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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

When I showed the British movie, Kes, to several hundred high schoolers,

I had forgotten about Billy Casper’s bare arse

He climbs over a shower stall to escape a bully in his secondary school, and the movie viewer gets a full shot of his skinny backside, including dos huevos, as the Spanish say. This oversight was not my worst mistake in ordering this British film in 1975, to be shown over three days to English classes at Napa’s Vintage High.

Having seen the movie in London in 1970, I had forgotten something else. The movie’s Yorkshire dialect! Which is why Kes tanked in the USA. The movie needed subtitles, as if it were from a foreign country. Despite the movie’s limited audience here, the popular film critic, Roger Ebert, called Kes, by director Ken Loach, “the warmest, most-moving film of recent years.”

I shared words like Ebert’s with the English faculty at Vintage, explaining why we needed to show this movie to our students in our lovely, large auditorium with its full-sized screen. Admittedly, I failed to mention the bare buttocks or the Yorkshire dialect! Why was I so insistent about using this film? We had no coal mines near Napa, but Kaiser Steel was a huge employer; and the Rancho kids who lived outside Napa near Kaiser, often felt marginalized. Yet our students had choices, which Billy, a working-class kid in the North of England, did not have. No father, his older half-brother Jud, an angry twat, already bitterly working in the mines, and their mother, who lives for pub nights.

Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 were in our curriculum at Vintage; and I hope I suggested to teachers before the movie, that they talk about coal mining in England. I would like to think that I read to my students from Orwell’s unforgettable essay, “Down in the Mines.” Orwell says that most of the things one imagines in hell …are in a coal mine: “heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” (Road to Wigan Pier)

I will say this about Kes. Generally, the students were more accepting of the difficult Yorkshire dialect than a few vehement English teachers. “Whatever were you thinking, Gail?” I was asked. I was thinking of the students. And I like to think that Kes is a movie that many of them never forgot. The film had some impact on the British educational system too, in relation to working class youth. Also, two weeks after the film’s release in 1969, there were strikes in coal mines where the movie had been shot. Many of the actors were from that area of Yorkshire, including David Bradley, who plays the role of Billy Casper.

David Bradley, now 81, is still active. After Kes, he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and became a brilliant stage actor in London. He acted in numerous TV productions and films, more recently in Harry Potter.

A decade ago, Helen Macdonald’s nonfiction work, H Is for Hawk, was a New York Times bestseller. Her book also won the Samuel Johnson prize in the U.K. I will assume that Macdonald saw Kes, in which Billy trains a fledging kestrel he has taken from a nest. A book about the art of falconry might be the only book Billy ever read with deep interest and pleasure. For this adolescent, whose future is grim, the joy he finds in training Kes has stayed with me for over fifty years.

Ilona, who kindly puts my blog on WIX each week, watched Kes the other evening via Amazon Prime. You might give the movie a few hours of your life. I thought of Kes the other day, after the RCC-RILL book club discussed Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and each member identified an influential movie in her life. Kes is the one I mention now. And if you know of persons who would like to be informed about literature and the arts, please tell them about my blog. It is easy to sign up in the box on the first page.

Thanks to my few readers; and next week I will let you know about the book I’ve just finished, with the help of Cort Sinnes, an artist and graphic designer from the Napa Valley, my student from 1969, and a life-long friend.

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