CRACKPOT / TELL HIM HE’S DEAD : Kenneth Loach’s ‘Kes’ (1969) [8/10]

Published on: March 27th, 2006

Is there a more popular British film among British audiences than Kes – which remains, all these years later, the only Ken Loach picture that everybody seems to like? Strangely, the film isn't that well known overseas – even though Loach himself is now rather more venerated abroad than at home, and the story is a simple, universal, timeless one. This may well be down to the broad Barnsley accents in which almost all of the characters speak – not easily decipherable by those in the south of England, never mind viewers from farther afield. But the unmediated accents are a crucial element in locating Kes so vividly within a specific place, time, and class: a tough South Yorkshire mining village in the late sixties, evoked by a limited number of real-life locations (school, home, shop, working-men's club).

The only viable economic choice for the area's young men is to go "down the pit" – a prospect which fills scrawny, undernourished teenager Billy Casper (David Bradley) with horror. His loutish older half-brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) has been a miner for several years, but still lives at home with Billy and their mother (Lynne Perrie) – both boys' fathers having long since vacated the scene. Hassled at home and a misfit at school, Billy prefers to spend his time wandering the nearby countryside – where one day he chances upon a kestrel's nest.

He (illegally) purloins a young bird and, with help from a book stolen from the town library, learns the rudiments of falconry – to the delight of his kindly English teacher Mr Farthing (Colin Welland), and the bemused contempt of Jud, who prefers to spend his free time drinking and gambling. Short of time one morning, Jud gets his brother to place a bet (a double on the fictional, ominously-named 'Crackpot' and 'Tell Him He's Dead') for him at the local bookies. Taking advice that a successful outcome on the wager is a remote possibility, Billy instead pockets the money – and when both animals oblige, Jud's anger spells big trouble for the young lad and his beloved 'Kes.'

Part of Kes's status as beloved perennial is the fact that it's (very closely) based on Barry Hines' 1968 novel A Kestrel For A Knave - for decades a staple on British school syllabuses, and thus never out of print. Hines, Loach and producer Tony Garnett collaborated on the script, which strikes an engaging combination of grit and humour – the comic highlight arriving around half-way when Billy plays hapless goalkeeper during a PE lesson football-game run by martinet-like teacher Mr Sugden (Brian Glover).

Glover, like Welland, had been a schoolteacher in real life – and the fact that in most instances the "actors" are playing "characters" very close to themselves means that performances are totally convincing across the board. Seldom off-screen, Bradley is nothing less than a marvel as the heartbreakingly resilient Billy – much credit to Loach for eliciting such remarkable work from such a raw newcomer. John Cameron's music occasionally verges on the twee, but on the whole Loach – aided by Chris Menges' cinematography and Roy Watts' incisive editing – nimbly avoids the mawkishness and sentimentality which might, in lesser hands, have overwhelmed this utterly engaging, piercingly moving tale of a boy and his wild 'pet.' One mystery remains, however: why on earth did Hines name his unathletic, proletarian hero after the Californian sports star who was golf's 1966 Player of the Year?

Neil Young
27th March, 2006

KES : [8/10] : UK (UK/US) 1968 : Kenneth LOACH : 111 mins (BBFC timing)

seen at Pictureville cinema, NMPFT, Bradford, (UK), 9th March 2006 – public show* – Bradford Film Festival

click HERE for other films reviewed at Bradford 2006

* "reunion screening" in presence of Ken Loach, Colin Welland, Tony Garnett, Barry Hines, etc