‘Kes’: The Bird Appropriate to the Common Man

Kes, the second feature directed by Ken Loach, is a remarkable film which manages the tricky balance between portraying the grim reality of the characters’ lives and holding out the possibility of hope for something better. The recent Criterion re-release, with a restored digital transfer of the film as well as a generous package of extras, offers the perfect opportunity to catch up with this outstanding work if you haven’t yet seen it and to revisit it, if you have.

Kes was adopted from the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines who co-wrote the screenplay with Loach and producer Tony Garnett. The title is a quotation from the 15th century Boke of St. Albans which pairs appropriate birds with social ranks from “An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King…” to “a Kestrel for a Knave” meaning that the kestrel is the bird appropriate to the common man or in this case to the common boy.

The central character in Kes is Billy Casper (David Bradley, a schoolboy making his first appearance in film), a skinny 15-year-old about to leave school without having found any particular direction in life. An indifferent student largely ignored by his preoccupied mother (Lynne Perrie, in her first major screen role) and bullied by his classmates and older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher, also in his first role), initially there’s nothing to suggest that Billy will be anything other than just another laborer in the coal mine or unskilled worker on the factory floor.

Yet something about the beauty of a falcon in flight captures Billy’s imagination and when he discovers a nest of kestrels on a nearby farm he decides to train one. Aided by a book on falconry stolen from a local shop, Billy becomes absorbed in training Kes, as he names his bird, and in the process finds focus for the first time in his life. When a sympathetic English teacher notices this transformation and invites him to deliver a talk to the class, Billy responds with an inspired lecture on falconry.

However, Billy Casper is not Billy Elliot nor is Kes an inspirational Disney movie about the triumph of the human spirit. Instead, Loach stays true to the reality of his characters and their world and a phrase attributed to Truman Capote might well be applied to Billy Casper and his kestrel, as well: The world is not kind to little things.

Kes is not entirely a grim slog, however, and Loach finds beauty within Billy’s world, most obviously in the scenes when he is training Kes. The film also includes a comic interlude involving a gym teacher (Brian Glover, in real life a schoolteacher and part-time professional wrestler) who fancies himself a footballer and tries to turn a cold, wet afternoon match between two teams of unenthusiastic boys into a Premier League showdown.

The Criterion edition of Kes is a two-disc set including a 24-page booklet with an essay by Graham Fuller. The film is presented with the choice of either the original soundtrack or the internationally-released post-synch soundtrack (intended to be easier to understand for those unfamiliar with the Yorkshire dialect spoken by the characters) and also has English subtitles. The second disc includes a making-of documentary (45 min.), a 1993 episode of The South Bank Show (49 min.) focused on Loach and his career, and the 1966 television film, Cathy Come Home (77 min.) directed by Loach for the BBC.

Although there is some overlap among these features, together they provide an excellent introduction to Loach and his work. The making-of documentary features interviews with Loach, producer Tony Garnett, cinematographer Chris Menges, and actor David Bradley. In it, Loach expresses his dissatisfaction with the “angry young men” films of the early ’60s (e.g., This Sporting Life) which he felt did not get to the heart of the working-class experience and explains how his characteristic working methods (use of nonprofessional actors, preference for long shots) help produce films which, he believes, grant his characters the same respect that their real-life equivalents deserve.

The South Bank Show episode features clips from Loach’s film and television work as well as interviews with Loach, Garnett and others. It underlines Loach’s persistent concerns with (in his words) “young people being wasted” through lack of opportunity as well as his documentary-like approach to feature films and television.

Cathy Come Home was produced for the BBC anthology series The Wednesday Play which was intended to draw attention to different social problems in Britain. In Cathy Come Home the problem is the shortage of affordable housing, highlighted by the fictional story of a young couple (played by Carol White and Ray Brooks) and their three children who suffer a series of misfortunes after the husband loses his job and they are evicted from their apartment. From this point their lives spiral downwards, a trajectory mirrored by their increasingly unsatisfactory living conditions as they move from their apartment to a caravan (trailer) park to a squat and finally to a public shelter.

Shot largely with hand-held camera and in real locations Cathy Come Home offers a polyphony of voices commenting on the characters and their situation and, although overly melodramatic and on the nose for modern tastes, is interesting as an early expression of Loach’s concerns. An 11-minute afterword by Graham Fuller places this program in context and describes Loach’s influence on British television.

Kes is a classic British film whose appeal has not diminished over the years. Even if you’ve seen this film before, the quality of the restoration and the extras provided with the Criterion edition make it worth revisiting.

RATING 8 / 10