Ken Loach’s 1969 masterpiece Kes is rich in social narratives. The 1960s was a decade of cultural and political upheaval in Europe and America. Some of these changes were captured in the film within the structures of narrative story telling. The late 1960s witnessed an end of an era in British economics, for it marked a turning point (arguably a turn for the worse) in British history. From that point onwards Britain, following suit American economic policy, had opened up its economy for global investiture. What is now called the global neo-liberal regime was adopted then and continues till date. It is undoubtedly a momentous occasion for not just the British economy but for British politics, culture and social life as well. In many ways the old bastion of solidarity and nationalism was coming to an end. The coal mining communities that are portrayed in Kes were perhaps that of the last generation of miners. In a span of a decade the complexion of British industry would change from manufacturing-based to that of finance. The heart-beat of British economy in 1969 was industrial towns of North in which the film is set. In a matter of a few years, London would become the nerve-centre of British economy with its transformation into a global financial hub.
A central social theme in Kes is that of alienation. It is about how an individual feels cut off from emotional or moral support even when he has relatives and social institutions to call upon. Billy Casper signifies that individual, whose troubled life is a metaphor for a whole generation of the British working class. The film is successful because Loach manages to invoke a strong representation of this collective pathos through the character of Casper. The author of the novel upon which the movie is based, Barry Hines, was instrumental toward this end, for his very visual style helped Loach. Together the two artists were able to project the powerful central image of Kasper’s Kestrel – “that lowest of the hawks – its an eagle for an emperor and a kestrel for a knave – is a wonderful image for the boy’s life and prospects. This central image not only helps hold the whole piece together but stays in people’s minds”. (Macnab, 1999) To boot it is socially relevant and resonant even today. For example, Loach never allows us to forget “the social and economic circumstances which underpin Billy’s existence. He lives on a rough estate and looks destined to end up working in the mines. Billy’s prospects wouldn’t be any better today.” (Macnab, 1999)
To fully comprehend the director’s choice of social themes, we have to look at the original novel from which the film is adapted. In Barry Hines’ A Kestrel For A Knave, the coal mining communities in and around Yorkshire were documented very well. Hines details how poverty and desperation force people of the region to take up jobs as miners. But coal mining is a very risky enterprise with high rates of mortality and disability among the workers. Though the medium of film or the narrative constraints of Kes do not allow for showing these social contexts, Loach tries to throw light on “class militancy against the brutal new conditions of low pay contingent service work, but characteristically as much on the personal costs and pain of that struggle.” (Forsyth, 2003)