mon 16/12/2019

Greg Davies: Looking for Kes, BBC Four review - touching insights into the story of Barnsley boy Billy Casper | reviews, news & interviews

Greg Davies: Looking for Kes, BBC Four review - touching insights into the story of Barnsley boy Billy Casper

Greg Davies: Looking for Kes, BBC Four review - touching insights into the story of Barnsley boy Billy Casper

How Barry Hines's classic novel became a great British film

Greg Davies with 'Kes' actor Dai Bradley (and kestrel)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ken Loach’s film Kes, and the 51st of A Kestrel for a Knave, the Barry Hines novel it was based on. The story of Barnsley boy Billy Casper who finds an escape from his painful home life and brutal schooling by training a wild kestrel has resonated down the decades, and the film is regarded as a classic of British cinema, even if the Americans couldn’t understand its Yorkshire accents. According to Greg Davies, English teacher turned comic, it feels even more vital today, in an increasingly divided and inequitable world.

For this BBC Four film, Davies travelled to Barnsley and visited key characters and locations from the story. He spent a little too much time telling us how he’d never made a documentary before, and his compulsion to keep making breaking-the-fourth-wall asides – as if an inner voice was telling him “you’re a comedian so you’d better make another joke” – did become the tiniest bit aggravating. Nonetheless, he came back with a film that was heartwarming and sometimes sentimental, but always clear-eyed about the story’s fundamental message. The notion of struggling against circumstances and seizing the chance to (literally in this case) spread your wings and fly is a universal theme, but applied to the specific circumstances of a run-down south Yorkshire mining community in the late Sixties it acquired the status of myth.

Barry Hines (pictured left) died from Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, but his creative drive and dedication to writing about the people and places he grew up with were vividly rekindled through archive TV interviews and in the reminiscences of people who knew him, including his two wives, Loach, his producer Tony Garnett, and Barry’s brother Richard. It was Richard’s real-life passion for keeping kestrels which inspired the novel, though otherwise characters and events were all Barry’s inventions.

Barry’s cheerful admission that he never read a book while he was growing up, preferring comics like the Dandy and the Beano, was proof that the creative urge is an untameable thing which will find an outlet somehow. Also inspirational was Dai Bradley, who played Billy in the film. Bradley’s story was a living illustration of Kes’s message, since his BAFTA-winning success in the film launched him into a successful stage and screen career, though it faded away somewhat in the 1980s.

As for Davies, he remembered how he used to use Hines’s novel to get his school pupils to dip a toe into literature, since it was one book he could rely on to grab their attention from the off. He admitted it wasn’t until now that he’d fully realised what an “angry, defiant novel” it was. It all added up to a touching and uplifting documentary.

Barry Hines admitted that he never read a book while he was growing up, preferring the Dandy and the Beano

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