Sunday, 16 June 2013

One of the most famous V's in British cinema - An interview with David 'Billy Casper' Bradley


I saw the bird first, it swooped and swayed on the wind. It was majestic, I held my breath as it spotted something in the hedgerow and dived at such speed and accuracy it made my head spin.

She was a Kestrel, a beautiful brown kestrel with piercing eyes and a beak that looked like it could tear through my skin.

Then I heard a voice below, a thick Northern accent shouted at the bird, “Come bird, come t’ me you stupid bloody bird.” 

The voice seemed familiar, a little older perhaps, but familiar. Images were jumping through my mind… a small boy, football, canning, school and a bird, a kestrel…Yes, yes, yes…  This was Billy Casper from the 1969 classic ‘Kes’, a cinematic beacon that other British film makers look to for inspiration, five stars and 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.com, number 7 on the BFI top 100 films of all time, based on the novel ‘A Kestrel For A Knave’ by Barry Hines, and directed by a luminary of British cinema, Ken Loach… This was David Bradley.


I watched him for a little while longer, he seemed transfixed by the bird. She was a beaut, and as she landed on his gloved hand I saw my chance. I walked up to him and introduced myself. After a while of watching the bird fly, I found the confidence to ask him some questions…

Kes was your first film role, what was your acting experience before then?
“School productions; I was a few months away from my 15th birthday when I played Billy Casper.  St. Helen’s Secondary Modern had gained a reputation for staging Christmas Pantomimes from its first production of HUMPTY DUMPTY in 1966 (my character: one of two brokers men – Lounge & Scrounge in charge of safeguarding egg): which played to capacity houses through eight performances every year.”   

Wow, I thought, plucked from obscurity… I wondered if he understood the gravity of what had just happened?

Did you understand who director Ken Loach was and his cinematic back catalogue of gritty realism? Had you heard of him before this?


“No, I had never heard of Ken Loach at the time, who had gained a reputation on BBC TV with what was then known as ‘The Wednesday Play.”  His celebrated TV film, CATHY COME HOME wouldn't have featured on many young teenagers radar, including mine.  My interests were mainly sporting at the time – unlike Billy’s.”

How did you parents feel about you landing the role and the language in the film?                        
“My parents were a little overwhelmed by the whole experience, of having their son playing the lead role in a feature film.  As far I can recall, they weren't particularly offended by the explicit language, because it was intrinsic (not gratuitous) to the story.  And attending the premier then witnessing the positive response nationwide, they were extremely grateful I’d been given the opportunity, and proud too.”

That was a comforting thought, his parents seemed perfect, not pushy like a lot of famous kids parents today… no ‘parent divorcing'!

I had read the book ‘A Kestrel For A Knave’ many times, and Billy’s character is so defined, it got me thinking…



Did you read the Barry Hines book before you started filming?
“I did begin reading the novel prior to filming, but Ken Loach asked that I refrain from going any further, for fear that the ending might affect my portrayal.  However, my old school friends were quick to tell me that JUD kills my beloved bird!”

So how did you create Billy? Could you use any parallels in your own life to form the character?
“My understanding of Billy’s life was symbiotic to an extent with my own life; my Dad was a coal miner, we shared the same accent and we were both from working class stock.  Although there were differences between us, I felt reasonably confident to be able overcome them with the support of Loach and Hines.”

Today, we wouldn't think twice about using computer effects and CGI to create the illusion of Billy with the kestrel, but this was 1969. So how much did David actually learn?



What did you have to do to learn how to hold and instruct a real kestrel? Or was that a bit of camera trickery? Was it more than bird? 
“Each day after filming I would visit Barry Hines’ home to work with the kestrels (there were three).  I knew nothing about rearing birds of prey, but under the guidance of the Hines’ brothers (working with the birds from when they were chicks), I’d learn all of the steps in accordance with what we’d be shooting a couple of days later.  What you saw on screen was real; no trickery whatsoever.  Chris Menges (cameraman) told me only a few months ago that much of what we shot was ‘first take’ stuff; there was little money to have the luxury of shooting second and third takes; but of course we’d rehearse a couple of times before filming it.  There was no CGI back in 1968! “

Ha…

The next question just had to be asked. Ken Loach is a national hero, producing such classics as ‘Poor Cow’, ‘My Name Is Joe’, ‘Looking for Eric’, as well as ‘Kes’…

So, what was it like working for Ken Loach?
“Besides having a tremendous talent for capturing social realism on camera, Ken is a genuinely decent person who really cares about the disenfranchisement of ordinary people, and through his numerous films challenges the Status Quo laid down by the establishment.  In my opinion, he is the most influential director this country has ever had, and it was fitting that he received the BAFTA Fellowship Award several years ago for his lifetime achievements.  What amazed me when we worked together was the faith he endowed in myself and others who were not professional actors, and to issue forth memorable performances – even from cameo characters.”

