True, it's all true;National Film week

1st October 1999 at 01:00
The re-release of Ken Loach's 'Kes' stirs memories for Elaine Williams.

There was a great to-do in Doncaster, where I grew up, when the film 'Kes' came out. The film was premiered at the Doncaster Odeon - but it wasn't just that. It featured the rough life on our doorstep.

We longed to see the film and to read the book, 'A Kestrel for a Knave' by Barry Hines, on which the film was based. The image of little Billy Casper making a V-sign on the front cover and the promise of bad language on the inside was irresistible.

There was certainly a to-do at home because my mother didn't want me to read it or see it, despite the fact that at heart it was the uplifting story of a boy's passion for a hawk. My father had grown up in mining villages not unlike Billy's - it was too close for comfort; the hard, dark life they had striven to escape.

Thirty years on this month the British Film Institute has re-released 'Kes' into cinemas nationally and 'A Kestrel for a Knave' has transformed into a Penguin Classic and remains a stalwart GCSE set text.

The film and the book have endured in a way Hines himself says he could not have foreseen. Written while he was still a PE teacher, Hines says he could not have imagined that this "quiet little book...about a little boy with nothing much going for him on a council estate in Barnsley," would become a best seller.

The book is powerful in its own right with exquisite descriptive passages and muscular characterisation and dialogue, a tragedy that charts a simple and relentless course. But it was undoubtedly given a boost by Ken Loach's film. 'Kes' is a formidable piece of social realism, endowed with mythic qualities, that has enraptured generations. Loach invites the audience into a world that is at once humorous, poignant and immediately recognisable, even today.

David Bradley, a pupil in the school where Hines had previously worked, proved an inspirational choice for the role of Billy. His face has an archetypal quality that is unforgettable - that of all the malnourished and uncared-for that have ever been and ever will be.

Loach's genius for casting also put Brian Glover, then a colleague of Hines, an English teacher who wrestled as a hobby, in the role of Mr Sugden - the cock-of-the-walk, sadistic PE teacher. Glover's acting career was sealed.

'Kes' is deeply authentic, true to place and time. Those who played teachers were or had been teachers. Moreover the film was shot where Barry Hines had lived. As a boy he too had kept magpies and jackdaws and his brother Richard had taken a baby kestrel from that very wall shot in the film on monastery farmland near Hoyland Common, Barnsley. Together the brothers learnt the art of falconry. In a strange way this authenticity enhances the message which speaks to people across time, everywhere.

Hines's central theme is that given a chance all the Billy Caspers of this world have potential, though these chances are easily dashed. Billy Casper is redeemed by his passion for the kestrel, even if that redemption is tragically shortlived. 'Kes' has the spellbinding quality of all great tragedies - engendering in the reader the feeling that if only one thing had been done differently all would have come right.

As a school text it is perfect and the re-release of the film can only reaffirm its popularity. It is short, graspable, simple in its construction and pupils passionately identify with Billy as the underdog. They sympathise acutely with the pain of Billy's relationship with his mother and brother, with his love of the bird. They are horrified by his brutal humiliation on the sports field and in the shower. They are devastated by the ending. It makes them cry and it inspires them to produce powerful writing of their own. No doubt 'Kes' will play a part in our literary formation for years to come.

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