Kes (film)

Last updated

Kes 1969 film poster.jpg
UK theatrical release poster
Directed by Ken Loach
Produced by Tony Garnett
Screenplay by
Based on A Kestrel for a Knave
by Barry Hines
Music by John Cameron
Cinematography Chris Menges
Edited byRoy Watts
Woodfall Film Productions & Kestrel Films
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • 14 November 1969 (1969-11-14)(London)
  • 27 March 1970 (1970-03-27)(United Kingdom)
Running time
112 minutes [1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£157,000 [2]

Kes /kɛs/ is a 1969 British drama film directed by Ken Loach (credited as Kenneth Loach) and produced by Tony Garnett, based on the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave , written by the Hoyland Nether-born author Barry Hines. Kes tells the story of Billy, who comes from a working-class and dysfunctional family and is a no-hoper at school, who seems destined for a dreary future working in the local coal mine like his bullying elder brother. Billy, however, discovers his own private means of temporary escape and fulfilment when he steals a fledgling kestrel from its nest in the surrounding countryside and proceeds to train it in the art of falconry, which he teaches himself from a similarly stolen book. We follow Billy's escapades through the final weeks of his schooling, some comic, some bleak and some involving discourse with a sole empathetic, interested teacher, until an error of judgement on Billy's part leads to a final, tragic ending.


The film has been much praised, especially for the performance of the teenage David Bradley, who had never acted before, in the lead role, and for Loach's compassionate treatment of his working-class subject; it remains a biting indictment of the British education system of the time as well as of the limited career options then available to lower-class, unskilled workers in regional Britain. It was ranked seventh in the British Film Institute's Top Ten (British) Films. [3] This was Loach's second feature film for cinema release.


Fifteen-year-old Billy Casper, growing up in the late 1960s in a poor South Yorkshire community dominated by the local coal mining industry, has little hope in life. He is picked on, both at home by his physically and verbally abusive older half-brother, Jud (who works at the mine), and at school, by his schoolmates and by abusive teachers. Although he insists that his earlier petty criminal behaviour is behind him, he occasionally steals eggs and milk from milk floats. He has difficulty paying attention in school and is often provoked into tussles with classmates. Billy's father left the family some time ago, and his mother refers to him at one point, while somberly speaking to her friends about her children and their chances in life, as a "hopeless case". Billy is due to leave school soon, as an "Easter Leaver", without taking any public examinations (and therefore no qualifications); Jud states early in the film that he expects Billy will shortly be joining him at work in the mine, whereas Billy says that he does not know what job he will do, but also says nothing would make him work in the mine.

One day, Billy takes a kestrel from a nest on a farm. His interest in learning falconry prompts him to steal a book on the subject from a secondhand book shop, as he is underage and needs – but lies about the reasons he cannot obtain – adult authorisation for a borrower's card from the public library. As the relationship between Billy and "Kes", the kestrel, improves during the training, so does Billy's outlook and horizons. For the first time in the film, Billy receives praise, from his English teacher after delivering an impromptu talk about training Kes.

Jud leaves money and instructions for Billy to place a bet on two horses, but, after consulting a bettor who tells him the horses are unlikely to win, Billy spends the money on fish and chips and intends to purchase meat for his bird (instead the butcher gives him scrap meat free of charge). However, the horses do win. Outraged at losing a payout of more than £10, Jud takes revenge by killing Billy's kestrel. Grief-stricken, Billy retrieves the bird's broken body from the waste bin and, after showing it to Jud and his mother, buries the bird on the hillside overlooking the field where he had flown.



The film (and the book upon which it was based, by Barry Hines) were semi-autobiographical, Hines having been a teacher in the school in which it was set (and wishing to critique the education system of the time), while his younger brother Richard had found a new life after his student experiences at the local secondary modern school by training the original bird "Kes", inspiration for the movie (Richard assisted the later movie production by acting as the handler for the birds in the film). Both brothers grew up in the area shown and their father was a worker in the local coal mine, although he was a kind man in contrast to the absentee father of the film. [4] Both the film and the book provide a portrait of life in the mining areas of Yorkshire of the time; reportedly, the miners in the area were then the lowest paid workers in a developed country. [5] The film was produced during a period when the British coal-mining industry was being run down, as gas and oil were increasingly used in place of coal, which led to wage restraints and widespread pit closures. Shortly before the film's release, the Yorkshire coalfield where the film was set, was brought to a standstill for two weeks by an unofficial strike.


