Jayne Dowle: Flights of fancy with Billy Casper and his kestrel

PUBS are threatened with demolition every day. Not many merit a news story of their own though. Then again, not many have appeared in a film.

BITTERSWEET MEMORIES: The Dards pub which featured in Kes.
BITTERSWEET MEMORIES: The Dards pub which featured in Kes.

Even fewer have appeared in a film which not only tackled serious issues when it was made, but is arguably more important now than it ever was. I’m talking about Kes, the 1969 Ken Loach picture about Billy Casper, a misunderstood teenager who finds escape from the grim reality of his life through rearing a young kestrel.

And the pub under threat is Dard’s in Cudworth, a former mining village near Barnsley. The original book, A Kestrel for a Knave, was written by local author Barry Hines.

When I mentioned I was writing about this, one of my friends reminded me that her older sister was in the scene filmed in that very pub. It’s like that round here with Kes. It is practically an Article of Barnsley Faith. One word and tears come to the eyes of grown men. “I was Billy Casper,” another friend said to me, quietly.

You will be familiar with the disdain children usually show for anything “old”. If it was any other film, such heartfelt reminiscence would be regarded as the inane ramblings of elderly people. Pretty much everything you read, everything you watched, everything you listened to as an adolescent yourself is held up to scrutiny and dismissed as hopelessly ancient. It all belongs, literally, to another century. Not so with Kes. Our own feelings about it might be driven by sentiment. Theirs are much harder, in every sense.

My 11-year-old son, Jack, is memorising every scene. I even took him to see the stage version recently. I take pride in Kes being the first “adult” play we saw together. When his friends come round to watch a film, the first one they ask for is Kes. These are kids with scores of television channels, iPads, computer games, YouTube and Facebook to connect them to anyone, all over the world. Yet, this tale of a lad growing up with nowt 40-odd years ago is what they want to see.

Some of them, including Jack, are studying the book and the film at school. And of course it was made in Barnsley. They are extremely proud of that.

They are keen to spot the locations which still exist, curious about those already demolished. They like the adventure, the fact that Billy gets up in the middle of the night to go wandering the woods. They laugh at the teachers, the classic types they recognise; the vainglorious sportsmaster, played so memorably by the late Brian Glover, the sensitive one trying to keep order, the hapless careers adviser.

And they like the fact that they hear their own genuine Barnsley voices echoing back at them. It is all helping them to shape their identity. Yet, the connection goes even deeper. They seem to feel it in a way we didn’t.

When we studied it ourselves, the book and film were only a decade old. Yet already they felt rooted in another age. We knew kids like Billy Casper. And indeed, some of us were Billy Casper. The brutality of his life though, his loutish brother leaving at dawn to go to the pit, the hand-to-mouth existence, belonged to a world fast disappearing. In many ways the book and subsequent film marked a turning point between the industrial age and… well, what?

The pits were closing around us. We had the future though. Escape through higher education, paid for by the state. The Human League. A promise that no-one would ever have to hunt down the sofa for pennies for a loaf of bread ever again. Our kids know different though. However much we try to protect them, their world is one of debt, job insecurity, single parents struggling, food hand-outs and pawnshops. They see this every day. Then they see it before them on the screen.

They ask themselves if this is how history works. And they learn that whatever the Secretary of State for Education might think, it never works in a neat, straight line. It works in circles and patterns and repeats itself like a motif in a great piece of music. And today’s children take that from Kes.

It is a depressing film, ultimately. There is no salvation at the end. Billy’s brother kills his beloved kestrel and puts it in the bin. I think Jack’s generation actually welcome that. They want to be shocked, to feel real emotion and experience loss through Billy’s grief.

They live in a harsh world, but it is one in which there appears to be a solution to everything. No one has “a problem”, just “a challenge”, school bullies are appeased by the system, and counselling is offered for every ill.

Their world is measured; targets and benchmarks at school, legislation to protect them, parents who control what they watch. Again, our kids know different. They understand that beneath the veneer of civilisation, childhood can be a dark and frightening place. They know much more than Billy Casper ever knew, but still he teaches them something about themselves.