Football in Kes


Kes sees timid, football-shy 15-year-old Billy Casper, unable to play the “I’ve forgotten my kit, sir” excuse, forced to go in goal during a P.E. lesson with his perennially angry teacher Mr Sugden, played with caustic brilliance by Brian Glover.

The teacher is captain, referee, and, unfortunately for the kids, judge and jury as the game in Ken Loach’s film becomes more about his terror tactics and love of football legend Bobby Charlton than teaching the pupils anything about sport, teamwork or fitness. Amid the strong South Yorkshire accents, this working class struggle focuses upon Billy’s battle with bullies at home and at school as he tries to find his way in life, often amusing himself with petty crime.

He does however find friendship from an unlikely source when he begins training a kestrel, showing a keen interest in the art of falconry. Yet, while his outlook at school does improve, his ability on the football pitch remains rather, shall we say, limited. In the film’s standout scene, Mr Sugden orchestrates a match between his pupils in which he captains one of the sides.

Kes is a film with a great football scene rather than a great football film. It’s a timeless British classic about alienation, growing up and companionship, all things cleverly captured in its football sequence. There’s an obvious sense of nostalgia about the match, not only in its depiction of a northern English school in the late 1960s but the role football plays in British culture, the way we interact with others, and how it informs our lives as we grow up, particularly for young boys.

For Mr Sugden, it’s maturity versus immaturity, the ruler versus the ruled, the teacher against the student. For him, the game is a brief chance to live out the footballing dreams of his own youth. His presence as teacher allows him to make his own rules (as seen when he gives himself a penalty only to miss it and claim the goalkeeper was making unfair movements prior to the kick) ensuring he takes full advantage of his powerful patriarchal position as teacher.

He also utilises his significant bulk to overpower his pre-teen pupils, furthering his advantage. Loach interestingly takes the disconnect between teacher and child from the corporal punishment room that is the classroom and onto the playing field as Mr Sugden bullies and belittles the kids into playing out his own football fantasy. Yet, there’s an undeniable love of the game that shines through Glover’s otherwise acerbic character. It makes his heavy-handed approach and casual, dismissive putdowns infinitely re-watchable and perversely funny.

But there’s some great asides, especially Billy Casper who is completely disinterested in the game and spends much of it talking to his friend about how cold they are (“my feet are like blocks of ice”) or climbing on the frame of the goal like a circus performer. Most people will be able to relate to the “forgotten kit” excuse as well as the result as the teacher trawls through dirty lost property to find some oversized replacements.

Perhaps most pleasingly, Loach ensures the “little guys” have the last laugh. With Billy Casper in goal there really isn’t much to stop an attack from the opposing side. So when one of the better players on team “Spurs” runs through Mr Sugden’s team “Manchester United” and scores the winning goal, the teacher finds himself on the losing side as the children (from both teams) run back to the changing rooms cheering a moral victory as well as a sporting one.

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Source: Dan Stephens
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