It may have only been his second feature, but Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes remains one of the veteran director’s most distinctive and fondly recalled works. Perhaps this is the case because the signature working style we now associate with Loach was arguably first set here. Gone are some of the more mannered techniques he had previously used in the many celebrated Wednesday Plays he made for the BBC between 1965 and 1969, and instead Loach favours for the first time a more realistic, observer-style approach whose roots lie in what was occurring in the cinema of Czechoslovakia at the time, a period of filmmaking Loach is on record as being so very fond of.
Also absent from Kes is the uneasy compromise Loach was forced into making his first feature, 1967’s Poor Cow, the demand to include a star name in the shape of Terence Stamp. From here on in, just like Milos Forman in Czechoslovakia before him, a Ken Loach film would primarily use only ‘non-actors’; amateurs or real people in major roles. None of these were perhaps so distinctive as the young schoolboy David Bradley, who bagged the lead role of Billy because he happened to be a pupil at the school they were filming in, and more because he was exactly what was needed. He was real.
I first saw Kes as a teenager and am happy to testify that, each time I have revisited the film since, it still has the power to emotionally engage me as if I am seeing it for the very first time. Loach’s impassive, observer style means that the film is shot exactly as Barry Hines’ story requires – as a snapshot of real working class life, with absolutely no judgements to be made whatsoever. Indeed this approach is especially significant in its handling of the Jud character, Billy’s older brother, played with boorish believability by Freddie Fletcher. It is Jud who, frustrated by Billy’s decision not to place his bet on, will ultimately slay the kestrel that had provided his sibling with the only opportunity for escape and happiness to be found in his dead-end existence.
Loach may honestly and authentically depict Jud as the uncouth bully that he clearly is, but there’s another almost sympathetic layer there for the audience to seek, which is especially evident on further watches. Jud works as a miner (a cruel existence that is probably lying in wait for Billy too once he leaves school) who, in one scene down the working men’s club, proclaims that he ‘couldn’t be happier’ with his lot. But it is clear that Jud is kidding both himself, the ‘bird’ he’s chatting up, his pals who hang on his every word, and we the viewer, because it is clear that he is just as trapped and overlooked as Billy is. We see this from the several glimpses of his life throughout the film, culminating in that terrible final reel and how his atrocious spiteful actions reveal that, if he had his bet placed, he would have won a whole week’s wages which would have given him the same kind of escape equally akin to the time Billy had spent flying Kes, a chance to take a week off and enjoy himself away from mining a wretched, coal-clogged lung existence underground day after day for what was the lowest pay available in the developed world.
If Loach has one message with Kes, it is that the lives of the likes of Billy and Jud are predetermined at birth. They are born working class and, as such, they must endure a life of unskilled belittling labour. It’s a theme Loach returns to throughout his film career, reflecting the measures of austerity inherent in our society at each time. In 1981’s Looks and Smiles (also written by Barry Hines), his central protagonists arguably have it even worse than Billy, whose natural ability with animals and wildlife would be ignored in favour of a preordained career down the pit. Such security, however pitiable, was now lacking Thatcher’s Britain, and school leavers only had the dole queue or the Army Careers Office to turn to as mass unemployment rapidly reached an astonishing high. In his most recent and critically applauded I, Daniel Blake, Loach shows that even those fortunate enough to learn a trade as a means of escape cannot escape the inherently unfair and austere system that controls us should ill health or poor luck strike.
In Kes, Loach is canny enough to point the finger of blame at the root of such inequality, namely the education system. The school Billy attends (and which Jud had previously attended) is the breeding ground, the place where all dreams, intelligence and spirits are routinely and systematically crushed thanks to violent and abusive teachers, seemingly exasperated by their own selves, such as headmaster Mr Gryce (Bob Bowes, looking and acting just like my old primary school headmaster no less) and, perhaps most famously of all, the PE teacher Mr Sugden. Played superbly by Brian Glover (who was then working as a teacher at the school itself) the character may provide some memorable comic relief, but there’s no escaping from the fact that immature brutality is his stock in trade. He’s the epitome of the PE teacher we all endured and is shown to possess his own sense of escape thanks to his daydreams of being Bobby Charlton, playing for Man Utd against Spurs when he is, in fact, playing against his own pupils, gleefully exerting his superior might and strength over their puny, under nourished pubescent forms. It is only Colin Welland’s Mr Farthing who shows any real empathy and sensitivity towards his pupils, and especially Billy. But his actions are too, little too late – Billy’s life has already been mapped out and no example of rare kindness and encouragement, however well intentioned, can divert him from the path now.
Were this Hollywood then undoubtedly Farthing would be our lead and hero; an inspirational Gregory Peck character who would take centre stage in the film’s latter half and radically change Billy’s life for the better, perhaps by getting him a placement at the local zoo. But this isn’t the movies, Ken Loach deals in real life, and saviours aren’t always around the corner, no matter how much we need them. Welland’s Farthing remains a foot note, a good man with no real means to help anyone because nurture and great escapes are simply out of reach in a system that is stacked against you from the very off.
Despite now rapidly approaching its fiftieth anniversary, the themes, message and approach found within Kes has barely dated. It remains a grubbily realistic yet poetic evocation of northern working class life which tells us to grab our respite and dreams where we can and how we can. At a time when school leavers can no longer logistically afford to go to university and that they must instead consider applying for the diminishing number of apprenticeships instead, I imagine Kes still has just as much to say to a young boy or girl of today as it did when I saw it for the first time at their age in the ’90s, and when the generation of children in the early ’70s saw it too.