The year is 1959, the place, Nottingham. Teddy Boys, dressed to the nines, are hanging around a Sneinton shop. As the local vicar, John Tyson, walks by in shirt sleeves and hauling two buckets, one of the gang nonchalantly draws a comb through his greased hair as his mates slouch against the window of the Sneinton Road Post Office.
What happened next made headlines – and even a bulletin on the iconic British Pathé News. The Teddy Boys stub out their cigarettes, approach the Rev Tyson, vicar of St Stephen's Church, in Sneinton and ask him if they can help. Surprised and delighted, Mr. Tyson hands over his buckets and says: "Follow me." Dutifully, the Teddy Boys do as they’re told, stroll into the church and are soon hard at work, cleaning, sweeping and polishing. In return, Rev. Tyson gave them a room in the vicarage to use as a rock and roll club – as long as they came to Sunday evensong. It was a national sensation, showing the Teddy Boys, and their “Judy” girlfriends, weren't quite as bad as they were painted. It was also – sadly – an anomaly in the coverage the press – and the cinema – afforded the Teddy Boys.
If those of the age of the Teddy Boys and Judies are now in short supply, those of the age who sought to oppress, repress and – essentially – eradicate them are now virtually extinct. So reliable firsthand accounts from either side are difficult to impossible to obtain – there is, for all intents and purposes, no one left to ask.
Yet, though the form of the attitude has changed on both sides during more than half a century that has transpired since, the substance remains the same. It not only means that understanding the divide remains relevant, but it provides us with the means, if we examine the surrounding circumstances, to extrapolate what some of those attitudes might have been, and thus understand the conflict better, both then and in our own time.
The flamboyant – and expensive – outfits of the Teddy Boys (and Girls) flew in the face of the efforts of the war generation to ‘make do’, ‘get by’, ‘pull together’ and ‘keep calm and carry on.’
Their individuality seemed to thumb their noses at the idea of everyone uniting – to the point of being the same – for the common good But if the austerity measures, initially imposed by Clement Atlee’s Labour government in the postwar era – then perpetuated by the Tory governments that followed – generated the very drab world the Teddy Boys and Judies found odious, the same Labour government embraced a greater egalitarianism, and these young people of the postwar era had no intention of returning to their parents’ forelock-tugging social subservience.
If their parents had known their place, so to speak, this new generation refused to recognize their social station to be such, much less fixed and immutably so. To paraphrase D. H. Lawrence, they wanted to become little aristocracies of their own, and kick up their heels like jolly escaped asses. The new subcultural response of the teenagers was a declaration of alien intent, as much as it was a declaration of independence; it was a declaration of otherness, and a refusal of anonymity or subordinate status. It was insubordinate, and yet, ironically it was also a confirmation of their own powerlessness – of impotence worn as a badge of honor.
“Normal” society responded by regarding them as sociopaths, or even criminals. Attempts were made by adult society to demonise them, often “questioning” their collective mental health. A typical example can be found in the following by a self-styled “family doctor,” published in the London Evening News in 1954:
“Teddy boys are … all of unsound mind in the sense they are all suffering from a form of psychosis. Apart from the birch or the rope, depending on the gravity of their crimes, what they need is rehabilitation in a psychopathic institution… because they have not the mental stamina to be individualistic they had to huddle together in gangs. Not only have these …youngsters developed a degree of paranoia with an inferiority complex, but they are also inferior apart from their disease….” (emphasis mine)
Now if that isn’t an objective, well-reasoned diagnosis and analysis from a well-qualified medical practitioner, then I don’t know what is. As a result of their flamboyant dress, their masculinity was also brought into question. It should be remembered that only a few years before the emergence of the Teddy Boys, military uniform and shorn hair of the British soldier had been the index of “norm” of masculinity, and many still considered the lantern-jawed, short-haired, rough hewn man, preferably with a beefy muscularity and a heavy dose of machismo, to be the exclusive prototype of “manliness.”
As far back as 1947, audiences had been exposed to Pinkie Brown, a dandified teenaged thus who finds himself the leader of a gang of criminals in Brighton Rock (released in the U.S. as Young Scarface), so they were already primed to see dandified men as not only effeminate but as psychopathic. This was only reinforced by Miles “Rave” Ravenscroft, a sociopathic dandy who leads three decent but desperate men to their deaths in an ill-fated heist in The Good Die Young.
Now they were ready not only to apply the same analysis to James Kenney’s Teddy Boy in Cosh James Kenney and Joan Collins in Cosh Boy (released in the U.S. as The Strangler) Boy (released in the U.S. as The Strangler). Admittedly, Kenney’s character deserved it – but it proceeded to tar all Teddy Boys with the same brush. The press, knowing a sexy, if bottom-feeder, type of story when it saw one, was quick to jump on the band wagon.