In 1971, Kes was obviously a tip for awards and won - together with others – a BAFTA for both Colin Welland who played Billy’s school teacher and a BAFTA for 'Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles' for David. So the next question was a no brainer…


How did it feel to win a BAFTA? Do you remember much about that night? Where do you keep your award? 


“I do recall it; a memorable evening at the Royal Albert Hall.  Jack Hawkins (who was recovering from throat cancer) announced the nominations / winner in my category, with Princess Anne presenting a beautiful statuesque award – unlike the ‘mask’ they present these days.  I also remember that all the previous winners before me barely gave short shrift to their guest announcers, whereas I made a point of shaking Jack’s hand and thanking him; and after receiving the award I went back over to him to walk off stage by his side.  At this point the capacity audience gave us both a standing ovation that went on and on.  A leading newspaper of the day reported that this was the moment when the BAFTAS became something meaningful rather than hyperbole.  Jack Hawkins: what an honour and a privilege for a young working class lad from Barnsley!  I keep the statue in her Perspex case for safekeeping; she still looks as good as new, and of course it’s a prized objet d'art in our family.”

Did you ever imagine how Kes, together with your portrayal of Billy would endear itself to the British public to the extent it does? Even after all these years? 
“It’s extraordinary that after forty plus years since KES was released, it remains a firm favourite with the public at large and one’s peers.  As you’ll probably know, it was voted 7th Best UK film of all time, and 28th in a World Film poll – not bad for a movie made on a budget of less than £200,000.  Most pleasing of all is how it has inspired the youth of several generations, and I hope it will continue to do so – lest we forget that they are young people who need support and encouragement / motivation.”



Kes is a quintessentially British film, what reaction do you get from abroad?
“Apparently it’s acclaimed all over the world – beyond English speaking countries.  The French adore it, as do the Japanese; Hungry too.  It was recently showcased in America (by Victoria Wood) as one of her three favourite films representing what is epic about the English Film industry.  And only a little while ago, a young woman in Mexico emailed the KES / BILLY web site to say it’s her favourite film.  Billy’s story connects beyond the racial, religious, colour and class divide, because it could be any young kid – male or female.”

What was the reaction from your peers when you returned back to 'normal' life?
“Thankfully, there was no negative feedback from my peers at school, of whom many appeared in the film.  I met up with a group of Billy’s classmates a couple of years ago and with the exception of David Glover (aka Tibbutt), all said it was a highlight in their lives.  After the film company had wrapped and packed their equipment away, we all returned to a new autumn term – and began rehearsing that year’s panto, which was called THE PIPER OF TROONE… I played lead comedian Charlie Dimple (not the brightest button in the box) who falls hopelessly in love with Mistress Mary – the town’s schoolteacher.”

You must have had a great time filming, do you have any amusing anecdotes you can share?
“In the library scene where Billy is arguing with the librarian about borrowing a book without becoming a member, we shot with a hidden camera.  On one take, just as the scene neared conclusion, an elderly woman came through the doors and was so upset with my attitude that she started hitting me with her brolly – sadly, the camera ran out of celluloid otherwise it would’ve been in the film.  In the Headmaster’s office, director Loach promised we wouldn’t be caned, but as you know he gave us a right beating.  We were so angry, that all of us decided to go on strike, and refused to do it again.  Ken Loach needed several different angles on the scene, and after a quick word with the producer Tony Garnett, he offered us 10 shillings extra (50 pence) per caning.  We made £3-50 more that day – and ought to have been credited in the Guinness Book Of Records for being the youngest non-union group to ever go on strike!”



Wow, I thought… and my mind started wondering, thinking of those scenes… Thinking of watching this film as a child, and as an adult, showing it to my child for the first time and wishing I could feel that exhilaration of watching it for the first time too…  

When suddenly the bird started flapping it’s wings and I took it as a sign that this should be the end of our chat. But I had to ask just one more question, about the film and that iconic picture of Billy ‘flicking the V’s’ and felt compelled to ask…

You must be the one of the most famous people in history 'flick the Vs'... How many times do you get asked to do it now? 
“Quite a lot; people like me proffering a ‘V-sign’ as wallpaper on their mobile phones; and often they’ll call out good humouredly in passing.  There’s even a Billy Casper Facebook Page (under Yorkshire Legend) where fans quote various bits of dialogue in conversation.”

And with that - and a two finger salute - he was gone. I had talked to a hero, a legend and a pretty beautiful bird.

For more information on the film go to: www.imdb.com/title/tt0064541/ or more on David visit www.kes-billycasper.co.uk/



4 comments:

  1. Great interview! Love the canning story. Thank you.

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  2. Really enjoyed reading that. Happy memories of growing up in a South Yorkshire pit village.

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  3. Thank you Billy David Bradley Casper :) I'm a miner's son from up the road. You made me determined to use my life to save birds and I'm still doing my best!

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