50 years after Kes, we need someone else to give Barnsley wings | Helen Whitehouse

Ken Loach’s film gave working-class towns like mine the kind of representation they still desperately need

There are not many stories that centre on Barnsley, my predominantly working-class home town in the north of England. The one that stands out, not just for my South Yorkshire town but any small industrial town in the north, is the book A Kestrel for a Knave, or Kes as it is better known on the screen. Barry Hines’s book, which was published 50 years ago this week, was adapted by Ken Loach to become a classic film that contains the genuine voice of my town.

Kes tells the story of Billy Casper, a teenage boy who lives with his half-brother and single mum, living a life of boredom, not interested in school. He finds a passion for training a kestrel – the bird of the title – but after he annoys his brother Jud one day (SPOILERS), the Kes is killed – leaving Billy with nothing in his life apart from a future down the coal mines. It’s bleak to be sure, but there are glimmers of hope in there too, and there’s been nothing comparable in the five decades since.

Part of this might be down to the fact that the town hasn’t changed too much. The school Kes was set at, so similar to my own comprehensive, is now an academy, and the town centre is probably even more boarded up. But the fundamentals are still the same: people feel forgotten, they are struggling, and there’s a lack of drive. For the most part it feels like people just don’t care.

Kes gave, and still gives, Barnsley the kind of representation it so desperately needs. The film used actors from Barnsley, the accents and dialect are genuine in a way that isn’t patronising but demonstrates the feeling and language of being disenfranchised. As a result there’s still an overwhelming love in the area for the story; a crowdfunding campaign is under way right now to raise money for a statue to commemorate it. It resonates with those who watched it when it first came out, teens who studied it at school, and even those who are Billy Casper’s age now. It was on my GCSE syllabus in 2011, and knowing people around the country were studying the same text gave me a sense of pride in where I came from that was so rarely present. Of course we watched the film in class, but everyone had already seen it – it’s part of our heritage.

The writer of A Kestrel for a Knave, Barry Hines.
The writer of A Kestrel for a Knave, Barry Hines. Photograph: Ben Duffy/REX/Shutterstock

In Barnsley it feels like everyone has at least one relative connected to Kes in some way: an auntie who was an extra, a grandparent who wandered on to set. We speculated about the parks, schools, and cinema Hines uses in the book, and swore blind that locations in the film were ones from our own small villages. It gives – and gave – places like Barnsley a voice: it was a hit, and people could get some understanding of what it was like to live in a working-class, northern town.

In a world peppered with politicians who believe millennials spend all their money on coffee, avocado toast and £20-a-pop spinning classes, Kes represents what life is like for so many, without mocking Billy for being a delinquent. We, the reader, can understand why he acts and feels as he does.

For someone growing up in Barnsley, it’s easy to see there’s a flagging economy and few jobs – you know you’ll either have to move away to do what you want, or get stuck doing what you don’t, like Billy facing a life down the mines. We all know our town is a hard place to live – it has its brilliant points, it’s in a beautiful bit of countryside, and you can get change from a fiver on your round in the pub – but there are no jobs, few prospects, and things are probably going to get worse before they get better. It feels like Barnsley is ignored by Westminster and popular culture.

Before the next 50 years go by it would be nice if we could find someone else to represent the experience of towns such as this in films, books and TV, in the same way that Kes does. People need to understand what it’s like, the good and the bad. Until that happens, we’ll always have Kes – to give a little insight into what it’s like growing up in a town like mine.

• Helen Whitehouse is a journalist for the Daily and Sunday Mirror

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Helen Whitehouse

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