Society was alternately terrified and thrilled by stories of razor attacks, robberies, fights between gangs and assaults against the police. No doubt some attacks really did occur, but there’s a bit of a plothole to this epic tale of a plethora of these attacks going on.
The Sunday Pictorial on 19 March 1950 wrote:
“The Police Forces of Britain are to ‘Get the first one in’ against the teenage gangs of the big towns. A newly organised Police plan to rid the country of the Cosh Boys, the bicycle-chain thugs and the knuckle-duster gangs. The appointment of Flying Squad Chief Superintendant Chapman to the head of No.3 District Metropolitan Police, which covers the East End of London, is part of the new campaign. Toughness is the key and C.I.D. is aided by the recent law making it a crime to carry offensive weapons ‘Without authority or reasonable excuse.’”
So, how could there have been an epidemic of these attacks, as insinuated by the press and the cinema, if this anti-gang task force, in place since March of 1950, mind, when the Teddy’s were in their infancy as a phenomenon, had, erm, been doing its job so effectively? Either the force was ineffectual (highly unlikely, especially against groups of kids) or the so called epidemic never happened in the first place. But who needs logic, reason and facts when you have emotion and prejudice on your side? Thus a concerted effort was made by the British film industry, in conjunction with the sociopolitical establishment, to demonize the Teds.
The central purpose of Violent Playground (1958), for example, was to demonstrate the failure of liberal measures to reform violent Teddy Boys. The film focuses on a Liverpool street gang (though no one in the film speaks with a Merseyside accent) led by the Teddy Boy, Johnny Murphy (played by a young David McCallum (sadly, no relation), in fine form, as usual, trying to do what he can with the role as written). Local Juvenile Liaison Officer Jack Truman (Stanley Baker) visits the Murphy household, trying to reach out to Johnny.
He fails, but becomes romantically involved with Johnny's sister (Anne Heywood). Peter Cushing plays a local priest also attempting to heal the social problems of the locality. Jack finds considerable points of similarity between the activities of an arsonist known as the “Firefly,” and what he learns about Johnny. In the final sequence, Johnny holds a classroom full of children hostage with a machinegun, apparently shooting one dead, along with the priest, and killing a Chinese boy by inadvertently knocking him down. Johnny is taken down, and the priest and the shot child either rise from the dead or were never really dead in the first place and revive, it’s not clear which; the Chinese boy is dead, however (Chinese children, apparently, being more acceptably expendable to an audience, in the eyes of the studio).
The ending underscores the necessity for repression of the Teddy Boys, adult society being justified in that it tried to rehabilitate the obstinate, intractable non-conformist Teddys, but the Teddys just won’t be like everybody else (bonus in the irrational hysteria department for having the Teds go into a malignant kind of trance every time they hear rock’n’roll – yup, it’s that rock’n’roll music: It’ll turn Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde every time). Thus, the Tory government’s program of violent repression in response to the Teddy Boys is “legitimized” in the film – well, it gives it the old school try, anyway.
Think I’m being paranoid? Think I’m exaggerating? Consider that, around the same time as Violent Playground, the British Board of Film Censors informed film-maker Lorenzo Mazzetti that his proposed film about Teddy Boys would only receive a certificate for exhibition if it unequivocally denounced and disparaged them. He refused, and his film was never made. At least one film danced beautifully within the BBFC’s restrictions, however.
The Boys (1962) is a mystery-courtroom drama where four Teddy Boys find themselves on trial for the murder of a night watchman. Seen through the eyes of Montgomery, the boys’ defense counsel (masterfully played by Robert Morley), we find the good in the boys, never sure, as the story goes back and forth, if they’re guilty, or not, or which witnesses to believe, much less to what degree. It doesn’t hurt that the prosecutor, Victor Webster (a delightfully creepy performance by Richard Todd), is an ambitious ice-monster of a man without an ounce of compassion.
Compliant with BBFC’s restrictions, the boys turn out to be guilty, but are not the sociopaths the Board would have preferred them to be, and there is no false note to Montgomery’s rousing plea for mercy at the end of the film. The Profumo Scandal reared its ugly head a year later, knocking the pins out from under the Establishment, and while the Authority-questioned-must-be-authority-triumphant school of film making never completely went away, it seems as though nobody’s heart was in it thereafter. But the Notting Hill riots had delivered a bigger black eye to the Teddys by then than the film industry ever could (as well see in the next two parts), and the same winds of change that saw the end of their denigrators would see the Teddy Boys themselves off, as well.