His resentment at the world appears perilously close to snapping at the slightest provocation – and Billy will provide him with plenty of ammunition later when he fails to use Jud’s money to place a bet that would have won him enough money to take a week off work.

Several scenes in Kes will linger long in the memory: the fantasy cup tie between Spurs and Manchester United orchestrated by Brian Glover’s Mr Sugden is comically absurd; the caning scene makes me flinch every time I see it – Loach had guaranteed the boys that he would call ‘cut’ just before the cane whipped the palms of their hands but didn’t and the tears of the youngest boy were real.

The boys were furious. Ironically for a notable socialist, his duplicity had caused the young actors to go on strike – point-blank refusing to shoot the scene again. Producer Tony Garnett salvaged the situation, promising the boys ten shillings (50p) extra each time they were belted. David Bradley & co ended the day £3.50 better off.

Billy Casper belted in Kes

Then there’s the emotionally gruelling final sequence where Billy desperately searches for Kes, his hopes sliding inexorably into his worst nightmare with Jud gaining the cruellest of revenges.

The best thing about Kes though is the extraordinary performance of David Bradley, a teenager with no acting experience bar some Christmas pantos. Remarkably he is in almost every frame of the film, bar an extended scene where his feckless mother and Jud separately visit a dingy boozer with some dodgy live entertainment, an overlong scene that is pretty much irrelevant too, one of the few complaints I would make about the film.

Watching Bradley as Billy outlining to his classmates his recently learned expertise about falconry reminded me that his naturalistic turn here really is one of the great British performances on the big screen, up there with the likes of Malcolm McDowell in If… and A Clockwork Orange and David Thewlis in Naked.

Loach has had artistic successes since Kes such as Sweet Sixteen and most recently I, Daniel Blake – and failures too like Looking for Eric and Ae Fond Kiss – but it is Kes that will surely always remain his most fondly remembered cinematic excursion. Powerful and poetic, humane and haunting, this is one of the high-points in British social-realist cinema and one that still resonates with viewers half a century after it was released.

Trivia: Composer John Cameron provides Kes with an effective folk inflected score, a plaintive piece with a lovely pastoral feel. After Kes, he helped form the band C.C.S, who provided the theme music for Top of the Pops with their cover version of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. He also arranged the Hot Chocolate hit You Sexy Thing.

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