The film was shot on location, including in St Helens School, Athersley South, later renamed Edward Sheerien School (demolished in 2011); and in and around the streets of Hoyland and Hoyland Common. A number of the shooting locations are detailed in a "then and now" comparison page compiled by Adam Scovell in 2018. [6]

Set in and around Barnsley, the film was one of the first of several collaborations between Ken Loach and Barry Hines that used authentic Yorkshire dialect. The extras were all hired from in and around Barnsley. The DVD version of the film has certain scenes dubbed over with fewer dialect terms than in the original. In a 2013 interview, director Ken Loach said that, upon its release, United Artists organised a screening of the film for some American executives and they said that they could understand Hungarian better than the dialect in the film. [7]

The production company was set up with the name "Kestrel Films". Ken Loach and Tony Garnett used this for some of their later collaborations such as Family Life and The Save the Children Fund Film .


Kes operates on a number of levels. First and most clearly, it is a film about an individual, his hopes and dreams and self-created opportunity—whether or not permanent—to transcend the externally imposed limitations of everyday life. Second, it is about the then-current British education system, which by virtue of the 11-plus examination taken at age 10, sorted children into those likely to succeed academically, who would then proceed to grammar school, and those failing the examination who would go to a less academic secondary modern school and in the director's eyes, be likely to be set up for a life of systemic failure. Third, it highlights the often poor quality of teaching then deemed to be often present in such schools, under which the needs of individual students were little addressed. Fourth, it turns the spotlight on the lives of working-class adults in a region of low socio-economic status such as the Barnsley of the day, showing what types of jobs they might most frequently end up in, as well as the casual brutality engendered by lack of cultural, emotional and financial well being (suggesting that as adults they too may be victims of their external circumstances rather than villains), while at the same time, pointing to the persistence of nearby patches of natural environment within which a degree of liberation may be experienced. Finally as a subtext, it conforms to director Loach's view that "the [capitalist] system" relies on a steady stream of students failing the 11-plus and being directed to low-pay, low status jobs in order that the higher levels of the system can be supported.[ opinion ][ citation needed ]

Of the above theme/s, Loach is on record as saying:

It [the film] should be dedicated to all the lads who had failed their 11-plus. There's a colossal waste of people and talent, often through schools where full potential is not brought out. [8]

Simon Golding wrote in 2006:

Billy Casper, unlike the author [Golding], was a victim of the 11-plus. A government directive that turned out, who passed the exam, prospective white-collar workers, fresh from grammar schools, into jobs that were safe and well paid. The failures, housed in secondary modern schools, could only look forward to unskilled manual labour or the dangers of the coal face. Kes protests at this educational void that does not take into account individual skills, and suggests this is a consequence of capitalist society, which demands a steady supply of unskilled labour. [9]

In "Ken Loach: The Politics of Film and Television", John Hill writes:

Garnett [the film's producer] recalls how, in raising finance for the film, they encountered pressures to make the film's ending more positive, such as having Billy - with the help of his teacher - obtain a job at a zoo. As Garnett observes, however, this would have been to betray the film's point of view, which was concerned to raise questions about 'the system' rather than individuals. [10]

It is left unstated whether Billy's chances to fulfil his potential, as demonstrated by his unexpected falconry talents on display, as well as the responsibility and care he takes for his bird, despite the dysfunctional environment in which he has been brought up, have been dashed for good or will somehow surface again in the future. Interestingly, Barry Hines (author of the original novel), his brother Richard, and David Bradley, the young actor picked to play Billy, each of whom grew up and the area in question and the last two of whom went to the local secondary modern school, all managed to avoid a future in the coal mines and find alternative paths in life.

