Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)

Re-released in September 2011 to coincide with Ken Loach’s 75th birthday, Kes was the acclaimed Director’s debut feature, filmed in the summer of 1968, on a characteristically tight budget. It was also the first feature of Cinematographer Chris Menges, who later went on to shoot The Mission, The Killing Fields and The Reader, amongst others.  Kes also featured the debut acting performance of then 14-year-old David (now Dai) Bradley, who secured the lead role of Billy Casper; the Yorkshire schoolboy who captures and trains a Kestrel, allowing him a form of escapism from his constrictive and often cruel working-class surroundings.

Bradley is wonderful as Billy; the picked-upon, slight but bright schoolboy who, while not at all academic, manages to teach himself how to care for and train a wild Kestrel (the “Kes” of the title) that he finds in the grounds of a local farm. Billy’s home life is turbulent – shared by a bullying older brother Jud ( Freddie Fletcher) who works down the local mine, and an inattentive, nagging mother (Lynne Perry) who is doing her best to raise two boys alone.

Nor does Billy find any comfort in friends or at school; playground politics dictate which pupils rule and which get picked on. The schoolyard is just as brutal as the home or street; and teachers too are mostly over-worked, bad-tempered and quick to mete out punishments to their young charges. Loach’s template of social criticism centred on working-class lives is already fully formed here. Billy’s personal circumstances are leavened by his deep interest in caring for Kes, and there is a lovely classroom scene where one of his teacher’s, Mr Fletcher (Colin Welland), has Billy explain what this entails to the class – enthralling everyone in the process.

Indeed a nice contrast is struck between caring Mr Fletcher, who takes an interest in Billy, and Billy’s hard-nosed P.E. teacher Mr Farthing (Brian Glover) who subjects his boys to violence on and off the football field. In one of the film’s funniest and most enjoyable sequences, Mr Farthing plays out his fantasy of being Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton (“it’s too cold to be a striker”) in a match against the boys, marked by the teacher’s casual violence and dubious refereeing decisions.

Very much of its time and place, Kes still carries resonance in its depiction of the struggle of ordinary lives. Billy’s options for gainful employment after school, other than working down the mine like his dullard brother, are few, to say the least. When discussing potential work options with Mr Fletcher, the insightful schoolboy states that it doesn’t matter what work he does, as he won’t enjoy it any more than he does school, but notes “still, I’ll get paid for not liking it”.  

As you might expect, Kes ends on a characteristically downbeat note; the film’s ending also signals the death of Billy’s childhood, and leaves us wondering where he will go from here. Though David Bradley’s career did not again reach the heights of his debut performance, he can be assured that, in the character of Billy Casper, his place in the pantheon of great screen roles is most certainly assured.

Kes finishes its run in The Irish Film Institute today.

Watch a clip here.