This is the story of a young 15 year old boy growing up in the working-class north of England in the late sixties. The hero, Billy Casper (David Bradley, All quiet On the Western Front, 1979) is having a hard time of it growing up, being bullied both at home and school. What we see is a young man trying to get by in his own way. Billy is no angel, he’s not above swiping milk from the delivery float. His family background is nothing to write home about, his father having left them many years previously, his older half-brother verbally abuses him and his mother sees him as a lost cause.
While on his meandering wonders one day he robs a kestrel chick. This triggers something. As he is too young for the library, he robs a book on Falconry and sets about learning what he can. His life is driven by a desire not to end-up down the mines like so many before him. Slowly as he rears the chick a bond takes hold and Billy start to come out of himself. There may be a purpose in life. His schoolwork starts to improve as his outlook improves.
The dour nature of life as portrayed can be seen in the “football” scene when his P.E. teacher (Brian Glover, The company of Wolves, 1984) is trying to instil some interest in the lads as against the day dreaming of world cups and football glory. We see him as one of those petty angry adults which seem to fill the lives of young people as they try to find their way about in life.
Things however take a turn when he is told to put a bet on certain horses. Billy unfortunately thinks the horses will lose and so buys food for himself and Kes. The horses win and Jud is extremely angry at losing him money. He exacts revenge in the most cruel way, hurting Billy where it hurts most.
Like many Ken Loach films it is not necessarily an easy film to watch initially. That said I was around the same age or younger than the hero of the peace when I first saw this movie. Back in the days of 1 TV land, I had to watch what my parents were watching and they wanted to watch this. Thankfully.
It showed me that cinema does not have to be all happy-clappy to be good. Life can be hard and it is not always just mindless entertainment. However this is not an overly bleak film, Glover’s P.E. teacher and Billy himself and his attitude provides some witty and humorous dialogue.
This is one of Loach’s earliest films after cutting his teeth on BBC radio plays and as with much of the output to follow over the years, it is his view of a grinding realism. There is a message here like with so much else of his work. There are a number of messages, from the individual’s perspective to the view of how society treats people. We are shown more than a few examples of how Billy and others are essentially victims of a society which seems to have other things on its mind. Looking at the cinematography it is cold and harsh, the scenes are grey and overcast much of the time.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that the sign of a good movie is one where you can watch the film without volume and still follow it. You can certainly do that here. This is not a fun film, it is not a rip-roaring comedy, it is a look at a bleak life which somehow does not turn you off, indeed it manages to affect you. This is genuinely one of the 10 best and possibly most influential British films over any time period. This is a gritty piece of neo-realism.