June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate Podcasts. She also co-hosts their show on gender, relationships, and feminism, The Waves.
Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie friends. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Slate Podcasts’ June Thomas, about the movie that changed her life, Kes. It’s a British movie with some strong accents, and we’re gonna give you all the details you’ll need to enjoy the conversation.
[music: “Jud Walks to the Mine” by John Cameron]
I had never heard of the movie Kes before even though I was really familiar with the films of Ken Loach, who’s the director of the movie. Ken Loach, for me, has been my teacher in all things activism. His movies often deal with the struggling working class, the marginalized communities all around the world who are just trying to survive. And even though all of his movies tend to be realistic and therefore depressing, they’re also inspiring — and they’ve connected me to stories and people that I would never have connected with otherwise. Like Kes.
[music: “Looking for Kes” by John Cameron]
Kes tells the story of Billy Casper, a young kid in a community in Yorkshire, in the north of England. He’s poor. He is lower, working class, and his family is struggling — struggling to survive and also struggling to just be together. Billy is ignored by them, especially his older brother Jud. He’s also ignored by his school system. He doesn’t really feel loved by many people, except for this bird named Kes.
[music: “Front Titles” by John Cameron]
Kes is short for kestrel. And Kes the bird is the one thing in Billy’s life that loves him and that he can love back without any shame, without any fear. And this bird becomes his symbol of freedom. Many of us rarely see ourselves on screen — either in characters or in storylines — and June Thomas found Kes so resonant because it spoke to her community, it spoke to the way she grew up, and the people that she knew, all of her life. Kes is a movie that symbolizes for her the home that always is going to be within her but that she left.
Ms. Percy: So I don’t know if you are familiar with the children’s presenter, Mr. Fred Rogers.
June Thomas: Indeed.
Ms. Percy: Yes, well, I don’t know if you’ve seen the clip of this — it’s on YouTube. But at his Lifetime Award, when he was accepting that at the Daytime Emmys, when he got up there onstage, he faced the audience, and he told them to take ten seconds to think of everyone who had brought them to this moment in their lives.
Ms. Thomas: Ooh. Wow.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, it was this intense moment when you watch it, and you watch the audience’s faces and what they’re thinking through. And so I’m not gonna ask you to do that, so don’t worry. [laughs] But I am gonna ask you to go back in time to the first time that you watched Kes and to think about what time that was — how old you were, where you were, and all the memories that come back to you.
Ms. Thomas: I’m not sure I can absolutely remember the first time I saw it, but I know that I did it for — as we say in England, I did it for O-Level. We did the book, A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines, which the movie is based on.
Ms. Percy: Oh, so you read the book in school.
Ms. Thomas: Yeah, it was one of our exam texts. And I have to say, I went to a very different kind of school than Billy Casper did, for secondary school, at least. But I — and funnily enough, when I was re-watching recently, I could — not exactly recite lines, it wasn’t like Rocky Horror Picture Show or something.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, it’s not that kind of movie. [laughs]
Ms. Thomas: No, but there were moments — like I yelled along with Jud, “Hands off cocks; on socks!” And so there were certain moments that were embedded that weren’t necessarily the best moments or the most significant moments, but they — those are the ones that had kind of joined all those old songs that are stuck in your head somewhere.
But it definitely was a movie that made an impression on me, because it was the first time I saw a film that really felt like it was about where I grew up, and it was about people like the people who I grew up around. And as much as people sneer at that a little bit and — [laughs] I’m a white woman in America. I — I don’t have a problem finding reflections. But there are always parts of your identity that you don’t see reflected and that you really feel seen when you, yourself, see them on a big screen, or even on your television set. So that was one of the very first films when I had that experience.
Ms. Percy: And you’re talking about very specific parts of your identity that you don’t often see.
Ms. Thomas: Right, and I have to say that there are some very key things about this film that are different from my life. I have great Northern pride, even though I doubt I could live there anymore. But there’s a thing that people down South, they like to make fun of the North and of Northern pride. And they suggest that maybe we have a chip on our shoulders, which is really just a classist — the North is more working-class. There are working class people everywhere in Britain, but the North is more working-class. So this is a working-class story, which again, even today, you really don’t see very much, except perhaps — this is a film by Ken Loach, and I think, really, among the few places we see them are Ken Loach movies — and actually, I would also say — OK, so I wasn’t from Yorkshire, and also, this is a very much a boy-and-man movie. There’s — you really — you see Billy’s mother, but really, the girls — you kind of forget that there are girls in the class, because you really don’t spend any time with them. And [laughs] I’m a lesbian. I don’t really spend time with men. That’s not really my life.
But I did grow up in a mining village, and my dad and my grandfathers were miners. And even though the pit closed — actually, about 1968, so I was alive, but not very old. So I didn’t really — it wasn’t a thing that — people of my age weren’t gonna go down the pit, but that certainly had been a thing.
