Kes (1969) Blu Ray (Eureka Masters of Cinema)
Ken Loach’s adaptation of the novel “A Kestrel for a Knave” by Barry Hines (co-adapted with the author himself) features David Bradley as Billy Casper. He is a socially outcast (possibly having Asperger’s Syndrome, though this is never explicitly mentioned) and materially deprived boy living in a Yorkshire mining town with his mother (Lynne Perrie) and older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher). The father has long gone. While all of them work (even Billy has a paper round) they live in clearly visible poverty in a terraced house; at the start of the film we see both brothers share a bed despite the fact that Jud is clearly a young adult, and the pair steal to get by (Jud takes Billy’s bike that he needs for his paper round; Billy meanwhile takes bottles from a milk float as he walks past). Their mother regularly berates the pair and neglects to look after them properly, and Billy is regularly bullied by his older sibling.
The miserable treatment subjected to Billy extends to his time at school. Most of the teachers are arrogant authority figures who believe that the only way to deal with his off-key behaviour is to subject him to punishment and humiliation. Worst of all is an utterly mean PE teacher from hell named Mr. Sugden (played by Brian Glover) who catches him trying to leave the changing room without taking a shower and then forces him to take a long, cold one. His only real friends are a sympathetic English teacher named Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland) and a kestrel whom he finds in an old wall and adopts - and names Kes.
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Ken Loach’s second feature film is often regarded as the finest and (via its 400 Blows-style look at a boy who doesn’t fit into wider society) the most accessible of all of the British “social realism” dramas. As usual Ken adopts a minimal and rather grainy low-budget approach to his subject matter; everything is shot on location with mostly non-professional actors; lighting is naturalistic; most scenes aren’t scored and those that are use a bare flute track.
There’s a distinctive message here about a side of Britain that doesn’t care about those who live less fortunate lives, and moreover those don’t fit into its rigid class-orientated straightjacket. School is portrayed as being little more than a glorified training regime out to make people “winners” in society, in part by engendering bullying - for instance, not only does Mr. Sugden force Billy to take a cold shower, but he tells two of the bigger boys in the class to stand at the shower entrance and prevent him from getting out. As a result, most characters in the film treat one another with a shocking level of disrespect and contempt. Even Billy himself isn’t immune to this with his tendencies towards petty theft and a moment where he is seen putting his arm around a younger boy’s neck in an intimidating manner. The message also frequently shows through the visual framing with industrial smokestacks belching their grey detritus amid Yorkshire’s green landscape, overwhelming nature with an imperative on industrial production whatever the environmental cost.
That’s not to say that Kes is leanly message-focussed however. The slice-of-life aspect of the tale allows Ken Loach to work in a large amount of texture and detail filling out the lives of the characters. Some of it is admittedly more fascinating in a retrospective manner today; witness the electric milk float that used to be a regular feature of early morning British streets, or the chip shop where the cost of a fish supper could be measured in schillings. However, there is a tangibly grim humour in the scenes in the workers’ club with a local band playing a song with the innuendo-laden refrain “ooh, what a whopper” that has the crowd in gales of laughter - though it turns out that it’s all about a prize-winning marrow. The scenes with Mr. Sugden derive some humour from his blatant delusional egomania as he makes himself look good by pitting his own football skills against the boys on the school playing field, and pretending it’s a premier league match. In a witty stylistic flourish, the scorecard is displayed at the bottom of the screen. The other rare flourish comes as Billy reads a Desperate Dan comic strip while sitting on one of the rolling green hills outside his house; the camera pans from one frame to the next as he mentally reads out the speech bubbles.
The kestrel scenes have a serenity missing from the rest of the film as the bird flies amid unsullied green grass, blue sky and colourful flowers accompanied by the aforementioned flute soundtrack. He is clearly at peace with the bird as his relationship and fascination with it provide a sense of escape from the grim world around him. We genuinely hope that his talents for handling Kes will provide a brighter future for Billy that suits his rather out-on-a-limb character. Unfortunately, it’s hard to escape the sad sneaking feeling as you watch that this won’t be the case.
Runtime: 110 mins
Dir: Ken Loach
Script: Barry Hines, Ken Loach, Tony Garnett, from a novel by Barry Hines
Starring: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland, Brian Glover, Bob Bowes
This does look grainy and rather dim at times. However, this is largely due to the low-budget, naturalistic filming technique. On the other hand there is a vivid, old photo-style quality about the visuals that makes it all feel like it could have really taken place at this moment in time. The restoration was supervised by Ken Loach and Chris Menges, thus confirming the deliberate intentions of the visual grit.
Some of the thick Yorkshire dialogue can be hard to make out for those not au fait with the accent and dialect. However this was something commented about ever since it was made. There is also a post-dubbed version of the soundtrack available here which reduces the authenticity but makes it a bit clearer.
