Robert Alan Evans didn’t know what sort of audiences to expect to come and see Kes, his two-actor adaptation of Barry Hines’ novel, A Kestrel for A Knave, at Leeds Playhouse. Originally commissioned by Catherine Wheels Theatre Company and now receiving a studio-based production at Perth Theatre to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Ken Loach’s seminal film version of the Yorkshire-set book, Evans was effectively bringing Hines’ story home. For some, the tale of a seemingly dead-end fifteen-year-old boy and the kestrel he trains was too much.
“There were loads of men who came, who were all between about fifty and sixty years old,” says Evans, “and they were a bit noisy, and some of them were probably a bit drunk, but they came along and just cried. I think, for a lot of these guys of a certain age, Kes is a really important book, and an important story that speaks to them. Seeing those men in the audience, you realise they were going back over their own memories, and that starts to make you wonder what might have become of Billy once he grew up and became a man, and if he would still be alive now. The book doesn’t say everything’s going to be okay. It leaves it open.”
In the Leeds audience, Evans identifies a generation who went through the comprehensive education system in the 1970s, for whom Hines’ book was something of a sacred text. In Billy Casper, they perhaps recognised aspects of themselves. Rather than the stiff-upper-lipped posh boy heroes who adventured their way through the pages of Boys Own type yarns, Billy was rough, not very tough and, because of the circumstances of his upbringing and education, barely articulate. Yet, when he finds something to believe in through the kestrel he trains, for teenagers set up to be factory fodder, he offered inspiration and some kind of hope for a life beyond the daily grind that might give them too a chance to soar.
“It’s a story about about injustice, class and poverty swamping people,’ says Evans. “There’s this Tory idea that everyone apart from themselves has to try a bit harder, and everything will be fine. You hear this all the time from working class Tories, but here’s Billy Casper, who’s done everything himself, he’s trained this bird, and he has this natural skill to do that, but there’s no obvious opportunity for him to do something with that.
“One of the important things about the book is the way Barry Hines left things at the end. He didn’t sentimentalise things or make out everything was suddenly going to be alright. At the end, you don’t know what might happen, whether Billy can go on to become something, or if he’ll just go down the mines and that will be it.”
Given everything that followed in British working class communities after Kes, what would have become of Billy? As Evans observes, the end of Hines’ book offers no heroic sense of closure. While Hines perhaps wisely never revisited his fictional teenage urchin, his later work was steeped in the social problems of the era Billy will have grown up in. Economic and industrial strife, mass unemployment, the calculated closure of the mines and the bitter strike that went with it and will all have left their mark.
With a fiftieth anniversary screening of Loach’s film version of Kes presented by Perth Theatre and Perth Film Society in the theatre’s Joan Knight Studio last week, a look at Hines’ other collaborations with Loach might give some pointers to how things worked out. Later works included a two-part TV drama, The Price of Coal, while a novel, Looks and Smiles, was adapted into a film that focused on teenage unemployment. Hines’ 1994 novel, The Heart of It, was about a Hollywood screen-writer who returned home to visit his father, a communist, former miner and veteran of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Loach was keen to film it, but Hines refused, saying that era had passed.
That might have been the case, but would Casper, like another fictional Yorkshire Billy, Lee Hall’s Billy Elliot, have transcended his origins to reinvent himself? A ballet version of Kes several years ago perhaps recognised the umbilical connection. Then there was Billy Fisher, aka Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse’s infinitely more aspirational northern soul several generations older than both. Like him, would Billy Casper have ended up stuck where he was? Even worse, trapped by circumstance, lack of education and an imposed culture of austerity, would Billy have ended up like so many of his generation, and stayed permanently on the dole?
“I think he probably went down the mines,” says Evans. “I think he forgot about what happened. Statistically, I don’t think he would have moved out of the work and conditions that had been mapped out for him. There wasn’t that sort of social mobility for Billy Casper then, and there certainly isn’t now, so I don’t think he’d have gone far.”
Evans does, however, offer a glimmer of hope for the Billies of the world.
“He’s still got that imaginative life,” he says. “That’s never going to go away.”
Kes, Joan Knight Studio, Perth Theatre, October 31-November 16.
The Herald, October 26th 2019