Poor Billy Casper (played to perfection by David Bradley, pictured above) suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous Yorkshire, but it wasn’t all in vain because the bird-loving Barnsley boy created a British film archetype; The put-upon Northern Lad.
The hardship is positively heaped upon this poor, frail lad – Bullying coalminer brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher), flighty and negligent mother (Lynne Perrie), taunting schoolmates, psychotic teachers and little prospect of any meaningful future. He gets his amusement from comics and is not above a spot of petty theft on his newspaper round, which he undertakes before going to school, where he is often in trouble.
It’s a particularly British form of bleakness which, thanks to our continued industrial decline, has become a sure-fire shortcut to audience sympathy (as long as the hero doesn’t wallow in his misery but takes up an unconventional pastime).
It could have been a full-blown Kleenex drencher but, mercifully, Loach was more concerned with commenting on real-life class barriers, production-line education policies and general state indifference without coming across as an unpalatable revolutionary – something he’s made a living out of ever since.
So the pill is considerably sweetened with scenes of both quiet tenderness (especially between Billy and his pet kestrel – just about the only functional relationship in the entire film) and hilarious comedy, such as the superb scene where Billy tries to avoid PE and Games at school, but is forced into a soccer match by a bullying PE teacher Mr Sugden (the marvellous Brian Glover) . . .
The bad players are chosen last while Sugden sows the seeds for his own glory by grabbing the best, only to be stuck with Billy (who he sticks in goal). The tedium of the rain-soaked game to Billy is evident as he turns the goalpost into monkey bars in his ill-fitting kit.
Glover is preposterous as the PE teacher who still yells great players’ names whenever he gets the ball, and from the cold breath of a Barnsley winter to the mud-caked knees, this is school football down to a tee.
Virtually everyone who worked on Kes (shot on a budget of only £157,000 in just eight weeks with a largely unknown cast) went on to bigger and better things.
David Bradley (a young local boy with no acting experience beyond a school play) went on to a successful professional career, Billy’s mum moved into Coronation Street as Ivy Tilsley, and Brian Glover became the voice of Tetley’s tea.
Kes is based on the original novel A Kestrel For A Knave by the brilliant South Yorkshire author Barry Hines – who also wrote the disturbing Sheffield-gets-nuked-and-life-reverts-to-the-stone-age Threads (1984).
The film was made entirely on location in and around the Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley.