It’s Spring 2003 and I’m sat in the Cineworld multi-plex cinema in Wakefield waiting for the trailers to finally end and ‘Kes’ to get underway. It’s being shown as part of a long-running classics season the cinema screens on Monday afternoons and in the early evenings along with the likes of ‘Get Carter’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘The Italian Job’ and all that – though I’m not quite sure about ‘Jaws 3D’ myself. The room is quite full, more so than for some of the new release films when I’ve been there. I’ve only ever seen ‘Kes’ on the small screen before, and that was years ago, so I’m not quite sure what to expect.
Shot with a mostly local cast in Barnsley, South Yorkshire in the summer of 1968 and released the following year, ‘Kes’ was based on local author Barry Hines’ novel ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ and was socialist director Ken Loach’s feature film debut. It tells the story of Billy Casper, an educational under-achiever in the last term of school who lives with his Mam (played by Lynne Perry – later of ‘Coronation Street’ fame until her infamous botox work) and his older brother Jud (excellently portrayed by the hard-as-nails, selfish, don’t fuck with me, Freddie Fletcher) in a council house in Hoyland. Whilst all around him is caught up with its own concerns and preoccupations, Casper steals a Kestrel chick from its mother’s nest, hand rears it and then trains it. The relationship he forms through falconry with the Kestrel ennobles him and reveals a nascent intelligence and to sympathetic teacher – the cord-jacket-wearing Colin Welland as Mr. Farthing before the real world intrudes and destroys it all.
The picture is Barnsley’s moment of cinematic fame – the 60s boom-time belle époque captured on film before the grimness and pit strikes of the 1970s and what subsequently happened to the area beyond that. It’s the Tarn as a footnote to the Swinging Sixties. A way of life frozen on celluloid and a chance to have those Barnsley accents heard, the pits and their workers glimpsed; bringing a similar kind of rough, anti-glamour chic to South Yorkshire that Michael Caine and ‘Get Carter’ would do to the North East in 1971.
David Bradley, who plays Billy, is amazingly natural in front of the camera. Fair enough, he was a Barnsley lad and a first time actor and essentially playing a facet of himself, but to do so in such a consistent manner is a massive achievement. There is no hint of self-consciousness. The flight scenes filmed against the black slagheaps with John Cameron’s evocative, pastoral music floating over the images are as close to cinematic poetry as anything’s come. Brilliant.
The standout scene of the film is the football match – the humour of which then contrasts with the bullying of the changing rooms – starring Sheffield-born, Barnsley FC supporting (and sometime wrestler, teacher and coal miner) Brian Glover as the sadistic (if not slightly psychotic) Physical Education teacher Mr. Sugden. The model for every Yorkshire P.E. teacher to come. Sugden picks the football sides – with Billy obviously selected last – wearing his Manchester United strip, like an over-grown, excited, but deadly serious boy and then barges around the pitch, elbowing and fouling the kids out of his way, as he advances, goal-hungry up the field, voicing his own ‘Match of the Day’-style commentary:
‘The fair-haired, slightly balding Bobby Charlton,’ Glover says, nudging a gangly 15 year-old to the turf, the ball dancing at is feet, an extravagant shimmy, a pass, a look of dis-belief, ‘what you playin’ at, lad? It was at your feet!’
Brian Glover became a Yorkshire legend in those ten minutes.
The film is undeniably a classic – just ask Jarvis Cocker. All our Northern yesterdays, even if you weren’t even born at the time. But realistic. No green field without its opposing black mountain of black slag; no beautiful flying bird that doesn’t end up dead and chucked in a dustbin.
But that’s Barnsley for you. And there it is.
Or there it was.
Walking out of the pictures, the question I’m asking myself is what do I reckon happened to Casper after the film stopped rolling and he’d buried Kes under that hawthorn hedge? Everybody in Cineworld was laughing when he nicks from the shop as the old feller’s back is turned, then taking the milk off Duggie Brown’s float. A bit of mischief, nowt wrong with that, is there? But I think that right now Casper’s a smacked out alcoholic with psychological problems, living in a bail hostel. Collapsed veins through decades of heroin addiction. Bi-polar. Circuits destroyed.
It all started going wrong as soon as the last flute trilled out on the theme music. Casper had a tough seventies and an even tougher eighties: casual work on building sites, petty thieving (pre-PACE, so he took some hammerings. He spent two days chained to a wall in Wombwell Police Station on a D&D charge, dragged in for some rough questioning during the Ripper investigation as the country celebrated the Silver Jubilee), then he was introduced to heroin in 1992 or ’93. He mixes with the gypsies a bit now, doing bogus caller jobs then squirting the profits into his femoral artery before crashing on a mucky mattress on Blythe Street, Wombwell a quick swig of ‘Frosty Jack’ cider to wet his whistle.
And Jud? ‘Tha’r a bastard thee, ‘r Jud!’ A striker or a scab in ’84/’85 Miners’ Strike? A close call there, I think. A striker for the violence, the conflict – the presence. But he had that streak of selfishness and short-sighted greed that sent a lot of men across the picket lines. But nowadays Jud’ll be doing all right – in his way. Still living up in Hoyland in Barnsley, always in work: redundancy from the pit, now semi-skilled labour on minimum wage somewhere, or working for himself on the side. Lots of violent domestics with their lass, a few fights in the pub; losing more as the years go by. Still shagging around – slappers from beery nights out for the over forties up at the Night Owl.
He doesn’t have anything to do with the four kids he had from various relationships. Dirty, thieving smackheads, they are. Nowt to do with him.
And their Billy’s just a loser.
 ‘Brassed Off!’ marked a slight revival of interest in the town when it was filmed in Grimethorpe in 1996.