Ken Loach’s 1969 adaptation of Barry Hines’s novel ‘Kestrel for a Knave’ is one of Yorkshire’s most iconic films. We recently placed it at number one in our article ‘15 of the greatest Yorkshire films of all time’. It is widely praised for giving a rare and authentic big-screen portrayal of underrepresented working-class communities and remains one of the finest pieces of British cinema to this day.
‘Kes’ tells the story of Billy Casper, a teenage boy who lives in a small terraced house in Barnsley with his mother and half-brother, Judd. Billy’s life is depicted as one of hopelessness and boredom. His world is turbulent and often abusive home life and boring and mischievous school life. An unlikely symbol of hope enters Billy’s life in the form of a kestrel, which he names Kes. Kes gives Billy a purpose, interest and some ambition in life. He learns how to train Kes and cares for the bird dearly. The film ends with Billy having lost the one hope in his life and left with nothing apart from a bleak future with little education and few job prospects and life ambitions.
The story is one of small hopes, but major tragedies and offers a fascinating and very realistic insight into life growing up in working-class industrial towns during the 1960s.
Barry Hines wrote ‘Kestrel for a Knave’ just a year before the film was released in 1968. The topics of the book and film were very close to Hines’s heart and arose from first-hand experiences in his early life. He was born in the South Yorkshire mining village of Hoyland Common, near Barnsley. Both Hines’s father and grandfather worked in coal mines and in fact his grandfather was tragically killed in a pit. After school, Hines went on to a successful career as a PE teacher in London and then returned to the north to teach.
Watch the iconic football match scene here:
These experiences influenced ‘Kestrel for a Knave’ in which education and school life were a major theme. To add authenticity to the film’s portrayal of school life in 1960s northern England, Ken Loach included actors in the film who had been teachers. Bob Bowes, who played headteacher Mr Gryce, was a headteacher at Ashton Field Secondary Modern (now Henry Moore Middle School) during the 1960s. Brian Glover, who played the comically autocratic PE teacher Mr Sugden, was a French and English teacher from 1954 to 1970. Part of his teaching career was at Longcar Central School in Barnsley and this was where he first met Hines who was also teaching there. Colin Welland, who played a teacher, Mr Farthing, who tries to help Billy, was a former art teacher at Manchester Road Secondary Modern School in Leigh, Lancashire. The first-hand experiences of Loach’s cast help to strengthen the film’s attack on the standards of the British education system at the time.
Barnsley was an obvious location choice for Hines as it was his hometown when growing up. This meant he could write from his own experience. Loach and Hines had a good ear for the dialect and many of the characters speak with the distinctive South Yorkshire accent. It is not an accent that is often heard on the big screen and adds to the authenticity of the storytelling. The film gives the viewer a visual guide of the town’s pubs, clubs, housing estates and of course, the mining industry.
The town was one of the northern strongholds of Britain’s thriving mining industry in the 1960s. During the 60s there were 70 collieries within a 15-mile radius of Barnsley town centre. We get some wonderful shots of this old industry, one, in particular, being Billy’s view of the Barrow colliery near Hoyland whilst reading the popular comic ‘Dandy’. The film gives an authentic picture of an industry that now hardly exists and which many younger viewers have little or any recollection of. This, therefore, points to one of the reasons ‘Kes’ is such an important piece of cinema, as it offers present and future generations a chance to look at what is fast becoming a forgotten time.
Despite moments of hope and happiness in the tale portrayed through Billy’s relationship with Kes, the ending is one of tragedy and is symbolic of the hopelessness that many in Billy’s position felt during these times. This was Hines’s intention for the book and on the big screen, to show that stark reality of life. Hines was quoted as saying: “How often are dreams realised in real life? I write about real people and show a section of their life, without the Hollywood endings which rarely happen outside Hollywood. Disney offered to make ‘Kes’, on the condition that the hawk recovered. Should we have sold out? I know which way would always be right for me.”
The film adaptation still receives critical acclaim to this day from around the globe. The highly regarded Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski named Kes in his 11 favourite films in Sight and Sound’s international poll in 1992 and Time Out Film Guide shortly before his death. Charlotte O’Sullivan of the Evening Standard described the film as ’Jaunty, sad, poetic, Kes is so humane it makes you tremble.’’ Andrea Gronvall of the Chicago Reader declared it an ‘A Classic of British Social Realism’.
The impact of ‘Kes’ and ‘Kestrel for a Knave’ on British literature and cinema will carry on long into the future and will remain as one of Yorkshire’s finest and most distinctive contributions to the art and culture of Britain.