As the film Kes celebrates its 50th Birthday, Senior Lecture, Julie Raby talks about the impact the film has had on her own learning journey.
The narrator in Anna Burns Milkman draws attention to her French class and the class consensus that the ‘sky is blue’(69). The adult evening class believes the sky is blue and decides en masse that this must be true. The French Teacher asks her class to look again. She takes them to another classroom so they can see the sunset more clearly. I think that Ken Roach’s 1969 film Kes also encourages the viewer to look again, and that the film challenges received notions of what intelligence and knowledge consists of.
Kes, the film based on Barry Hines book A Kestrel for a Knave, is 50 years old this year. In our family, Kes is a ‘Yorkshire thing’. The iconic image of Billy Casper (Dai Bradley) holding two fingers up towards the camera is a visual pun that we all find amusing. Unlike the perceived blue sky in Milkman, the sky in Kes is dank. There is so much humour in the bleak and poignant images in the film, but the sadness is that we respond to these images as being hilarious and funny, and it is often these image shape our memory of the film.
I found so much to identify with in Kes and being at School in the 1960s, some of the School lessons that take place during the day still resonate with me. I saw Kes at University. At that time, I hadn’t read the book. Indeed, I hadn’t read any book. Reading came years later, and I’ll come back to that.
What was outstanding about the film was the visualisation of Billy’s life shown through very subtle contrasts in colour. The bleak nearly-green countryside is juxtaposed against the urban grey landscape. The landscapes that Billy inhabits are framed by the battered goalposts that we see Billy swinging from in his oversized shorts. The liminal space between the industrial and the wild is where Billy is situated throughout the film.
Years later, I realise that the process of finding and training the kestrel might become a trope for discovery, curiosity and a transformative process of learning. The bird could be a symbol of hope with connotations of escape through flying and freedom, but what the film does is turn this trope around, and emphasises the point that Billy and Kes are already tamed and trapped in the communities and landscapes they inhabit.
Most of the adults Billy encounters have no faith in the younger generation. There is a sense that the younger generation are consumers sitting in bashed up Ford Escorts, and are underachievers just wanting to own disposable goods, but not willing to work for those things. For a generation which must have born in and around the Second World War, there seems to be a view that their children have never had it so good playing into Harold Macmillan’s speech of 1957. The irony of this shared view is established at the start of the film, where the reality of the situation for young men like Billy is hunger and lack of sleep. For example, Billy gets up early to undertake his paper round and he is accused by the shopkeeper as uninterested because he is ‘nearly late’. The point is he is ‘nearly late’, and not late. Billy is so tired that he fails asleep on his feet in the assembly and sent to the Headmaster’s study. Mr Gryce (Bob Bowes), the headmaster, tells his pupils that there is, ‘nothing to commend you whatsoever’. Yet, as he lectures the children he does not or will not listen to them and is oblivious to what is happening around him. As an so-called educator, he fails to reflect on his approach and cannot understand that he’s been teaching for a considerable amount of time and his methods that are not working. Caning the young boy who comes to the office with a message might seem funny, but the viewer is directed to believe that in time the boy will also learn to hide the pain he feels from the barbaric punishments that will continue to be handed out in that room.
It becomes clear that Jud’s (Freddie Fletcher) violent behaviour is learned behaviour. He has learnt from his Football Teacher (Brian Glover) who punishes and humiliates Billy in the cold showers. He has learned his violence from Mr Gryce who has been caning generations of school children in his thirty year career.
I think the film is excellent at portraying the abuse of limited power. One of the funniest moments, and yet most poignant moments in the film is the PE teacher channelling his “Bobby Charlton” and modelling the worst example of gamesmanship as he allocates players to teams and takes on conflicting role of the referee as well as the team captain. Well “Denis Law’s in the wash”, he says deluded by his sense of self-importance. The opposing team captain plays along with the charade stating, “[w]e’ll be spurs, Sir, so there is no clash of colours”.
In the football scene, Billy looks so vulnerable thin in his oversize shorts. I don’t think Loach was making a point around constructions of masculinity, but the scene does draw attention to football as a way that a working-class man could change his life. 1969 was the era in which football managers, Bill Shankly and Sir Matt Busby operated. These men were miners before becoming great football managers, and possible role models for the young men in the community.
