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Coming of Age in Realist Cinema: The Case of Barry Hines

From Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) to Clio Bernard’s The Selfish Giant (2013), British cinema has often examined the lives of young people growing up in poetic yet often brutal environments. David Forrest argues this has much to do with the unsung influence of Yorkshire screenwriter Barry Hines.

Mark Cousins’ recent documentary A Story of Children on Film (2014) contained a particular line of praise which stayed with me: ‘[…] perhaps the best European film about childhood’. This was not a reference to Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) or Vigo’s Zéro d’Conduite (1933) but to Kes, Ken Loach’s 1969 adaptation of Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave.

Kes-5305_1

Written by Barry Hines and directed by Ken Loach, Kes (1969) has been described as ‘perhaps the best European film about childhood’. Image: Ronald Grant Archive.

Cousins’ impressionistic, non-academic style means that he can make adventurous conclusions that show no respect for the sometimes stifling scholarly categorisations of period or authorship. In this case, we enjoy the idea that Kes can be seen as first and foremost a European film, and in turn we might therefore move beyond the reductive way we sometimes think and talk about British cinema and British film history: as something wholly distinct from the apparently aesthetically complex, politically progressive cinemas of transnational Europe.

Cousins’ reimagining of Kes as a European film also struck a chord with me because my research (with my colleague at Sheffield, Profesor Sue Vice) is currently focussed on the film’s screenwriter, Barry Hines. Hines was a regular collaborator of Ken Loach’s, making the remarkable and underrated Looks and Smiles (which won two prizes at Cannes) in 1981, The Gamekeeper (1980) and the two-part television drama Price of Coal (1977). Our work is concerned partly with challenging the conception of these texts solely as Loach films, making a case for Hines’s significant contribution as writer; as Cousins does, we are trying to invite new perspectives by changing the frame of the conversation. Indeed, John Hill’s otherwise excellent recent monograph on Loach devotes just a few pages to Hines, and yet Kes is probably Loach’s most widely seen and fondly remembered film.

An exploration of early, developing and final manuscripts of both Kestrel for a Knave and Kes reveals the extent to which Kes’s poetic aesthetic, often credited to Loach’s fondness for the Czech New Wave, is visible in the pages of Hines’ written depiction of Hoyland, Barnsley, his own hometown, and a narrative space which combines an imaginative tragic romanticism particular to the rural North, with the looming and ever visible presence of the pit.

Barry Hines

In such works as Kestrel for a Knave, Looks and Smiles and Threads, author and screenwriter Barry Hines explores young people coming of age in poetic yet often brutal environments. Image: BBC.

This poetic exploration of childhood can be identified again in Looks and Smiles, a film made in recession-hit Sheffield about a young school leaver, Mick, who struggles to find a job. The film is shot entirely in black and white and contrasts the spectacular vistas of Sheffield’s seven hills with its labyrinthine brutalist high-rise estates. Like Kes, the landscape evokes symbolically an imaginative, idealised space of childhood alongside the realities of impending adulthood in an uncertain and fragmented urban space and, like Kes, there is evidence of Hines’s significant aesthetic direction in both novel and screenplay manuscripts of Looks and Smiles. Perhaps, then, we might speak of an emphasis, on childhood in Loach’s work that Hines contributes to but does not determine.

However, a focus on youth underpins Hines’s work as a whole, not just his collaborations with Loach. With this in mind, I want make a case for Hines as major contributor to ‘coming of age’ tradition in social realist cinema.

As an ex-PE teacher and a deeply political former grammar school boy, education is perhaps the dominant concern of Hines’s rich and varied oeuvre. His young characters repeatedly attempt to make sense of unequal societies with failing or absent education systems that act as symbols for an uncaring capitalist system.

After, Kes, Hines best-known work is probably the TV play Threads, directed not by Loach, but by Mick Jackson. Again scholarly material on the film seems to underplay Hines’ authorship, yet it is possible to read the grim narrative of post-apocalyptic Sheffield as the culmination of a loose trilogy of brutal coming of age films set in ruthless, capitalist societies. Threads’ imagined post-war Sheffield is bereft of the symbolic ‘threads’ of civic society and education, and the potential that these might foster solidarity, community and common purpose is lost forever with the film’s literal (and allegorical) apocalypse.

Films such as The Selfish Giant (2013) continue a tradition of British social realist cinema focusing on the lives of young people.

Films such as The Selfish Giant (2013) continue a tradition of British social realist cinema focusing on the lives of young people. Image: IFC Films.

Towards the end of Threads, the city and its surrounding area is tragically reimagined from the perspective of the teenage daughter of the film’s central character, Ruth. Born into a post-nuclear wasteland to an uncommunicative, depressed mother, Jane speaks in a primitive, monosyllabic language, and is reduced to catatonically watching recordings of schools programmes in the ruins of a lecture theatre. Jane, like Mick (Looks and Smiles) and Billy (Kes) before her, is a hopeless teenage victim growing up in a bleak, complex world.

Re-framing a discussion of Kes in this way is important because its influence is felt indelibly in social realist cinema today. Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999); Shane Meadows’, This is England (2004), Somers Town (2008) and a Room for Romeo Brass (1999); Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), Samantha Morton’s The Unloved (2009); and Clio Bernard’s The Selfish Giant (2013), amongst many others, lyrically deploy the innocent perspective of young women and men as they lose their innocence in poetically rendered yet unforgivingly harsh landscapes, constituting a post-industrial bildungsroman that is perhaps now the default generic mode for contemporary realist cinema in Britain and beyond.

An exploration of Barry Hines’s work suggests that if we are to understand more thoroughly the remarkably persistent tradition of social realism, we must begin to look beyond the director.

Dr David Forrest is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sheffield.
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