Kes is one of those films that hits too close to the bone. It captures so much of what has been lost in our country; all of the rich social and moral elements which once defined Britain.
I watched it again recently, and was almost taken aback by a strong and instinctive feeling of familiarity; a sense of somehow 'coming home'. I noticed an online comment which stated "It still feels more real to me than present times". I was struck by how instantly I knew exactly what he meant. Walking around nowadays I often feel a strange sense of unreality, as though I am a stranger in an isolated, disconnected, foreign, bizarre world. I can only imagine what it feels like to older generations who can remember much more of pre-revolutionary Britain than I do.
Kes captures so many things gently in passing, unlike modern films which are mostly crude attempts at 'progressive' social engineering. In one scene it depicts a strong, connected working-class culture as generations meet and mingle for a pint at what looks like the local miners club. This connectedness of people who share social and economic interests is hugely significant, and almost entirely lost today. This is a rarely discussed, but very important point behind the emergence of the gig economy, and the shovelling of Britain's youth into dead-end jobs with no collective identity, social bonds or bargaining power to improve their lot; even a lack of awareness of their very situation. There's no industrial action in call centres.
The incredibly rich local accent is another feature of Kes that strikes me. It is remarkable to think that "thee" and "thou" were used commonly in speech in parts of Britain in the 60s. The linguistic world of Kes was shaped by the prose of Milton and the King James Bible; then staples in the school system. By comparison accents today are not only generic, but highly feminised and infantilised. They are victims of globalisation shaped by gawdy American television series; more Brooklyn 999 than Paradise Lost (if you don't know what Brooklyn 999 is then don't look it up, as it isn't worth knowing; I only know of it as I have family members who watch it. It is an equality and diversity fest in which every character speaks like a childish, clownish imbecile).
Kes also offers a very instructive depiction of the British school system in the 60s. Classrooms are authoritative; pupils sit at individual or paired desks which all point towards the teacher. Learning is based on hard facts and not the vague, unmeasurable criteria used today (at one point they are asked to define the word "fact" - and there's an answer, not a subjective opinion). The charts on the classroom walls look serious and technical: things like maps, mechanical charts and periodic tables rather than posters for the equality and diversity code or trophies for participation like they have today. Morning assembly begins with hymns and a Bible reading; there is nothing in the way of 'diversity' amongst the assembled pupils.
The children are mischievous and get up to the usual rebellious things. At one point a group of boys get a whack on the hand with the cane for smoking; on another occasion a boy is told to shovel up coal after getting into a fight and making a mess. Misbehaviour is, as it should be, recognised as a normal part of growing up to be clipped when it oversteps the mark, the way a wolf will nip at a pup that becomes too aggressive when play-fighting with its siblings. This might seem an odd point but it is extremely important. The new social trend from the Left is to view misbehaviour not as something normal to be moderated, but as evidence of some deep, abnormal dysfunction, often indeed attributed to mental illness and treated psychologically or even with medication. Nowadays the main character, Billy Casper would almost certainly have been diagnosed with ADHD and stuck on Ritalin or some other drug to quiet him down (I believe this trend may also be related to the ballooning size of classrooms, which are increasingly impossible to manage).
Another funny little quirk which jogged memories for me was seeing old women in the street wearing headscarves while Billy ran to school. This reminded me of my grandmother and her friends who would often wear headscarves when out and about; rather like the hijab this was about modesty and not just fashion, and once very commonplace in Britain. I was born into the Kirk, Scotland's established church, and remember my grandmother and her generation would always wear hats to a service, based on verses of scripture which call for women to cover their heads in church. While this may sound horrendously quaint and old-fashioned to those who have grown up in the new secular order, I will point out that our Queen has very faithfully and consistently maintained the traditions both of the casual headscarf and a head covering in church.
Towards the end of the film Billy attends a meeting with a representative from the Youth Employment Service. I found this scene very interesting, because here was a schoolboy with no qualifications (he has difficulty even reading or writing) and yet he is told he can be put into solid years-long, paid, on-the-job apprenticeships (not nonsense 'modern apprenticeships') where he can learn a trade. I hadn't heard of the Youth Employment Service, and so I looked it up. It was a British government agency active from the 50s to the 70s which connected schools to local industries and higher education bodies. In 1962, for example, it directed 38% of school leavers into proper apprenticeships.
This is important because it shows one aspect of the vast infrastructure and national organisation which was then present, and is now gone. There were clear pathways for the youth to give direction to their lives and make an honest living; whether that was through modern or technical schools and an apprenticeship leading to a trade, or through grammar school and serious degrees in university (in those days funded through state grants rather than loans) leading to professional employment.
Instead of being guided and offered useful instruction, today's youth are just given vague waffle about being "whoever you want to be" or doing "whatever makes you happy", before being shovelled into call centres or retail jobs or being treated as cash cows for what are often useless, non-vocational degrees through the university system. Nobody wants to admit we are now a low-pay, low-skill economy, and the gymnastics the government does to obscure the real unemployment figure is absolutely extraordinary.
Although Kes portrays a more familiar Britain, it also gives a nod to social problems that were setting in during the late 60s as the Labour and Conservative parties began rolling out their 'New Britain' project. The tragedy of the tale rests in a violent, bullying older brother who cannot be controlled by his mother in a broken, fatherless household. 1969, the year in which Kes was released, was also the year in which the Labour government, with Tory support, rolled out no-fault divorce and neutered the concept of lifelong marriage. This year, fifty years on, they have committed to introducing divorce on demand at the call of either partner (the other one doesn't get any say in the matter).
When Kes was re-released by the British Film Institute a few years ago one commentator noted that "It is a brilliant film, and it is genuinely evidence of what we have lost". He was speaking purely in terms of the film's quality, but I think that statement would be just as accurate if it was a statement of social commentary. There are so many things captured in Kes: the deep working-class culture; the rooted communities; the industrial male employment; the authoritative classrooms; the rich, distinctive and emotive language; the old social norms; the serious national infrastructure; the more familiar, connected and homogenous society.
I can understand why watching old British films like it can hit too close to the bone for many who now feel like strangers in their own country: the rootless, borderless, disconnected, hollow, secular, service sector 'New Britain' pursued by the Labour and Conservative parties for the past several decades.
The question now is if we will be given over to apathy, or if we will do something about it.
PS - The kestrel hawk used in the film was trained and provided by Captain Robert Nairac GC, who was tragically abducted, tortured and killed by the IRA on his fourth tour of duty in Northern Ireland after refusing to divulge any information to the terrorists. His contribution to Kes, a classic of British cinema, is one unexpected but interesting way in which his legacy lives on.