Ms. Percy: That’s literally dialogue from Kes, when he says, “I’m not going to go down the pit.” [laughs]
Ms. Thomas: Right, exactly. And that was something that was not much reflected elsewhere, and I really enjoyed seeing that played out, rather than just be something that I would hear in family conversations or in other, similar situations.
Ms. Percy: We talked about how you often only see this kind of portrayal and portrait of working-class life in Ken Loach films. This is what he’s known for. And something I really love about his movies is the way that the characters talk. They talk the way people talk, and it feels like everyday life. And he once said in an interview, in talking about his movies and the themes that play in his movies, that the point is to encapsulate something in human experience that goes deeply but is also a reflection of the wider way we live together.
And I think about Kes and how we’re getting this portrait of childhood, of school and family life in Yorkshire. And there are these moments of painful injustice that make me so uncomfortable, which is another hallmark of Ken Loach movies. [laughs] But the discomfort is so important, because you’re learning about this place and these people, and you’re also learning about yourself. And I just wonder, what did you learn from it when you were watching it?
Ms. Thomas: In some ways, I have to admit, it was: “Wow, I got away from that.” My house was very similar to Billy’s. I grew up in a two-up, two-down. We didn’t have an indoor bathroom. But I did have parents who were there for me, which, to me, is the thing that most — of all the heartbreaking things in this movie, is how alone Billy is.
Ms. Percy: He’s so isolated. His father left, and he has his mother, but his mother’s not really there. His brother — good God. [laughs]
Ms. Thomas: God, no, exactly. And I also have to say, it made me so grateful to be an only child, [laughs] because oh, my God, that brother. So yeah, so he has a very neglectful mother who just is very selfish, just can’t cope, isn’t interested, and in a way, too, is seeking her own survival. She’s brought him into the world — in a way, she’s been like the mother kestrel. He’s big enough now to take care of himself. If somebody grabs him out of the nest, well, that’s on him.
I think even of the movie from 2016, Moonlight, a beautiful movie in many ways. But the thing that stuck with me was just — you have no chance. If your parents — or your parent — are for some reason unable to help you, it’s so hard to make it, in — by any definition. So I think in some ways, that’s the thing that is terrifying. It just kind of makes you realize how lucky you were. And I have to say, I’m not one of these people who is terribly — I am not close with my parents. But that is one of those wake-up calls, or “Oh, God,” that these — how easily things can work out very differently in a life, because I have to say, I might have grown up in a house like Billy’s, but I live a very different life now, and I’m not sad about that.
Ms. Percy: And you got out.
Ms. Thomas: Exactly, exactly.
You just see just the impossibility of Billy having a happy life, or it just doesn’t seem like there’s a huge chance for that. And even his mother, at least, has the — she knows enough to see him as a hopeless case. Well, that kind of means she’s given up on him, which she really shouldn’t have, of course. But that also happens to be true. And it’s not really because of him; it’s because of the system.
Ms. Percy: Exactly. I know that, logically. I know that we have many examples of that. But it was still shocking to me, watching this today, to know that even though this kid who’s so smart and so wise beyond his years, at 14 was already — people gave up on him.
Ms. Thomas: Yeah, and I also, as somebody who probably now, in that situation — I would have been a teacher. And I — and the Colin Welland character, I don’t actually remember the character’s name, but he’s the teacher. And he expresses frustration with Billy that is absolutely right. Billy isn’t paying attention. We know that it’s because, perhaps, he hasn’t had anything to eat. He hasn’t slept. He’s had no support. But at the same time — and maybe he has learning difficulties — almost certainly has learning difficulties. But also, he’s still really annoying. He’s not paying attention. He’s not helping. It’s really kind of awful.
Ms. Percy: Well, and it’s the great thing about Ken Loach, is, he has these characters who are complicated. You’re rooting for them, but you’re also like, “Oh, no. You know, you shouldn’t do that. That’s probably not good.”
Ms. Thomas: Exactly.
[music: “Stealing The Book” by John Cameron]
Ms. Percy: I hope you’re enjoying my conversation with June Thomas. Our current This Movie Changed Me season is far from over, but we’re already looking ahead to our next one. As a beloved member of our movie-loving community, we’d love to hear your thoughts about our show. You can let us know by going to onbeing.org/tmcmsurvey. Respond before November 24, and you’ll be entered to win a set of 16 illustrations — one for every episode of this season, from Black Panther and Groundhog Day to Coco and Amadeus. Once again, that’s onbeing.org/tmcmsurvey, and thank you for being part of our This Movie Changed Me community.
[music: “Training Kes” by John Cameron]
Ms. Percy: I love the original review that Roger Ebert wrote about Kes. I just wanted to read a little bit for you, because I think he just hits upon all the things we’re talking about, but also, in just that amazing Ebert way, makes it so poetic.