The emphases given above, on the writer's and director's implicit critiques of the education and class systems of the day, should not deflect from the fact that, at its core, Kes is an emotional drama seen from Billy's point of view, and that it is not only school, class, and future work prospects that affect him, but also (and perhaps most fundamentally) his lack of emotional support via his home life. Actor Andrew Garfield, who played Billy in a stage adaptation of Kes early in his career, had this to say at the time:

Billy needs to be loved by both his mother and brother. Like any child, he instinctively loves them both. He may resent his mother for not seeming to care about him, but he cannot help but love her. This causes Billy a lot of emotional pain when his mother rejects him. With Jud the rejection is even more blatant; he goes out of his way to hurt Billy, both physically and emotionally. Billy desires approval, comfort, support, guidance and attention from his family, but he receives nothing from them. A hug from his mum would make his day. I believe that love does exist within his family but expressing it is considered to be embarrassing and inappropriate. ... I think that Kes represents to Billy the ideal relationship that he finds so difficult to have with the people around him. Billy trusts, protects and is supported by Kes. He spends all of his time thinking of Kes and day dreaming about her. Billy looks up to Kes and feels privileged to be her friend. Kes has everything that Billy desires: freedom, pride, respect and independence. [11]

Even though we (the audience) know that the film is scripted, the characters are not real, and the actors are being directed in what to do at every point, the final scenes, in which Billy discovers his dead kestrel discarded like rubbish, and instead inters it in a small grave which he has to dig himself, are still devastating in their effect. David Bradley, who played Billy in the film, said in 2016 that even after a passage of more than 45 years he still cannot bring himself to watch the ending. "I have to apologise to audiences," he says. "I say to them: 'Please excuse me if you see this shadow walking out at the end; it’s just too much to stay behind.'" [12]


The certificate given to the film has occasionally been reviewed by the British Board of Film Classification, as there is a small amount of swearing, including more than one instance of the word twat . It was originally classified by the then British Board of Film Censors as U for Universal (suitable for children), at a time when the only other certificates were A (more suitable for adult audiences) and X (for showing when no person under 16 years was present ... raised to 18 years in July, 1970). Three years later, Stephen Murphy, the BBFC Secretary, wrote in a letter that it would have been given the new Advisory certificate under the system then in place. [13] Murphy also argued that the word "bugger" is a term of affection and not considered offensive in the area that the film was set. In 1987, the VHS release was given a PG certificate on the grounds of "the frequent use of mild language", and the film has remained PG since that time. [14]


The film was a word-of-mouth hit in Britain, eventually making a profit. However, it was a commercial flop in the US. [2] In his four-star review, Roger Ebert said that the film failed to open in Chicago, and attributed the problems to the Yorkshire accents. [15] Ebert saw the film at a 1972 showing organised by the Biological Honor Society at the Loyola University Chicago, which led him to ask, "were they interested in the movie, or the kestrel?". Nevertheless, he described the film as "one of the best, the warmest, the most moving films of recent years". [15]

Director Krzysztof Kieslowski named it as one of his favorite films. [16]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 100% based on 31 reviews, with an average rating of 9.56/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "A harrowing coming of age tale told simply and truly, Kes is a spare and richly humane tribute to the small pockets of beauty to be found in an oppressive world." [17]

In an essay included with the 2016 Blu-Ray release of the film, commentator Philip Kent writes:

Funny, sad, and bitingly authentic, Kes resonates with Loach's anger at the way so many kids grow up into narrow, option-free lives. ... But Loach's underdogs are never sad passive victims. There's a defiant spirit about Billy, and a fierce joy in the scenes where he trains his kestrel. Kes, as Loach has commented, sets up a contrast between "the bird that flies free and the boy who is trapped", but at the same time there's an unmistakable identification between them. ... The film's ending is desolate, but we sense Billy will survive. [18]

Reflecting on changes in the film's locale and setting in the intervening 40-odd years, Graham Fuller wrote in 2011:

It [the film] has gradually achieved classic status and remains the most clear-sighted film ever made about the compromised expectations of the British working class. Its world has changed: Billy's all-white "secondary modern" school (for children who failed the national exam for eleven-year-olds) would have become a fully streamed (academically nonselective) "comprehensive" in the early seventies, and increasingly multiethnic; Barnsley's coal mines closed in the early nineties. But the film's message is relevant wherever the young are maltreated and manipulated, and wherever the labor force is exploited. [19]

Reviewing the film in 2009 for, James Travers wrote:

