He was born Melvyn Barry Hines, the son and coal miner Dick who worked at the colliery just down the street at the age of 14 as a pit pony driver and whose own father had been killed in a pit explosion and Annie, who struggled to raise him and his brother while holding down a full-time job, in the South Yorkshire mining village of Hoyland Common near Barnsley, just before the outbreak of the Second World War in the summer of 1939. Life was tough for young Barry, accommodation was basic and the family shared an outside toilet with neighbours 30 yards from their door.
As boy he, not unsurprisingly, sought out the rolling fields and rich woods beyond the pithead and at the age of 5 recalled : 'My first school was Hoyland Common Primary, near Barnsley, and the only thing I can remember about the teachers was we were scared of them. They stood at the front, used the blackboard and the cane and you learned by rote ' and 'The rooms were dark, the furniture was old and the teachers seemed old - even if they weren't: some of them were in their twenties or thirties but they had the clothes and haircuts of their dads. Mr Blackledge, the headmaster, had some fingers blown off during the war, and your eyes were always drawn to his hand. For corporal punishment, he would crouch down and his hand would go behind your bare legs (we wore short trousers) - and the thought of the gammy hand at the back of my legs, like something out of a horror film, was worse than the actual punishment.'
Barry kept baby magpies as a child, stolen from their nests, fattened them up on scraps of food and had them flying around the house until they were strong enough to be set free, which would roughly coincide with the time his mother said "that bird has to go" and remembered the bird would always sit on the windowsill outside and look in before it finally flew away.
The year 1950 meant that : ''Most of my friends then went to Kirk Balk Secondary, just up the road. But I passed the 11-plus. For a lot of children, that was the parting of the ways. But I wasn't an academic boy and I was very good at sport, so that kept me in touch with my friends. I'd be up the rec with them at half past four playing football. So I was one of them."
Ecclesfield Grammar School for Boys, which he reached by a ten mile round trip by bus, was not to his liking. On his own admission he 'struggled all the time.' Post-War Boys grammar schools were probably the repositories of the least inspired teaching in the 1950s, often with begowned, ex-servicemen with a degree but no inclination to teach who 'just stood there and you took notes.'
He spent his first year messing about in class with a lad from his primary school and expected to be placed in the 'B' stream in his second year, only to find himself propelled down to 'C' : 'It was like football - 1st, 2nd or 3rd divisions. And I didn't want to be in the 3rd division. So after the summer holidays I decided I was going to try my best. There was a nice quiet lad there and I decided I was going to sit next to him so I wouldn't mess about. So I did, and at the end of the year I came second which meant I should have gone up into 3B, because the first two did. But the lad who came third was to 'go up' instead. I was heartbroken.'
Mr Harrison, the Headmaster, hadn't reckoned on Mrs Hines, who went up to the school and got him 'put up'. He found out later that, at a staff meeting to decide which lads went up, he had been written off because 'I'd probably leave at 15.' His salvation came in the form of one teacher : 'Because I was good at PE, the most sympathetic teacher was Billy Buck. He was genial. I was captain of all the football teams and he'd discuss teams and things with me. I couldn't talk to other teachers like that.' Barry's 'because I was good at P.E.' was an understatement since he represented 'England Grammar Schools' in an international match against Scotland : 'We played Scotland at Celtic Park, in Glasgow. We lost 2-0' and, in addition, he was and an even-time sprinter.
Despite his criticism towards the school, he was magnanimous when it came to acknowledging what the school had done for him : 'The headmaster of Ecclesfield Grammar looked like a public school head, in a gown, and our school song was 'Forty Years On', the Harrow school song; it was in fact an ordinary grammar school and, although at heart I felt I was still one of the boys who hadn't passed the scholarship, it was right for me.' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iZA85mMn4Y&t=0m29s
'tried hard and got six O-levels, but I wasn't examined in the things I was really good at, such as sport or woodwork' and left school at 16 in 1955 to work for 6 months as an apprentice surveyor in Rockingham Colliery where his Dad worked and he hated it. Chided by the miners for “not using his brains”, inspired by Mr Buck and thinking of becoming a PE teacher, he returned to the Grammar School to study 'A' Level History and Economics which, when he passed, he thought was the 'highlight of my academic career' because : 'I realised I was not as dumb as I thought.' It was at this time, at the age of 17, that he was paid a visit by a Manchester United scout who offered him a trial, which, to the consternation of his younger brother, he turned down in favour of a career in teaching.
