Sunday, 24 May 2020 15:40

Kes Revisited - The welfare state and community in the late 1960s

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Ken Loach's film Kes will be familiar to many, since it was one of the most acclaimed British films of the 1960s and has continued to get airings ever since. It tells the story of Billy Casper, a boy about to leave school in Barnsley, the heart of the Yorkshire coalfield. Bullied by his elder brother, Jud, and by bigger boys at school, and drifting aimlessly, he finds himself and redemption by training a kestral, only to be cruelly robbed of this lifeline at the end of the film.

A failing welfare state

While the story is timeless and heart rending, the film also has a very specific historical context. In a simple timeline, it comes after How Green was my Valley (1941) which revolves around a strike by South Wales coal miners, but before Pride (2014) in which a group of gay and lesbian activists lend support to Welsh miners during the 1984 strike, and Billy Elliot (2000) where a miners son discovers ballet during that strike,  and before Brassed Off (1996) which is about the pit closures that followed the defeat of the striking miners. In other words, Kes is set at just about the high water mark of the nationalised coal industry, when the default assumption for boys leaving school in places like Barnsley was that they would go to work in the industry, as Jud has done. That is a future Billy vehemently rejects, not out of any clear alternative ambition, but nihilistically.

In Kes the battles fought by the worker in How Green was my Valley seemingly have been won. Not only have the coal owners been banished, but miners and their families live in better housing in new estates. Their children get a secondary education in a recetly built modernist school with a big playground and a football pitch. There are public libraries where the riches of literature are available to all, careers advisers to smooth the transition into the labour market, and job opportunities for women. So much has changed for the better because of the post-war welfare state settlement.

Yet, the victory of working people has been a less than complete. There is continuity with the past. The massive coal heaps and the hulking infrastructure of the pit still dominate the skyline and environment of the mining community. A dance at the Miners' Welfare Club brings together three generations; a 1960s style band insipidly performs rock numbers but also a knowingly risqué George Formby favourite, the latter to the particular delight of the women.The housing is better than it would have been pre-war, but nothing special; bland semis wth back gardens, good enough for households like the Caspers.

The school buildings may be new, but many of the teachers cling fiercely to the old ways, instilling discipline with slaps and liberal use of caning for (sometimes wrongly-) presumed miscreants. The class sits in regimented rows, just like their parents did. The school may be only 10 years old, but already it is looking shabby. There are puddles in the playground; the waiting area for interviews with careers guidance looks tatty; grass on the football pitch is getting long, the goalmouth is squelchy: you feel it won't be long before the roof beings to leak. As it was not a studio set, but filmed in a local school in Barnsley, it is no surprise to find that the school was indeed demolished in 2011.

At best, state-provided free secondary education, the great step forward of the 1943 Education Act,  imparts Billy only with profound apathy, until Colin Welland as the English master hints at a new child-centred approach to teaching, and ignites the boy's engagement through coaxing him to tell the class about his kestral. The careers guidance man never realises that the 15-year-old in front of him has (admittedly well-hidden) potential. The public library won't let Billy borrow a book because he is not a member. There is a gulf between the school assembly bible reading invoking divine concern lest "one of these little ones should be lost" and the way Billy is treated.  The teachers and the other welfare state professionals show a bureaucratic, middle class and even contemptuous face at the point of service delivery. 

Loach is a famously political film-maker, and to me Kes presents a critique of the British welfare state from the Left. It sits with a mood that grew in the 1960s, in which the "rediscovery of poverty" was an emergent theme in the social policy literature. Devaluation of the Pound Sterling in 1967 had blunted some of the ambition of the Labour Government elected with a large majority in 1966, and then there were the events in Paris in May 1968 which spread their ripples throughout Europe (East as well as West). So behind the vignettes of various officials, and in the built and natural environment in which Billy is growing up, there lie fundamental questions about the very nature of the welfare state, and particularly about the values and ethics of its career professionals.

Such concerns should matter to planners, whether they work in the public sector or interface with it. It was the comprehensive redevelopment programme, at its peak in the late 1960s, that exposed the gap between the planning profession working in the public interest, and much of the public whose lives were directly impacted by the clearances and relocations.  The upsurge of opposition was a key factor behind the commissioning of the Skeffington Report, and the public participation that it ushered in.  While well intentioned, and initially with popular support, "bash and build" showed no human face. It was a massive and complex programme expressed in statistical tabulations, maps, and idealised drawings of new modernist environments. The direction of the process  was also highly gendered. At every level, the men leading the work shared a masculine culture with those senior teachers depicted in Kes. Of course many had served in the war, an experience likely to reinforce respect for authority. Throughout Kes authority is gained and defended by male violence, whether in a Desparate Dan comic strip or through bullying or corporal punishment. In a connection to the mining industry, a schoolyard fight takes place on a pile of coal, leaving Billy blackened in the dust like a miner returning from a shift, and hinting that he will indeed go into the mines, despitehis wishes not to do so. 

The film also depicts briefly the backlash against the welfare state and nostalgia for a "lost England" from the political right that would become so mainstream in British politics from the 1980s onwards. The head teacher, about to administer a caning, has a speech in which he laments the way that the young workers of the time lacked the qualities of their parents' pre-war generation. Despite the new estate and school "Things are no better now than they were then. I just can't understand this generation... it just seems a complete waste of money and a waste of time... there's been no advance in discipline or decency or morals or manners... the twenties and thirties... were hard times but they produced qualities in people that you lot will never have".  Earlier, as miners come off a shift, the soundtrack fades in the school assembly hymn:

"The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask:
room to deny ourselves; a road
to bring us daily nearer God".

The welfare state in the 1940s and 1950s was built on a set of assumptions that were beginning to fray by the end of the 1960s. It had been assumed that people would leave school, get a job, get married, get a house, and then the wife would stay at home looking after the children, and all of these things would last a lifetime. Already in Kes Billy was living in a single parent household, and his job prospects looked uncertain. One can only speculate how the family would survive the turmoil ahead when Jud, in his mid-thirties, would lose his relatively well paid job as pits closed.  At a time when the Covid 19 pandemic has catapulted state action into the vacuum left by austerity, we should ponder how, maybe even if, a culture embedded in public services by cuts, targets and performance incentives can be transformed to fit new, very different priorities.

A P.S. for film fans

Re-watching Kes for the first time in years, I was struck by the similarlites with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows which was made a decade earlier. Barnsley may lack the glamour of Paris, but like Billy Casper, Truffault's alter ego Antoine Doinel is also a troubled adolescent, a petty shoplifter, regularly in trouble with his teachers and parents, and lying to evade sanctions. Both films have an amusing, largely visual and extended sequence, of teacher ineptitude - in the French film, a crocodile of children gradually vanishes into shop doorways as the teachers strides unknowing at the head;  in Kes there is the famous football sequence where the P.E.Teacher lives out his fantasy of being Bobby Charlton. Similarly, both Antoine and Billy make a catastrophically wrong call that brings an end to their escapades. Doinel steals a typewriter, and is caught trying to return the bulky, unsaleable item; Casper reckons wrongly that the horses his brother has given him money to back will not win, so spends the cash.

Other film reviews on this site:

Stockholm, My Love

Mr.Tree - A tale from the new China

Prefab' Story - High Rise, Mud and Shoddy Housing

A Tale of Two Cities: Fellini's Roma and Davies' Liverpool

Community and Film - Akenfield and Byker

Force Majeure




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