Lynne Perrie played Billy’s mother, and Perrie, like Liz Dawn, was a comedian working the Northern Working Men’s Club circuit, became famous for her role in Coronation Street. They are the ancestors of the women we still watch today in the Northern soap opera.
I said that I saw the film at University. I was nine when I went into one of the new lecture theatres at the University of York to see the film. We were pupils at the local Primary School in Heslington. I’m not sure why as nine–year olds we were invited by the University to watch Kes in 1969. My mother and grandma were cleaners at the University and my uncle was a porter. My family worked there because they were part of the nearby Heslington farming community, but no one in my family had been to University to study before me. It was a place that I did not aspire to go to, but far beyond my reach at that time.
I was just starting to read at nine–years old. I have a memory that I could read music before I learnt to read words. Music seemed to me like a visual language which was easier to absorb that the black words on pages. I remember loving the teacher reading to us and my knowledge of Greek myths, and bible stories and came from those times. Then suddenly at nine-years old, and around Kes time, I realised I could read, and that was just the start of my learning journey. I became the child that wanted to be left alone with my book.
Later at secondary school, I was streamed into the English Language group. There was a cupboard in the corner of the English classroom and in there piles of set texts English Literature ‘O’ Level including, A Kestrel for a Knave. I was lucky that the English Teacher let me borrow the books. I would rummage through taking home copies of John Rowe Townsend’s books and then Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving and A Raging Calm. My grandmother gave me a copy of Wuthering Heights, because that was a Yorkshire thing.
Someone I went to School with reminded me recently that when I was at School I declared to my teachers that I wasn’t stupid. I don’t know what I was responding to, but I knew then that I wasn’t stupid, and that I learnt in a different way from many of my fellow classmates. A few years later I was diagnosed as dyslexic, by then I was an avid reader, and I loved to write.
You could say that I didn’t go anywhere. I stayed and worked in the city where I was born. As a mature student I discovered Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad and so much more. I went to York University to study English Literature and History of Art. Then I took my two-year old who went to the University’s newly opened nursery. Years later, people joked that I was sat in a field and they built a University around me. I’m really proud that this myth is partially true.
Billy’s University is also the landscapes around his home. The stifling education system has been successful in one way because Billy has learned through memory, by rote, and we see this when he demonstrates that he learned the shipping forecast by hearing it every night before he sleeps. More importantly, he loves the sounds of the words. He experiences the shipping forecast as more than mere facts, but as music. What is so inspiring about the film is that Billy also learns through the visual images in his stolen library book. Billy learns by doing through the training, and by reflecting and what he has learned. Billy learns through emotions and feeling. The pivotal moment in the film is when Mr Sugden (Colin Welland) encourages Billy to explain how he trained Kes to the class. For a moment, Billy has been transformed from the stereotypical teenager to the experienced knowledgeable educator.
The ending of the film is horrific, brutal, and it gives a sense there is no hope. Billy is left with his grief. However, he is has curiosity, his willingness to learn things new, and to question the perceived notions of what learning can be. I love the John Ruskin quote, to ‘see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,–all in one.’ The French Teacher’s insistence in Milkman to look out of a different window is revealing in a novel where nothing is as it seems and people can’t be named. The French Teacher insists:
‘Come,’ she persisted. ‘Why have you turned your backs?’ For we had turned our backs; it had been instinctive and protective. But she made us turn round to face the sky once more. This rime she proceeded to point through various panes at sections of sky that were not blue but instead lilac, purple, patches of pink – differing pinks – with one patch of green that had a yellow gold extending along it. And green How come green was up there? […] Here teacher bade us look at the sky from this brand new perspective, where the sun – enormous and of the most gigantic orange-red colour — in a sky too, with no blue in it – was going down behind buildings As for this sky, it was now a mix of pink and lemon with a glow of mauve behind it. 
Kes was just one thing that made me turn round and look again, and that passion for learning can be discovering that the sky is more than one colour. It is a film that encourages you to walk down the corridor and to look out of different windows. The discovery that the sky is a myriad of colours, and not just blue is an amazing feeling. That’s what a passion for learning feels like. I think this is the most valuable thing that Billy is left with at the end of the film.