The boy, the bird of prey and a movie masterpiece that goes on flying high

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Kes was a movie that might never have happened.

It was 1968. The “kitchen sink” movement that had defined the late 50s and early 60s, and which provided a through route for phenomenal new talent like Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Richard Harris and Alan Bates, had petered out. But before doing so it had forever changed the face of British cinema. Television offered new challenges to rising filmmakers and among those who grabbed the opportunity to shatter traditions and ingrained preconceptions was 32-year-old Ken Loach. Cathy Come Home was the play that shook Britain by the scruff of the neck, forcing the debate on homelessness into the House of Lords. Naturally, Loach sought to further expand his artistic and political horizons through cinema.

That sense of sociological conscience was given credence by Kes, the story of a grubby kid and his love of the hawk he rears. Rightly championed as a classic, it is at the centre of the British Film Institute’s tribute to Loach in this his 75th year and has been re-released for new audiences to discover for the first time.

Loach was working at the BBC when producer Tony Garnett showed him a novel in manuscript form. The author was ex-teacher Barry Hines and the book was A Kestrel for a Knave. Loach pared it back, selected and simplified scenes that would work for a movie and “knocked it backwards and forwards” between Garnett and Hines. All three men saw Kes as a response to the kitchen sink movement and the directors – Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger and Shipley-born Tony Richardson – that had created the so-called “British New Wave” via films like Look Back in Anger, This Sporting Life, A Kind of Loving and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. But times had changed. Kes was a hard sell.

“Those films had been made within two or three years of each other and all the directors had abandoned the north as a location, which made us very suspicious,” recalls Loach. “We thought ‘It’s a location to them’. John Schlesinger had gone to America, Karel Reisz somewhere else; Lindsay Anderson was doing things at the Royal Court. It was Tony Richardson who got Kes made, actually. He’d done Tom Jones for United Artists and it had been very successful. On his say-so United Artists put up about £170,000. Without Tony Richardson, it wouldn’t have been made because we couldn’t raise the money.”

Kes is notable for being shot entirely on location in Hoyland Common, Tankersley and Barnsley. Loach employed non-actors, schoolchildren and discoveries like David “Dai” Bradley, the teenager who made runtish no-hoper Billy Casper into one of the defining faces of late 20th century British cinema. His remains one of the great adolescent portraits.

It is a film of raw honesty and complete authenticity and, looking back, Loach laughs as he remembers the process of making a film in Yorkshire. “We decided to do it in the school that Barry had taught at because the slag heap from the pit overlooked the film. Visually it was just right. The headmaster was very helpful and we just auditioned the boys of that year. It was our good fortune that David was there. He had a quality that was very special.

“We [filmed] it in the August holidays. We did the filming instead of lessons. We had three birds, called Freeman, Hardy and Willis, which were trained by Barry’s brother, Richard. He took David along with him and they did it together. We didn’t have any special bird handlers or any of that. It was just done within the family.

“[The dialect] was completely implicit in the book. We were obviously going to do it in a school in Barnsley and it had to be spoken in a Barnsley [accent]. Language is central to everything. If you have to pick one element that is important in any culture, it’s the language. It’s the use of language, the humour, the way you speak and the way it affects how your body works. Everything is connected to language so there was no way we could change it,” he says.

“David lived through it for the six or seven weeks that we shot it. Almost whatever he did was okay because he was always true. He was brilliant to work with: always spot-on. He carried the film.”

Then there was Brian Glover. If any actor took root in the national psyche as the quintessential bluff Yorkshireman, it was Brian Glover. In 1968, he was a teacher and part-time wrestler. The story goes that he appeared under the name “Leon Arras, the Man from Paris” because the real wrestler of that name had failed to turn up one night and Glover had had to replace him wearing a mask. He wrestled twice and no-one twigged. He kept the name.

Kes was Glover’s entry into films and he never looked back. His career would later see him being slugged by John Wayne in Brannigan, snatched by a lurking extraterrestrial in Alien 3 and playing God on a forklift truck for the National Theatre. But nothing beats his exuberant games master, Mr Sugden, “the fair-haired, slightly balding Charlton”, in Kes.

“He was very funny,” smiles Loach. “If you notice in the game he wears strapping around his knee. He’d been on holiday in France before we did the film. He said he’d been on a French toilet, where you put your feet in the two marks and his knee had gone while he’d been in this posture. So he’d had to be carried out of the toilet with his trousers round his ankles to be bandaged up!

“This was the story he told me anyway. There was some fear that he wouldn’t be able to play, but he played through the pain barrier and did it. If he hadn’t have been a teacher then he couldn’t have done it. The whole technique he uses is what a teacher would use to deal with the boys. Everything in the game I did through him.”

Kes was the first of several projects Ken Loach would film in Yorkshire. Several of them – The Price of Coal, The Gamekeeper, Looks and Smiles – were provocative, politically-charged collaborations with Barry Hines. Loach won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, yet nothing resonates like Kes and its Barnsley environs. Does Loach have an affinity with the people and landscape of the Broad Acres?

“It’s never felt that far away so you have to go back,” muses Loach. “I’ve done about six or seven films in Yorkshire since then. I don’t know if it’s an affinity but it’s an enjoyment of places that have got a very strong working class culture. South Yorkshire has with the mines and steel. Liverpool has. Manchester has. Glasgow has. They are all places of very defined culture, very strong defined dialect, a strong tradition of working-class entertainers.

“I know when we did Kes, the comic who comes to the act in the pub was a Liverpool comic, Joey Kaye. All the Yorkshire folk were outraged. Fortunately, he’s very funny, so they laughed, but there was a hostility that I hadn’t reckoned with on inviting a Liverpool comic to play in a Yorkshire pub. I should have got a South Yorkshire comic, really.”

Kes is re-released in cinemas now. The Ken Loach season at the National Film Theatre, London, runs until October 12.