There is a 36 page booklet containing an essay by Philip Kemp plus some archival imagery. The essay looks at Loach’s career spanning from his Wednesday Play TV productions of the 1960s through to present day. Kemp takes a view of his recurrent theme of the underdog getting ground down by the system, and the resulting impassioned pleas that social justice is done. The essay also conducts a whistle-stop tour of his various film and TV productions through the ages (albeit with more detail put on Kes than others). It’s a solid primer for Loach’s work.
On the Blu Ray itself are the following:
A series of interviews with various people involved in the production, of length varying between about 5 and 30 minutes. Although some parts of these are inevitably more interesting than others, we do get a startling picture of the production, its impact and Loach's filmmaking style.
David Bradley - Actor
He talks about how his own school was used as the one shown in the film, how he played the library scene during the audition, the character of Billy and the similarities and differences between actor and character. Apparently the caning scene was done for real without them being told in advance so that the camera would capture their shocked reactions - resulting in the boys going on strike until they were offered an extra 50p per take (a lot of pocket money in those days). There's also a look at the film's locations in present day. The fish and chip shop is now called Casper's Fish and Chips - a reference to the central family in Kes.
Tony Garnett - Producer
Apparently Loach blames Tony for his strong political views; both are close friends to this day. He talks about their moviemaking technique and the difficulties in getting such a project financed. One disinterested backer gave the rather arrogantly flippant reason of "wrong kind of bird". When the film was finally made, there was another battle getting it distributed - and it took about 18 months before United Artists released it in 6 Yorkshire cinemas, believing it would die a death. However it broke records in all of them and ended up getting wide national distribution.
Richard Hines - Kestrel Advisor
Barry Hines's brother whose life and work inspired A Kestrel for a Knave. Three hawks (Freeman, Hardy and Willis - named after the long deceased British high street footwear retailers) were used since they are only enthusiastic about flying when hungry - and, more importantly, if one became lost there were two spare. Richard, like Billy in the film, was what he describes as a "school write-off", and talks about how latent talents allow you to achieve what would otherwise be unimaginable.
Chris Menges - Director of Photography
A somewhat short, dry interview with Menges, and less interesting than the previous three. We learn that the interiors were lit by lights shined through windows to keep things as naturalistic as possible. Otherwise it’s strictly for technical cinematography buffs.
Bernard Atha - Actor
He played the youth employment officer in the film. He had no script but improvised from his knowledge about this profession from his work as a school teacher. He talks about his education and a working class upbringing with exposure to music, ballet and opera. He also tells us about the amazing impression the arts can have on people.
Penny Eyles - Continuity
She discusses the background of the production. It is revealed that Brian Glover (who went on to become a name actor) was an actual teacher in the school used in the film, as well as being a wrestler. She remembers the contrast between the beautiful countryside and the coal mines from the Barnsley area, which she had previously only read about in D.H. Lawrence novels. The distinguishing feature of shooting with Loach she remembers was that he would often start up the actors running through their scenes, and then start the cameras running at a later point so that they would be warmed up. A short but enjoyable reminisce.
John Cameron - Composer
He gives us some renditions of the score on piano and discusses the motivations behind its main elements. Another short but pleasing interview.
1992 Ken Loach Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theatre with Derek Malcolm
An on-stage interview with audience Q & A in which Ken Loach talks about his career, the controversy he has courted and the difficulties he has had in financing his films.
There are plenty of interesting snippets, such as a South Bank Show documentary he directed called “Which Side Are You On?” that examined police brutality during the Miners’ Strike - Melvyn Bragg wouldn't let the violent footage be shown even though this was the main thrust of what it was trying to say. His film examining the underbelly of British police policy during the Northern Ireland Troubles (Hidden Agenda) ended up being financed by an American company called Hemdale, and made a small profit over there. In the UK however many cinemas wouldn’t touch it for its subject matter and it got a lot of flak in the press, who accused it of having a pro-IRA stance.
It is also of note that, rather than subscribing to the Auteur Theory, he sees filmmaking as a collaborative effort. Despite his stridently anti-establishment views he comes across as a modest and mild-mannered guy, albeit one who answers questions with an astonishing frankness. It’s a must see for anyone who wants to know more about the man.
2006 Kes Reunion Panel at the Bradford Film Festival - featuring Ken Loach, Tony Garnett, Barry Hines and Colin Welland
The panel takes a look back at the film and its enduring appeal. Audio issues make some of the dialogue nearly inaudible; audience members can be heard coughing in the foreground` and some of the microphone speech is muffled. A lot of the ground covered here has already been covered in the copious other interviews here, but there are still some worthwhile revelations here.
According to Welland, the scene where David Bradley as Billy talked in front of the class about training kestrels was genuinely enthralling for David’s classmates who played the other pupils in the scene. Loach also initially disliked the ending when the film was first screened since he felt that Jud’s point of view in the situation didn’t come across strongly enough.
Kes is an essential view for anyone interested in intelligent cinema. The presentation here does it exhaustive justice and should be applauded