He followed two years study of Physical Education at Loughborough College of Education where, on arrival, he was put on a course called 'Remedial English' because of his regional accent and one of his lecturers was Allen Wade, who a few years later became the new 'National Director of Education and Coaching for the Football Association', but more important, for his subsequent career as a writer, in his second year he : 'started reading for the first time - 'Animal Farm' and Hemingway - and I discovered the bug to write.' He recalled : “I was in digs with a chap who took English as a second subject, and he had some books like, and one Sunday afternoon, I said, "Have got anything worth reading?" because I was a bit bored, and he said, "Have a look at that," and it was Animal Farm. I think it was the first novel I’d actually read in my own time, and of my own volition. I’d actually sat down and read a book, and I was 21. Ridiculous. I can’t remember reading anything before."
'Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Mcep34DH_s&t=0m05s
“Well, I enjoyed that book, and we had this English course at college, and I started doing a few short pieces, descriptions and that kind of thing, and I got decent marks and a bit of encouragement, so then I did one or two stories, and got them in the college magazine, and I started doing a bit of reading of my own in the library. And, I know this sounds like a cliche, but it was like a whole world opening up. I could see. Wheels started turning. I’d never heard of Ernest Hemingway, but when I read his stories I realised there was something special about this simple style, but I couldn’t understand how he got the effect. I realised there was something underneath it, and that’s how the whole thing started to unfold for me.”
He now undertook a year's training as a P.E. teacher in London in 1960, at the brand new 'Rutherford School', made up from an amalgamation of secondary modern and boys' grammar schools in Paddington and spent two years there under the watchful eye of Tom Hughes, the Head of Department who taught him 'a lot about organisation in the gymnasium and group work' before returning to Loughborough for his last year before graduating with the College's prestigious Teaching Diploma in P.E and 'That's when I started writing. You had to do a thesis, and I wrote a novel. They were so astounded, they didn't dare fail me.' With typical self-deprecation he said : “I produced this thing about a lad who discovered aesthetic pleasure in physical education, all very pretentious and important. I didn’t know how the hell they accepted it, because it was nothing to do with physical education, but I couldn’t stand the thought of doing the usual thesis, you know, esoteric subjects like the roll of the intercostal muscles in weightlifting and all that carry on. "
Of course, there was still time for football and in London he played semi-professional football for Crawley Town and later in the team that won the 1963 'Universities Championship ' with his victorious team mates, future Arsenal goalkeeper and tv 'Football Focus' presenter, Bob Wilson and legendary Crewe Manager, Dario Gradi.
He now returned home to Hoyland Common at the age of 24 in 1963, married and now 'teaching P.E, and a bit of English' at Kirk Balk, now a modern mixed comprehensive school an experience which would inform 'A Kestrel for a Knave' largely set in classrooms and school grounds and at the same time he recalled that when his Hoyland school mates, including his brother, the 11+ failures, had attended the Secondary Modern, the Head Teacher had been the Ben Robey who would be his model for Mr Grice in 'A Kestrel for a Knave' as he recalled : 'There were legendary stories about Ben and they all seemed wild and exciting. There's an episode in Kes where a lad gets caned for taking a message to the headteacher. That's what happened with Ben. A teacher sent a lad along who'd done some good work. But Ben was so used to seeing boys who needed caning, he just said, "Come in," and caned him.' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoF-UrCVaCg&t=1h00m53s
He now started writing 'Billy’s Last Stand', in the school library after the kids had gone home, a play based on the village coalman and underpinned by his intrigued with the fact that a man should live an apparently unrecorded life, untroubled by forms, letters and officialdom. It took him three months and he sent it to Alfred Bradley, 'Head of Northern BBC Radio Drama', because “he sounded like a good bloke to send it to” and had the satisfaction of the play being produced on the BBC Radio Third Programme in 1966.
