"Denis Law’s In The Wash": In Praise Of Ken Loach’s Kes

In capturing the rite of passage that is schoolboy football, Ken Loach created not only the best sporting sequence ever committed to film, but one of the great scenes in all cinema....
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In capturing the rite of passage that is schoolboy football, Ken Loach created not only the best sporting sequence ever committed to film, but one of the great scenes in all cinema....

Bloomfield, Young Giants, Shoot: what a lot of crap films about football there have been. Okay, so The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty Kick is alright, but for the most part, football on film has been as great a success as the ongoing Ashes tour. The same Hollywood that’s made boxing, baseball and even fly fishing compelling has completely failed to transfer the magic of the beautiful game to the big screen. The reason for football’s on-film failure is obvious: the movies simply can’t hope to generate the same excitement as the game proper. And in a world obsessed with drawing comparisons between soccer and sex, when it comes to the movies, football’s the exact opposite of fooling around - it’s always better in real life.

Except, that is, when cinema eschews the things that make proper soccer attractive and wallows instead in the common football experience, the schoolboy game. Everyone played football at school. Be it for the firsts or with the other spanners when the real boys were playing rugby, be you fat or thin, tall or short, crap or complete crap; we all hacked and hoofed at one time or another. Blimey, some progressive schools even let the girls play.

The one time a director tried to capture this important rite of passage, he created not only the best sporting sequence ever committed to film, but one of the great scenes in all cinema. The director is Ken Loach and the film is Kes.

As for the scene itself, the reason it works is largely down to one man - wrestler, teacher, Shakespearean actor and Slaughtered Lamb barfly Brian Glover. And for sheer comedic value, few movie moments come close to the five minutes that follow Glover’s sports master Mr Sugden warming-up to the theme from Sports Report.

All schoolboy football life is to be found in the game Sugden oversees. The fat kids playing slaps, the boy with the specs chatting to the goalie, the lad with the smart kit taking it way too seriously; if you can’t recognise yourself, it’s only you you’re fooling. With Grandstand-style captions to emphasise just how important football was at that age, we’re transported back to those Johnny Ball-worshipping weekday afternoons like never before.

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Ball-chasing, bunching, fly-hacking, small boys in the park, jumpers for goal posts, isn’t it? Well, no, it isn’t because Loach isn’t just wallowing in nostalgia. A former teacher, he’s painfully aware that these weren’t halcyon days for everyone. For many, school sport was a nightmare. And if you were frail, sickly or just not very good at footie, these could be very long afternoons indeed.

Besides being the film’s authority figure, Sugden’s the embodiment of adolescent fear. As inarticulate as he is bald (“Stimulating, you fool! S.T.I.M.I.L.A.T.E!”), his bullying is all the more frightening since he’s supposed to be in charge. Indeed, Sugden’s every kid’s nightmare - being picked on by a pupil is one thing but if you’re antagonised by a teacher, who do you turn to then?

Of course, it’s impossible to be too frightened of Sugden, such is the extent of his buffoonery. And in the end, he’s only in the picture to let Loach do what he does best - celebrate the underdog. It’s the misfits the director really identifies with, and particular affection is spared for David Bradley’s Billy Casper. A small boy in a big goal, it’s harrowing to think that, in a couple of weeks, this little wretch will be trading the chalk-face for the coal-face.

Sadly, people who left school in the late ’80s are probably amongst the last fully able to identify with Loach’s masterpiece. With competitive sport now seemingly discouraged in schools, one fears that future generations will be robbed of the opportunity to swing on crossbars or play slaps on the wing. Still, as long as there are PE teachers like Sugden who’re willing to use their positions to live out their shattered dreams of playing second division football, there will always be a corner of England that is Loachshire; a magical land where the sky’s always grey, the pits are always open, the kids still read The Dandy and where, once a week, everything stops for football.