29 Aug 2014
Frequently presumed to have been set in Barnsley, Barry Hines’ novel places Billy’s story in South Yorkshire, however a location is never given. One thing is for certain though – Ken Loach’s film Kes definitely premiered in Doncaster.
Kes isn’t set in Doncaster but it could easily have been. It’s not actually set in Barnsley either: Barry Hines’ original novel A Kestrel For A Knave places Billy’s story in South Yorkshire, but the location is never actually named. Yet in most people’s imaginations the story is intrinsically linked to Barnsley through Ken Loach’s 1969 film version, Kes, shot around Hines’ home turf of Hoyland, and Athersley South, where its young star David Bradley attended St Helen’s secondary modern, both on Barnsley’s fringes.
With just a few miles between them, there wouldn’t have been much else separating Barnsley and Doncaster at the time Hines was writing. Each had communities built largely upon coal, where pit villages and post-war estates housing miners’ families spread over countryside with an older history of farming. Hines’ own father was a miner, and his later novel The Price of Coal, also adapted by the BBC for its Play For Today slot, was set in the colliery-rich surrounds of Elsecar. Anyone growing up around Doncaster in the late 1960s, when Kes is set, would recognise Billy’s environment. Photographed in evocatively bleak tones of brown and grey in Loach’s version, it’s a functional, unsentimental place, with piles of industrial spoil and rows of brick and concrete houses and shops echoing the drabness of Billy’s current life and the future that awaits him if he follows Jud down the pit. Yet it’s easy for a small lad to slip away – through snickets, down cart tracks – and take refuge in green spaces: buttercup-filled fields, leafy woods and the medieval ruins at Monastery Farm where he finds Kes.
Kes is set just six years after The Glee Club – last year’s homegrown production that depicted mining in Doncaster, and the two worlds are broadly the same. But some things had changed forever. For many in Yorkshire’s working class, the social upheaval of the Sixties brought wider horizons and a more rebellious attitude to the old authorities. As Billy’s headmaster Mr Gryce complains, whilst preparing to cane Billy and his unrepentant schoolmates: “I’ve never encountered a generation as difficult to handle as this one.” Hines would return to these themes of youth, justice and the abuse of power, notably showing how the state might turn upon its people in his screenplay for the Sheffield-set 1984 nuclear war drama Threads.
If in some ways the 1968 of Kes is a distant land from the 1962 of The Glee Club, however, the two are linked through the dialect and accents that their casts of ordinary people use as they go about their lives. Indeed, it was this proud use of the South Yorkshire tongue that led to Doncaster’s most famous link with Kes. After Loach’s film was completed, it was screened for American executives at the distributor, United Artists, who protested that they understood Hungarian better than Billy and the other characters.
As a result, although the film had one showing in London at a British Film Institute festival (BFI) in 1969, its official premiere took place in Doncaster, at the ABC Cannon Cinema, which closed in 1992 but can still be found just down the road from Cast in the Waterdale area of the town centre. Showing to stars, celebrities and a public who were clearly less troubled by the dialogue than the UA execs, the screening on 25th March 1970 at the 1,277-seater cinema was a great success – even if the passionately left-wing Loach couldn’t resist arguing about politics with a local MP. Kes went on to be selected for the prestigious Critics’ Week at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival; these days its cult status has grown to the point where the BFI now ranks it as the seventh best-ever British film. And Doncaster can claim some part in that success.
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