On the strength of this success, he now gave up teaching full-time, and spent five days a week writing his first novel, 'The Blinder', which was the story of a schoolboy footballing wizard who also happened to be brilliant academically which started life as his Loughborough College third year thesis : "Anyway, the lad was very average in this thesis, so I thought I’d heighten it a bit all round, and in the novel I made him good at everything, with the result that a lot of people who read the book hate that lad. But I don’t find anything nasty about him; he was just an honest lad.” When it was published in 1966, he considered one of the greatest compliments he received was from a professional footballer who told him he knew “what the game was all about”.
He considered his 3 years teaching at Kirk Ball : "one of my most rewarding times. I'd published two novels by then, including Kes (in 1968), was in my early 30s, teaching PE and a bit of English. I took the non-academic stream. Literature wasn't part of their life. Then Longman's Imprint Books came out, with short stories from Stan Barstow and Alan Sillitoe and Bill Naughton and a book by the Liverpool Poets. It was the first time kids from a working-class background could read about themselves. About people going to the pub and getting drunk and having fights. For the first time, they became interested in literature. I felt I was putting something back into that community and I was doing with them what I wish someone had done with me."
In 1969, the year in which Ken Loach directed 'Kes', he was back in teaching at 'Longcar Central School' in Barnsley : "I was teaching on the same staff as Brian Glover. He was a wrestler and every evening he would go off to wrestle (under the name of Leon Arras, a French wrestler who didn't turn up at one match and so Brian went on instead under that name. Wrestling involves a lot of acting and, as all the teachers in film were, or had been, actual teachers, Brian asked me: "Is there a part for me in the film?" He'd been taking part in classroom readings and he'd come into the staffroom to tell us : "I've been playing Captain Queeg in Mutiny on the Bounty - and they applauded me out of the classroom!"
Barry published 'A Kestrel for a Knave' in 1968 and drew inspiration from Kirk Ball : “I thought I would like to show that these kids can do something which is in fact very skilful - not the old tale about them being cobblers and joiners, but something that means they have to get books out of the library. And it’s a technical skill; they’ve actually got to read about it before they can do something like training a hawk. My brother trained a kestrel in these fields at the back, and I wanted to show that kids can do this kind of thing. They can do all kinds of things if only they’re given opportunities.”
His Billy Caspar, a disaffected young lad living on a soulless Barnsley estate, uncovered a fledgling kestrel and for the first time in his life, felt his imagination stirred and started to train the bird. Naturally, Barry's motivation was never about the bird, but always about the boy : “The trouble in school is that you can do so little to help kids because you come up against this dead end of the educational system. I think a comprehensive system is the only answer for these kids, if it is carried through properly. But education reflects the system, rather than changes it. People say it’s an instrument of social change; well, if it is, it’s a bloody slow one. I think education reflects the class system, and the system has to change before education can.”
Who could forget the wonderful comic scenes in the film, which immortalised Brian Glover’s towering, comic, outlandish performance as Sugden, the sports master and still have the power, 50 years later, to bring tears to the eye : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3cayRMnVb8&t=3m16s
“All my fictional teachers are based on real people. They didn’t know they were funny but if you go into any pub round here (Hoyland Common) and listen to people reminiscing about their schooldays, those same teachers are still causing glee!”
“How often are ‘dreams realised’ in real life? I write about real people and show a section of their life, without the Hollywood endings which rarely happen outside Hollywood. My memory is failing me these days and I cannot remember the exact details, but Walt Disney offered to make Kes, on the condition that the hawk recovered. Should we have sold out? I know which way would always be right for me.”In 1970 his 1965 five character radio play 'Billy’s Last Stand', was staged at the Royal Court Theatre, London, and a television version was broadcast by the BBC in 1971 in its 'Play for Today' series. In 1972 he, again, highlighted working class life in his novel 'First Signs' and went back to school with 'Play for Today' in 1973 and 'Speech Day' with Brian Glover playing a 'Mr Warboys'.
