Anthony Clavane: Why we need more Billy Caspers to stick two fingers up at the world
So, where do you stand on the big issue of the day? Not Trump v Hillary, soft Brexit or hard Brexit, Smith against Corbyn. I’m talking Poldark versus Victoria.
As far as I’m concerned, there can only be one winner in this Sunday night clash of the smouldering Titans. As a proud Yorkshireman, ITV’s sumptuous period drama wins hands down. Not because of the acting or writing necessarily - or even a chronic failure on my part to see what all the fuss is about alleged national heart-throb Aidan Turner. The simple reason is that Victoria was filmed in the finest stately homes of God’s own County.
It is a great boost to the county that such high-prestige, big-budget dramas now appear to be heading northwards. Let’s hope this represents a major sea change for the film and TV industry in the broad acres.
And yet. I was driving between Sheffield and Barnsley the other day and spotted a wonderful painting of an iconic 1969 film poster. It covered the wall of a now boarded-up, pub and spoke to a grittier, edgier version of Yorkshireness than historic piles like Castle Howard, Allerton Castle, Bramham Park and Harewood House.
I’ve nothing against these buildings. Far from it. They have given me and thousands of others great pleasure over the years. But Billy Casper sticking two fingers up at the world in the classic movie Kes, has far more relevance to today’s culture than the lavish properties so lovingly showcased in Sunday night period dramas.
Films like Ken Loach’s masterpiece, based on the magnificent novel written by the late, great Barry Hines, placed Yorkshire people - particularly those from neglected, downtrodden communities - centre stage rather than plush manors, mansions and estates.
Hines was part of that extraordinary generation of socially-mobile post-war novelists which wrote almost exclusively about the lives of the northern working class. Like This Sporting Life, A Kind of Loving and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Kes captured the angry working-class mood of the 60s. As many actors, writers and film directors have pointed out - the latest being broadcasting legend Melvyn Bragg - such narratives are fast disappearing from the English cultural scene.
In Bragg’s wonderful recent Radio 4 series The Matter of the North, the nation’s schoolmaster bigged up the kitchen-sink realists of the 1950s and 60s, pointing out how many of them were from Yorkshire (Hines, Stan Barstow, John Braine and Keith Waterhouse to name but four). He paid tribute to a motley crew of literary and sporting greats, including Alan Bennett, David Storey and Geoffrey Boycott.
Set in Barnsley at the end of the 60s, Kes tells the emotive story of a scrawny, whippet-like, 15-year-old boy who is bullied both at home and at school and seeks solace in the rolling fields and rich woods beyond the pithead. Billy becomes obsessed with training a kestrel and, like his beloved bird, learns - albeit briefly - how to soar.
The film challenged the notion that broad Yorkshire “patois” had no place in mainstream culture - apart from comedy. In his famous poem Them and Uz, Beeston poet Tony Harrison recalled being told as a Leeds Grammar School student how, with his accent, he would be restricted to reading the clownish parts in Shakespeare plays: “I played the drunken porter in Macbeth. Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!”
“Whether you’ve seen a film like Kes or not,” said film director Danny Boyle, who featured a clip in his 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony, “it’s part of your culture, your heritage. It’s running in your veins. It’s an invisible fingerprint that everybody carries.”
Quite a tribute. That defiant, us-against-the-world, two-fingered Yorkshireness clearly has an eternal resonance, a universal, global appeal - but it is the invisibility that worries me. Whatever happened to Billy Casper? Like the pitheads, he has disappeared. In the Dearne Valley, where Kes was filmed, all eight of its mines have now been razed. The muck heaps and winding wheels that once dominated the landscape have been grassed over, replaced by retail parks and leisure centres.
You don’t see too many films about gritty retail parks and edgy leisure centres.
The spirit of Kes lives on, of course. Many of the triumphant Team GB medallists in Rio displayed a Casper-esque determination to overcome adversity. Quite a few of them, we should never tire of reminding the rest of the country, are from God’s Own. But in popular culture, with the honourable exception of the brilliant screenwriter Sally Wainwright, you rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham any more.
The idea for my new book, A Yorkshire Tragedy, came when I was teaching a group of children who attended the school where Kes had been filmed. The week-long, residential writing course involved a trip to their local football club. At the beginning of the week most of the kids declared their allegiances to Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and even Chelsea. But when we visited Barnsley FC’s Oakwell stadium, to be greeted by a large sign sporting the legend “My Town, My Team, My Blood”, and then followed up the trip with a showing and discussion of Kes, their latent Casper-ness came to the surface.
One session was taught by Ian McMillan, who used to be the club’s poet-in-residence. “A Kestrel for a Knave is our defining myth,” the Bard of Barnsley told me. “Our Moby Dick, our Great Expectations, our Great Gatsby, our Grapes of Wrath. It’s our creation myth and the tale we tell each other to remind ourselves that we are worth writing about, that our story is worth telling. Here is our little town presented as a place where epic things can happen. You see a lot of people who look like whippets in the town. They look thin and haunted. You see Billy Casper everywhere.”
In the final part of Bragg’s series, which featured the voices of Yorkshire’s finest - including McMillan, Dame Judi Dench, Michael Parkinson and David Hockney - he linked this cultural disappearance to the EU referendum result. An ardent Remainer, the Labour peer nevertheless recognised that the “Northern Leave” vote was a kick in the teeth for the London-centric moneyed elite.
Almost two thirds of people in South Yorkshire voted to Leave. I, like Bragg, voted In - but it is clear that Casper’s iconic stick-it-to-the-man salute still resonates. I can see why many in the county – particularly the still-neglected, downtrodden communities - flicked two fingers up at what they saw as the establishment.
Anthony Clavane is the author of The Yorkshire Tragedy, published by Quercus. He will be talking about the book at Leeds Waterstones on Monday, September 19.