Early in Kes (1970) Billy Casper declares that he will not grow up to work in the coal mine that consumes droves of Barnsley lads, his big brother Jud included, like so much grist for the mill. Yet even in this first scene Billy could almost be “in the pit” already, sharing a twin-sized bed with the bullying, loutish Jud in a cramped, fatherless flat in the cold gloom of an early Northern England morning. Based on Barnsley-born Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel For a Knave (1968), produced by Tony Garrett and directed by Ken Loach, Kes, while unwaveringly focused on working-class marginality and crushed ambition, is not fundamentally pessimistic. Rather, its raison d’être lies in its authenticity, in granting its characters their due dignity by conveying their arduous lives and meager options for advancement with as much fidelity to the political realities of its era as possible.
If there’s a balm for deterministic despair in Kes it’s in the film’s warm and abundant humour, especially the scene where Billy, 15 but boyish and slight enough to slip in your backpack, attempts to let a book out from the local library, but having no membership and not wanting to wait to get his mum to sign the form claims, with utter deadpan, that he’s old enough to vote. It’s in the natural light, blue hues, gentle attentiveness and subtly lyrical camerawork of cinematographer Chris Menges. It’s in Barnsley boy David Bradley’s tremendous, artless central performance, in Billy’s tender relationship with the kestrel falcon he captures, tames and befriends, in the quiet promise of freedom Kes (as Billy dubs the bird) represents whenever she takes flight in the open spaces near Billy’s home, transforming her surroundings into a “pocket of silence” (evoked delicately through composer John Cameron’s solo flute passages) in which Billy can fleetingly take refuge from a life of abuse, neglect and outright dismissal. Kes achieves a balance rare in movies, rare even in the oeuvre of the British cinema’s most committed socialist auteur, Ken Loach: it’s at once adorable and unsentimental, endearing and appallingly brutal. It’s now available from Criterion.
Among the most valuable supplements in Criterion’s Kes are its subtitles (the Northern accents are doughy as Yorkshire pudding) and an earlier Loach-Garrett feature, the made-for-TV Cathy Come Home (1966). Employing jarring jump-cuts and abrupt aural transitions from dietetic dialogue to music to collages of commentary from a chorus of citizens and social workers (Loach was apparently gobbling up a lot of Godard in those days), this bracing docudrama exposes Britain’s postwar housing shortages via the deftly compressed story of a young Birmingham working-class couple. Limited job prospects, a work-related accident and a tendency to produce offspring snare the couple into increasingly punishing living conditions, Cathy’s bitchy mother-in-law’s tiny flat being far from the worst of them. Cathy Come Home is a harrowing condemnation of classist policies that was watched and discussed by millions during its original broadcast, though the issues it addresses regarding access to affordable housing remain urgent in cities here and elsewhere. It also reminds us what a loss it was that its remarkable lead actress Carol White’s career evaporated a few years later, the result, it seems, of bad habits, bad substances and bad relationships with famous men. She died in Florida in 1991 at the age of 48.