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The Vault: Kes (1969)

Based on the modern classic novel “A Kestrel for a Knave” by Barry Hines, Kes is an intimate and bleak observation of working class opportunities and lifestyle of 1960s working-class Britain.

The novel has become an essential study piece of the UK’s high school English curriculum, and due to the sympathetic and unaffected adaptation of the book into film by renowned kitchen-sink-drama director Ken Loach, the film is often used as back-up study material for students to this day.

1960s Working Class Britain - Opportunities, or Lack Thereof

Kes is set in late 1960s Barnsely, a Northern English mining town which is both blessed and cursed by its rural proximity. The story follows a young boy named Billy Casper, whose character and lifestyle is typical of many others like him of that era and class; he lives with his belligerent older half-brother, Jud and his middle-aged, single mother. Although the idea of a non-nuclear family is now considered quite normal, in 1960s England there was still a certain stigma attached to a family where the father was not present, not to mention the concept of having siblings who did not share the same biological father. This lack of a father figure or “man of the house” subsequently meant that the mother would have to work long hours in any form of job (usually menial work, or factory work in Northern England) and elder siblings would similarly have to leave school at 15 years old, to go straight into work to provide the family household with much needed money.

With a lack of both a mother and father figure throughout the majority of the day (and often the night) this would leave younger family members, such as Billy, to basically fend for themselves, tend to their own meals and ensure they partake in school as required. Billy’s home life is by this measure, reflected as austere and basic, in terms of both emotional balance and fiscal security.

Life Up North – Coal Mines and Council Estates

The film opens with a quiet, darkened room, the silence broken by the harsh ringing of an analogue alarm clock. As our eyes adjust to the dark, we realize that we’re observing brothers Billy and Jud sharing a bed, as dawn arrives. It’s time for Jud to arise for his job, working “down t’pit” – working in coal mines was often the only line of employment for young men in the North of England at this time, whether they wanted to choose that career path or not. Jud’s reluctance to leave the warmth of his bed to attend a job he hates is clear, and he makes no qualms in taking his frustrations out on Billy, who could have possibly lay in bed a little while longer.

“Hands off cocks, on socks” Jud blurts out, as he rips the bedclothes from Billy and proceeds to switch the light on.  Here a short but important discussion occurs between the two brothers; Jud informs Billy, whom is fast approaching school-leaving age, that he needs to get used to these early mornings, because he will shortly be employed to work down the pit also. Billy exasperatedly exclaims that he will never work in coal mining, ever. He’ll do anything other than that.

Yet, this is crucially the crux of the film; Billy, although he may have passions within his heart, is the product of an impoverished society. There were little options or efforts in place to ensure that children of working-class backgrounds could receive the attention needed to progress in a career of their choice. It was “The Pit” or nothing, like the siblings and family members whom had gone before them.

However, as the story progresses, we see a glimmer of hope for this otherwise hopeless and mischievous teenager. The setting of Barnsley is a contrast of bleak, litter-strewn streets in the depths of a council housing estate, where stray dogs run free and grubby children play games on street corners, yet all this is surrounded and enclosed by miles of beautiful countryside. The open fields and flora and fauna of the countryside is symbolic of the freedom that Billy desires, and it is here that he happens upon the one thing that might eventually change his path in life – Kes, the Kestrel.

A Chance to Shine

Having previously shown little to no interest in education of any type, Billy’s life is filled with a newfound enthusiasm and interest in rearing and training Kes. He is infatuated with the bird’s demeanor and independence; he understands that although he may be able to train the bird, he ultimately needs to earn the respect of this regal creature before he can succeed. His understanding of the power held by the kestrel is an important turning point for Billy, and he decides to dedicate his life to raising and caring for the Kestrel.

Whereas previously Billy was unsuccessful in his education, spending his school days avoiding work and getting in to trouble with figures of authority, Billy applies himself whole-heartedly to Kes. He does whatever possible to ensure he can train the bird, from stealing falconry manuals (after an unjustified failed attempt to borrow a library book) to reappointing his paperboy wage to buy food for the Kestrel. He starts to show great promise as a skilled falconer, and we are given the impression that perhaps there may be a way out of a life down the pit for Billy.

His enthusiasm starts to shine through in the classroom, when a kindly teacher’s interest in piqued by Billy’s stories of his bird. The class becomes engrossed in Billy’s descriptions of his falconry techniques, and the teacher goes as far as to make an unprecedented visit to the field behind Billy’s house to see the Kestrel in action.

No Place for Dreamers

This, however, is where the story takes a disappointing turn. Despite Billy’s love for Kes and talent as a falconer, his upbringing and deprived surroundings take an unrelenting hold on his ambitions. There were little funds nor time devoted to children from working class backgrounds in this era. Career options were limited to manual labour, education was a basic requirement to be met by youngsters, and there was no interest in allowing a child to thrive in an area where they could flourish.

Families barely had enough money to buy food, clothing and home ware, so books and study materials were more than a luxury.

Kes is a voyage of escapism in the mind of a socially neglected child. It is a statement about allowing children of all backgrounds and classes the chance to find themselves intellectually, and the importance of supporting children with love and attention to succeed regardless of their upbringing.

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