In 1975 Barry wrote 'The Gamekeeper', also to be filmed by Ken Loach who said of it : ' Barry understood class politics, the irreconcilable conflict between workers and employers. His book The Gamekeeper, which we filmed, captured this exactly. The title character is an ex-steel worker who now protects the land of the aristocracy and chases off his former workmates. A life in the open air for him means social exclusion for his wife and family. Is he changing sides or swapping one form of exploitation for another? Barry loved such contradictions' and was on location with Phil Askam who played the lead.
Three years later his two-part tv drama, directed by Ken, 'The Price of Coal', was a vehicle for them to examine class politics when the bosses of 'Milton Colliery' were delighted when the Prince of Wales agreed to visit and they began to spend on a 'top show' by painting the offices and planting flowers. Meanwhile, down below, the lives of the miners were at risk due to faulty machinery and decaying pit-props making the tragic outcome inevitable.
"What about the red carpet are you going to have one ?" : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDpBuFqWeSs&t=24m57s
"And this gentleman here, this is Walter Hardy. He's one of our longest serving employees, he started work in the mine at 13. He's due for retirelemnt next month after 41 years of loyal service." "Loyal service ? I'd no other bloody choice." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDpBuFqWeSs&t=35m21s
"They don't fool me riding round in Rolls Royces, waving and shaking hands with folks. There's never been a king or queen yet who's done one thing for working population of this country." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDpBuFqWeSs&t=43m28s
"How many are there ?" "Eight" : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y7ewB5q0us&t=23m06s
In Barry's opinion, the best thing he wrote and "wrote itself", was a short play, broadcast by the BBC in 1976, 'Two Men from Derby', based on the experiences of Granddad Hines, who had a great talent for football, but never realised his potential as he was a bit of a 'Jack the Lad.'
In 1981 Ken directed and adaption of Barry's novel, 'Looks and Smiles' in which Mick Walsh, the protagonist wants to be a motorcycle mechanic but bad luck, inexperience and tough economic times prevent him getting a job. The book is a postcard from the grubby economic wasteland of the early 1980s Thatcher's Britain and the film won Ken the 'Young Cinema Award' at the Cannes Film Festival in '81.
"Anyway, what you doing round here ?" "Looking for a job, aren't I." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtNnJcxMcNA&t=12m11s
Barry's drama-documentary, directed by Mick Jackson, 'Threads', was set at the height of the Cold War and chronicled the effects of a nuclear bomb dropped on Sheffield and Barry drove the story forward with the lives of ordinary : the working class, 'Kemps' and the middle class 'Becketts.' It may have been Barry's masterpiece based on international paranoia, but it was also an allegory of the harsh effects of Thatcherism on Barry's region of South Yorkshire. The 'threads' of its title pointed to the bonds which united communities and services in relationships of co-existence in peacetime, but their destruction when the bomb dropped.
In 2009 in 'This Artistic Life' Barry wrote :
‘Writing is nothing to do with pretty views. It’s to do with commitment. If you know what you are writing about, and what you are writing for you could write it in a cellar. As it happens, the view from my window is very inspiring. What? they say. Those horrible blocks of flats, all those mucky factories and all that smoke pouring out? Those ramshackle houses down there, that faceless council estate? Well, yes, I say. Most people live and work in places like that. And I can’t think of anything more important to write about. Can you?
Ken Loach wrote this week in The Guardian :
'Barry and I worked on four main projects together and some that didn't
make it to the screen. He was a joyful collaborator. Laughter was never far away when working with Barry. The terrible illness that robbed him of many productive years and was so painful for those close to him was a loss to us all'
The greatest of accolades from Barry's daughter :