This week, Film and Education students have been watching KES.
Fifteen year old Billy Casper is physically and verbally abused by his older brother Jud, ignored by his mother and bullied by his peers. Billy, determined not to follow his brother “down the pit”, seems hopelessly destined to do just that. When Billy takes a young kestrel chick from a nest he nurtures a significant, touching bond, and inhabits a world seemingly removed from his other, more brutal reality. As the story unfolds, we learn that it is not and while Billy is powerless to break free from his reality he is never broken.
Ken Loach’s retelling of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave has become a cinematic classic. Using pupils from local secondary modern schools (in other words those who had failed their 11+) including David Bradley as Billy, as well as other non professional actors drawn from around Barnsley, Loach attempts a gritty realism, an authentic portrayal of one working class boy’s life as he faces the transition from school to work. The use of natural lighting emphasises the contrasting environments that Billy faces, or will face; the dark interiors of home, the pit and school versus the light, bright freedom of the outdoors. The Barnsley dialect, which allegedly rendered Hungarian more understandable to Rank executives (Stephenson, 1973) along with a plot focusing on the mundane with its absence of dramatic events or happy endings is surely used to add a feeling of purity and sense of authenticity.
KES’ representation of secondary education in the late 1960‘s reveals its ideological opposition to a school’s role in preparing working class pupils for a life of routine manual labour through inculcating a culture of subordination, obedience and powerlessness. In this way KES is a dramatisation of Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) correspondence theory. Yet, through its fictional ethnography of schooling KES also illustrates the agency of pupils in response to this culture, akin to some of the observations found in Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour.
Powerless as Billy Casper and his peers are to escape this structure the film reveals the pupils awareness of it, as well as their resilience to it. The hilarious football scene in which a deluded Mr. Sugden (played by Brian Glover, then a Barnsley school teacher and part-time wrestler) plays out his Bobby Charlton fantasies, shows the pupils arguing with him about unfairness and cheating. MacDowell vociferously protests his innocence regarding the ‘offence’ of coughing in assembly while the ‘culprit’ keeps quiet. Assembled boys, waiting for the head teacher collectively discharge their contraband to an innocent messenger, and together they laugh as the head speechifies about the “generation that never listens” before he, in turn fails to listen to the protests of the unwitting mule.
The caning scene is brutal, but it is routinised, as is all the violence in KES, making it, perhaps more acceptable to those receiving and perpetrating it. Certainly, as one boy says “I’d rather have the cane than do lessons”. Similarly, Gryce, the head teacher describes having no option but to use the cane, even though he is clearly aware it does not work:
“I still have to use this to you boys everyday….until someone produces a better solution I’ll continue to use this cane, knowing fully well that you’ll be back for it, time and time, and time again….”
Interestingly, the DVD describes the violence contained in the film as “infrequent/mild” suggesting to viewers that, perhaps, routinised violence is acceptable.
Then there is Billy’s awareness of his own employment prospects and his philosophy surrounding this. Following a fight on the coke heap with MacDowell, Billy’s conversation with Mr. Farthing (played by Colin Welland, at the time the only professional actor in the film) about his impending transition from school to work reveals Billy’s acceptance of his position in life, but crucially his awareness of it:
Farthing: What sort of job do you want?
Casper: Not bothered Sir, anything’ll do me
Farthing: Yea, but you want something that you’re looking forward to, that your interested in, don’t you?
Casper: I’ve not much choice Sir, I’ll take what I’ve got
Farthing: I thought you wanted to leave school?
Casper: I’m not bothered
Farthing: I thought you didn’t like school?
Casper: I don’t, but it don’t mean I’ll like work, does it. Still, I’ll get paid for not liking it, that’s one thing
Farthing: Yea, I suppose it is
And so, Loach problematises middle-class sympathy in his attempt to privilege the voice of the working-class pupils in describing the reality of their lived experience. Limited agency, yes, but Billy and his peers are no somnolent sufferers of false class consciousness.