Willy Wonka &the Chocolate Factory (1971) is probably one of film’s most beloved depictions of British working class life. Who couldn’t relate in some way to the saga of Charlie Bucket and his bedridden Uncle Charlie on their journey from the single room dwelling they share with the rest of their family to the majestic and mysterious Wonka Chocolate Factory. Bucket’s mother ekes out a meager living as a laundress, and Bucket family meals generally consist of indistinguishable vegetable matter in indeterminate brackish broth. Four family members share a bed, and the gift of a chocolate bar for Charlie’s birthday is cause for much rejoicing. I always thought Willy Wonka &the Chocolate Factory offered an honest and heartfelt appraisal of class struggle in 1960’s England.
The problem, of course, is that Willy Wonka is a children’s musical which features strangely attired dancing dwarves, was filmed in Munich by an American company, and, despite an awareness of class relations, is about as authentic a depiction of class as Mary Poppins. But, how was I to know? I was only a kid when I first saw it.
Kes, on the other hand, is pretty close to the real deal. Adapted from the 1968 British novel A Kestrel for a Knave, Kes is the story of 15-year-old Billy Casper and his fraught relationship with the rest of the world. His mother is raising him without a father and doing the best that she can. Billy’s older half-brother, Jud, works in one of the coal mines just outside town and spends his spare time on the prowl in the pubs. The story takes place in Barnsley, a small town in the county of South Yorkshire, an area known for its coal mines and steel manufacturing.
Although the landscape of South Yorkshire is accented by woods, hills, and foliage of various types, there is an underlying knowledge in the leading characters of Kes that they are trapped within their circumstances, doomed to a fate that they cannot escape. Mrs. Casper discusses her prospects of a better life with one of her male suitors while out in a pub over the weekend, while her son Jud is on the other side of the bar shouting insults to her date. The family that drinks together, I suppose…
Mrs. Casper expresses to her boyfriend that it is too difficult to raise two children on her own with only her paltry wages to rely on. The money Jud makes from the coal mine seems to go to nice clothes, carousing, and betting on racehorses. He doesn’t appear to offer any help to the household, even remarking at one point that he is only waiting for his mother to die so he can take over the ownership of their tiny little house. Feel the love.
It becomes apparent that Mrs. Casper and Jud have resigned themselves to their working class circumstances, accepting that there is nothing they can do for themselves to advance socially or economically. Mrs. Casper is convinced that the right man can lift her out of her predicament, while Jud believes that betting on the right horse will bring him into riches. They have relinquished any idea of autonomy.
This leaves little Billy Casper in an unfortunate position. Basically, he has no hope. He works as a paperboy before he goes to school, which gives him the opportunity to steal milk and eggs from the milk delivery truck in town. Billy, who is forced to share a bed with Jud, is hectored from the moment he wakes up, when Jud rises before dawn to work in the pits, to the time he goes to sleep, since his brother insists on fighting with him for no other reason except that he is there. At school his fellow classmates pick fights with him and the school faculty singles him out for public humiliation. The school’s employment officer even recommends Billy for manual labor at the conclusion of his school year, thereby shutting down any hope for future educational fulfillment or any hope of rising above his current social status.
But, Billy doesn’t let his purported lack of prospects deter him. He isn’t really concerned with the future, but maybe he’s just too young to realize that there is one. Right now, he seems entirely concerned with the present, and the present consists of making it to work on time, attending school, and training the falcon, Kes, that he discovered by accident. The addition of Kes to Billy’s life makes his conscientiousness manifest, but since he is prohibited from checking out a book on falconry from the local library, of course, he is forced to steal one from the secondhand bookseller down the street. From this point on, he does everything he can to learn about falconry. He walks around town with his bird, and when others ask about Kes, Billy tells them about it in a most articulate way.
It seems that Kes is the one thing in life that Billy truly understands, recognizing its freedom in flight as something tangible he can emulate for himself. Billy expresses his disgust for people who refer to his falcon as a “pet,” or who ask if it is “tame.” Billy knows that “hawks can’t be tamed,” but, obviously, nobody else in his immediate circle would understand that. “It’s wild and it’s fierce and it’s not bothered about anybody,” Billy tells one of his teachers, “that’s what makes it so great.”
Billy Casper teaches himself to train a falcon. Nobody gives him any credit, and nobody acknowledges his accomplishment. It was just something he did for himself.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.