So he says, the “story is about a boy who is caught in England’s class-biased educational system. He reaches school-leaving age and decides to leave, but doesn’t have anything else he much cares about. He is the butt of jokes and hostility at home (where his older brother rules), and inarticulate with his contemporaries. One day he finds a small kestrel hawk and trains it to hunt. The bird becomes his avenue to a free and natural state — the state his soul needs, and that his home and school deny him. And then the system, alarmed or offended by his freedom, counterattacks. The film has a heartbreaking humanity.”
Ms. Thomas: Wow. That’s a hundred correct, isn’t it. Yeah.
Ms. Percy: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when — and it’s such a beautiful scene, and it really [laughs] broke my heart when I was watching it — is when Billy is with that teacher that we were talking about, and the teacher had asked to be able to come see Billy train his kestrel, to train the bird. And he tells him — as he’s saying why he cares so much about the bird — he says, simply, gratefully, “I think she’s done me a favor, just letting me sit there and watch her.”
Ms. Thomas: Right.
Ms. Percy: And it’s so wise. It’s a meditative thing to say, for a 14-year-old. [laughs]
Ms. Thomas: Absolutely. Absolutely. And as I recall, Billy had said something similar — Billy has revealed this depth of perception that, for a guy who just really doesn’t — he doesn’t engage, most of the time. He’s not playing along. But he also, when he’s talking with that teacher, even though he doesn’t really want him there, and he’s kind of an aggravation that he shows up, he is able to really connect with him and have this very wise, perceptive exchange that’s really — that is really amazing.
Ms. Percy: I think the thing too is that, as I was saying, it’s so heartbreaking to see everyone give up on a 14-year-old. But I think what’s even more heartbreaking is, he’s given up on them too.
Ms. Thomas: Right, exactly, because even the teacher, who really appreciates and thanks him for this thing that he was given entrée to, he actually doesn’t help him…
Ms. Percy: No.
Ms. Thomas: Or anyone else. He knows that everything’s stacked against these kids. And I guess he’s there, and he’s trying with them, but there’s no hope. There’s no path.
Ms. Percy: No. Well, that’s joyful. [laughs]
Ms. Thomas: Well, I mean that’s the thing, it is a really bleak movie.
Ms. Percy: It is. s
Ms. Thomas: But the bleakness is actually accurate. What hope would there be? It would be a false message to suggest that somebody like Billy actually did have a way out or did have some sort of path to redemption or to satisfaction or to — he doesn’t. There’s no hope for a kid like him. He’s gonna be probably on the dole pretty soon. And he’s not gonna go down pit, and if he does, only a few years later, he’ll be on the dole. And I guess too, the message that really, that is the job that’s available for guys like him. And when we’ve seen that the only place that his soul finds expression is in the open, with nature — to be in the claustrophobic confines of a pit would be just absolutely — his soul would be — the last little bits of his soul would be absolutely shredded. So there is no hope. It’s totally, totally bleak.
Ms. Percy: And I wonder if maybe that’s the thing about this movie, is that there’s — it’s just a representation — what you were saying earlier. It’s a way to show someone being seen, a person you normally don’t see on film.
In hearing you talk about this movie, in talking about Kes, and correct me if this is a wrong assumption, but I almost feel like one of the things this movie gave you was an ability to look back on your childhood and your home, fondly.
Ms. Thomas: Yeah, absolutely, which I didn’t always feel. I didn’t always feel very warmly toward it. But there’s something that — I actually feel kind of pride in this movie, or in those people, because they endure. And there’s also something that is really, again, doesn’t get reflected very much. It’s a British thing, but it’s especially a Northern thing, where you would never praise anything. And there’s a real hardness, which is, again, a British but especially Northern, and in working-class communities and in mining communities, of — being hard has really — it’s very important. And incredibly destructive, but [laughs] there you go. And I actually kind of like seeing that, because I know whenever I go home, even if something’s amazing, I’ll go, “That was all right, yeah. It was OK.” [laughs] And I kind of like seeing that, even that kind of value and emotional response feels really real. It makes me feel good about the North in a way that usually, things don’t. And also, I kind of I want people to see, this is where I come from — “Look at that. Look what I did” — which is a little bit selfish and a little bit self-aggrandizing, but yeah, I have to admit that. That’s a little bit present too. [laughs]
[music: “My Friend Jack” by The Smoke]
Ms. Percy: June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate Podcasts. She co-hosts their show on gender, relationships, and feminism, called The Waves. Fun fact about June: In her free time, she enjoys reading ADA News, the news publication of the American Dental Association.
Kestrel and Woodfall Films produced Kes, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. John Cameron composed the music for Kes, and Trunk Records released its soundtrack.
Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking with the Olympic softball player and sports broadcaster Jessica Mendoza. The movie that changed her life is A League of Their Own. You can find it streaming in all the usual places, and prepare yourself for some ’90s Madonna, Geena Davis, and Tom Hanks magic.
The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise — find those wherever you like to listen, or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.
I’m Lily Percy, and let’s all think about the complicated relationships with our hometowns and how they shape us — shout out to the 305, Miami, Florida.