A celebration of Woodfall Films runs at BFI Southbank throughout April 2018
In 1969, Ken Loach’s feature filmmaking really hit its stride with Kes, an adaptation of Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave. He’d already made a name for himself with TV’s controversial Cathy Come Home (1966) and his theatrical debut, Poor Cow (1967), and in Hines’ story he found a perfect embodiment of his own ideals. The result was a portrayal of underrepresented working-class communities that had rarely been presented on screen with such authenticity before.
Produced by Woodfall Film Productions, known for previous landmarks of British social realism such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Kes follows Billy Casper (David Bradley), a young lad who lives a tough life in the Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley. Failing at school, he finds an escape from his day-to-day life in the form of a small kestrel, which he takes from the nest while on a wander around the nearby fields.
Developing an interest in falconry, he trains the bird and becomes an adept falconer. However, the film leans towards tragedy as the reality of his background soon brings him back down to earth with a bump.
With its stunning visuals, razor-sharp script and, perhaps most importantly, its location filming around Barnsley, Kes stands as a high-water mark of British film. In spite of the many changes that have taken place in the area since it was made, I went off in search of what was left of Casper’s old hunting ground.
In reality, Casper’s hometown is an amalgam of two smaller towns on the outskirts of Barnsley. The first is Lundwood, to the north, which we initially see during the opening titles when Casper is chased by a dog and then runs up an incline, providing excellent views over Barnsley. The road where the dog chases Casper has since disappeared, although the road he runs onto with the dead end is Priory Place.
It’s not unusual to find locations very much changed on trips such as this, but this was something new: the hill itself has been very recently demolished. There’s another slope to the north of the road allowing for similar views out over the way, but capturing what cameraman Chris Menges shot that summer is now impossible.
Further down into the estate is Lewis Road. This is the road where Casper meets the milkman (Duggie Brown) and steals a bottle. There were various signs of life on the Saturday morning when I visited, but sadly all of the old wrought-iron lamp-posts seen in Kes have since been removed.
The final location in Lundwood is the betting shop where Casper fails to place the money on the horse for his brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher), sowing the seeds of the film’s tragedy. Research had led me to believe that it was still a betting shop, albeit now taken over by a chain, located on Pontefract Road. In fact the shop is now empty and boarded up. The area is still sadly run down, lacking much needed development even five decades on.
The town of Barnsley is pivotal to Kes, but it’s surprising to find how little of its centre was actually used. The film’s opening section culminates with a visit to the corner shop where Casper picks up his papers for delivery. This shop was at 23 Princess Street near the centre of town, but the building is now a private house. The gap that Casper walks past when returning from his round can still be seen, though the shop front itself is incredibly different.
The streets that Casper runs through at various points in the film have mostly been demolished. All of the streets from the opening, including Sarah Anne Street and John Edward Street, have been flattened for a handful of new-builds while the paper-mill seen in the background from the alleyway that Casper runs through is now an ASDA supermarket. I found one street on the edge of this new-build estate still intact, looking down onto the same view, but it was as close as was possible to recreating the visuals.
Other locations used in place of the town include the shop where Casper steals the book on falconry. That was actually in Queens Square in Leeds rather than Barnsley – although that too has been demolished.
The majority of the film’s locations are in and around the small town of Hoyland, which lies south of Barnsley. My first stop was Casper’s house at 56 Parkside Road. The house has been renovated since filming, perhaps even being a new house entirely judging by the rest of the road.
At the bottom of this road is Hoyland Common, one of a number of locations where Casper flies Kes. The common is little changed but, in the scene of Mr Farthing’s visit, the flight is actually mixed with shots filmed further up the town on the land behind Hawshaw Lane. This is mainly playing fields today, which look very similar to those used at Casper’s school in the film’s famous football sequence (St Helen’s School, later renamed Edward Sheerien School and since demolished around 2012), though the area is still recognisable.
On the other side of these hills lies the location of one of the film’s most powerful images. Grange View is where Casper sits overlooking the old mine works while reading the Dandy comic that he’s nicked from the shop. With the deindustrialisation of the north, the view now only contains a few warehouses, some new-builds and grassland. The heart of the area’s industry and livelihood was ripped out some time ago.
Various roads in the town can be seen throughout the film too. We see Casper walking up Fitzwilliam Street, almost parallel to Parkside Road, after getting some scraps from the local butcher’s van. It’s easily the most recognisable and preserved location that remains from the film today, with the houses exactly as they were.
Further up this road is the fish and chip shop where Casper spent his brother’s money. The shop is still a functioning chippy and is now appropriately named Casper’s Fish & Chips in honour of its most famous customer.
The last location on the visit required more of a walk, and so I travelled south of the town to Black Lane, a private road that leads through to the forests where Casper wanders. Walking along it and under the M1, the snaking road eventually took me to a farm specialising in woodcutting. This is the site of the ruins of Tankersley Old Hall, built in the late 16th century, in which Casper first sees the kestrel and eventually takes a young Kes from the nest.
The field he walked through is now sodden and muddy, and the ruin has only its pillars left standing today, the walls having since collapsed. Yet, despite its age, it’s withstood the passage of time better than many of Kes’s more modern settings.