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Kes: 50th anniversary events celebrate Northern classic

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This November marks 50 years since Billy Casper and his pet kestrel took to the sky and to our screens. As Sheffield is set to play host to a series of talks, events and exhibitions to celebrate this anniversary, I ask why a film which so directly criticises the brutality of working-class life is still so popular half a century after its release.

Ken Loach's cinematic adaptation of Barry Hines' novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, follows a 15-year-old lad who is struggling academically and becomes socially isolated because his only option is being forced down the pits. The discovery of a baby kestrel may not offer him an alternative prospect from the mines, nor can his falconry skills be measured in school tests, and yet for a while she provides him with an outlet for moments of extraordinary escapism.

Set in Hoyland near Barnsley, the film paints a bleak portrait of a generalised Northern experience in the late sixties.

"I think a lot of its popularity is from nostalgia," says Dr David Forrest from the University of Sheffield, a leading researcher of the film and the curator of many of the celebratory events. It's true that many of those who attend the readings or watch the film do so because Hines and Loach so accurately encapsulate the Yorkshire experience, one that is still so often neglected in popular culture.

But pinning the film's sustained popularity on nostalgia suggests something too romantic and retrospective. I doubt those planning to attend these events are actively yearning for this past - crucially, because it is not past.

For a film which is so direct in its criticism of the problems of the period, there is a certain timelessness to Kes. The mines may be shut and the canes put away, but at its heart it tells the story of disenfranchised youth dealing with the problems of hyper-masculinity and a town that's feeling forgotten.

Forrest brings up the topic of Brexit, but we know that white working-class men, the kind Billy would most likely become, were more likely to vote leave. The violent ending of Kes is the same kind of retaliation that saw the Vote Leave campaign successful, both of them coming from a desire to enact radical change, in any shape or form, no matter the consequence.

Whilst Westminster continues to ignore the shouts from the North, 50 years on Kes remains ones of the most accurate and understanding depictions of Yorkshire life.

Kes will screen at the University Drama Studio on Saturday 26 October as part of Off The Shelf Festival of Words, featuring a conversation with Dai Bradley about his role as Billy Casper.

Untameable: The Barry Hines Archive, an exhibition inspired by Barry Hines by artists Patrick Murphy and Anton Want, runs at Western Bank Library from 21 October to 20 December 2019.

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