Kes is an extraordinary film, beautifully composed and searing in its realist humanity. It is often compared with François Truffaut's Les 400 coups (1959), another memorable depiction of adolescent rebellion in an unsympathetic adult world. Both films are what the French term a cri de coeur, a heartfelt appeal for adults not to write off the next generation and condemn them to a future without meaning, but rather to take the time and the effort to instil in youngsters a sense of self-worth and desire to make something of their lives. Forty years since its was first seen, Kes has lost none of its power to move an audience and remains one of the most inspired and inspirational films of the Twentieth Century. [20]

Graeme Ross, writing in 2019 in "The Independent", placed the film 8th in his "best British movies of all time", saying:

A beautifully filmed adaption of the Barry Hines novel A Kestrel For a Knave with a remarkable performance from David Bradley as Billy Casper, a 15-year-old boy from a deprived background whose life is transformed when he finds a young falcon and trains it, in the process forming a close emotional bond with the bird. There's comedy and tragedy in equal measure in Kes, with the hilarious football scene with Brian Glover as both referee and Bobby Charlton and the heartbreaking ending demonstrating Loach's devastating gift for both. The cast of the mostly non-professional actors wasn't told what to expect in many of the scenes, hence the real shock and pain on the boys' faces when they were caned by the bullying headmaster. With Chris Menges' superb camerawork lit only by natural light, Kes remains a true British classic and the peak of Loach's illustrious body of work. [21]

Home media

A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in April 2011. The extras feature a new documentary featuring Loach, Menges, producer Tony Garnett, and actor David Bradley, a 1993 episode of The South Bank Show with Ken Loach, Cathy Come Home (1966), an early television feature by Loach, with an afterword by film writer Graham Fuller, and an alternative, internationally released soundtrack, with postsync dialogue. [22]


See also

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  1. "KES (U)". British Board of Film Classification . 27 May 1969. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
  2. 1 2 Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England, Stein and Day, 1974 p378
  3. BFI's Top Ten (British) Films.
  4. Richard Hines, 2016: No Way But Gentlenesse: A Memoir of How Kes, My Kestrel, Changed My Life. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN   9781408868034
  5. "British Films at Doc Films, 2011–2012", The Nicholson Center for British Studies, University of Chicago
  6. Adam Scovell, 2018: Kes: in search of the locations for Ken Loach’s classic. British Film Institute.
  7. Interview – Ken Loach (KES, 1970), La Semaine de la critique.
  8. Quoted in Simon W. Golding, 2006: Life after Kes. GET Publishing.
  9. Simon W. Golding, 2006: Life after Kes. GET Publishing.
  10. John Hill, 2011: "Ken Loach: The Politics of Film and Television". Bloomsbury Academic.
  11. Andrew Garfield: "Playing Billy Casper". In Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 2004: Behind the Scenes with Kes.
  12. Alex Godfrey, 2016: Interview: Kes’s David Bradley: ‘I can’t watch the end of the film. It’s just too much’. The Guardian, 27 October 2016.
  13. "Correspondence from Stephen Murphy on the certification of Kes" (PDF). Retrieved 23 August 2014.
  14. "BBFC Case Studies – Kes". BBFC. Retrieved 23 August 2014.
  15. 1 2 Kes film review by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, 16 January 1973
  16. "Kieślowski's cup of tea (Sight & Sound Top ten poll) - Movie List". MUBI. Retrieved 9 August 2016.
  17. "Kes (1969)". Rotten Tomatoes . Fandango Media . Retrieved 21 February 2020.
  18. Philip Kent, 2016: "Championing the underdog - Ken Loach before and after Kes". Essay included with the 2016 Blu-Ray release of Kes, Eureka Entertainment Ltd. (Masters of Cinema Series #151).
  19. Fuller, Graham (19 April 2011). "Kes: Winged Hope". The Criterion Collection.
  20. James Travers, 2009: Kes (1969) Film Review.
  21. Graeme Ross, 2019: From Kes to Clockwork Orange, the 20 best British films. The Independent, 29 August 2019.
  22. "Kes". The Criterion Collection.
  23. 17th Karlovy Vary IFF: July 15 – 26, 1970 – Awards. Archived 6 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved June 2008.
  24. 1 2 Awards for Kes (1969). Retrieved June 2008.

Further reading