British delinquents

Perhaps surprisingly, the cinematic debate about juvenile delinquency seems to have begun earlier in the UK than in the United States. Here too, it’s possible to identify many films from the 1930s and 1940s where young people are shown committing crime, although their youth rarely becomes an issue in itself. Perhaps the most celebrated of these precursors is John Boulting’s adaptation of Grahame Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock (released in 1947), starring the young Richard Attenborough. Yet even here, the youthful status of Attenborough’s psychopathic Pinkie is barely addressed; and generically, the film owes more to the gangster movies of the 1930s – as was apparent from its US title Young Scarface – than to the ‘social problem’ films of the 1950s. By contrast, in this section I want to consider three British films from the late 1940s and early 1950s that explicitly address youth crime as a problem of youth, and engage in different ways with the wider debate about the causes and treatment of juvenile delinquency.

As in the US, concerns about youth crime in Britain have a very long history. As historians like Geoffrey Pearson, John Springhall and John Davis have shown, the concern about increasing juvenile delinquency in the post-war period can be traced back to earlier concerns about ‘hooligans’ and specific youth gangs such as the ‘scuttlers’ and ‘peaky blinders’ of the late nineteenth century. As in the US, there was little reliable evidence that rates of youth crime had actually risen, but the issue did attract growing public attention. It was frequently argued that juvenile delinquency was a consequence of the disruption of the war years (in shades of Blackboard Jungle), and of the influence of (particularly American) mass culture – although here again, there was already a long history of ‘panics’ about the impact of popular media on young people. More broadly, as Bill Osgerby points out, there were growing proportions of young people in the population at the time, with increasing amounts of disposable income – although the figure of the teenage working class consumer did not really appear on the social radar until a series of studies by the market researcher Mark Abrams right at the end of the decade.

As we shall see, explanations of juvenile delinquency in post-war Britain also invoked a range of psychological and sociological arguments, while responses to the problem veered between reformist and authoritarian. Yet the issue also invoked much broader concerns about social change, about morality and about the national culture – and about the media as a particular agent or index of change. These debates were a focus of concern for social researchers – most notably in a Mass Observation study by H.D. Wilcock, published in 1949 – but they were also apparent, both implicitly and explicitly, in several films of the period.

The earliest of these films is a Gainsborough Studios production, Good Time Girl, directed by David MacDonald, and released in 1948. The film tells the story of Gwen Rawlings (played by Jean Kent), a teenage girl who is led astray by a succession of ill-intentioned older men. Accused by her lecherous employer of stealing, and then beaten by her father, she leaves home to live in a cheap boarding house. She meets Jimmy, a sharply-dressed ‘spiv’ who gets her a job as a coat-check girl in a nightclub. Jimmy becomes jealous of her growing relationship with Red, an older member of the nightclub band, who is a more benevolent figure. Jimmy beats Gwen, causing him to be fired from his job, and he then frames Gwen for the theft of her landlady’s jewellery. Gwen is sent to a reform school, but quickly escapes and returns to working in another nightclub. She becomes involved with another man, and when they are out for a drunken drive one night, they accidentally run over and kill a policeman. After another beating, Gwen goes on the run with two American soldiers who have gone AWOL. They flag down a car, and she recognizes the driver as Red: realizing this, and in fear of being caught, the soldiers shoot him dead. All three are duly apprehended and imprisoned.

As this suggests, Good Time Girl is very much a cautionary tale. In fact, the film opens with a scene where Miss Thorpe, the chair of the Juvenile Court, is seen giving advice to another troubled teenager, Lyla Lawrence (played by a young Diana Dors). She tells Lyla that her life is similar to that of Gwen, and proceeds to tell her Gwen’s story. At the end of the film, Lyla thanks Miss Thorpe, and leaves for home, her warning duly heeded. Despite this moralistic emphasis, the film was initially banned by the British Board of Film Censors for its ‘dubious dialogue’.

Nevertheless, the film treats the issue of juvenile delinquency in broadly liberal terms. The social welfare system (the Juvenile Court and the reform school Gwen attends) is shown to be benevolent rather than disciplinarian. Gwen (and indeed Lyla) are led astray through no fault of their own: they may have ‘bad’ parents (Lyla’s father is an alcoholic and her mother is mentally ill), but they also suffer from a succession of bad luck – as Gwen’s rather aimless narrative clearly shows. Gwen has to be punished (she is sentenced to fifteen years), but Lyla appears to be saved. Such young people will come round, it seems, if they are treated with care, understanding and tolerance.

Even so, the element of moral warning isn’t entirely effective, not least because Gwen’s motivations – why she wants what she appears to want – remain rather obscure. We understand why she wants to escape from home, but the narrative logic of what happens after that seems rather arbitrary. She takes to drink (although not much of this is actually shown, presumably for fear of encouraging emulation); and she hooks up with a series of inappropriate or criminal older men (although there is little indication of any sexual dimension to this). Even the ‘good’ men – Red, a married man who refuses to take advantage of her when given the opportunity, and to some extent the nightclub owner Max – both meet a sticky end. Everything seems to happen at some distance, and we have very little sense of Gwen’s own perspective on events. While the overt message might be that such young people need ‘understanding’, the film itself gives us very little help in doing so.

Boys in Brown (1949) was another Gainsborough picture, directed by Montgomery Tully. The boys of the title are young delinquents who meet at a Borstal (a reform school for under-18s) – although they are hardly boys. Richard Attenborough (who plays the lead character Jackie Knowles) was 26 at the time of filming, while his co-stars Dirk Bogarde (Alfie) and Jimmy Hanley (Bill) were 28 and 31 respectively: they look especially stylish in the Borstal uniform of heavy-duty brown woolen shorts.

On one level, Boys in Brown is a ‘prison break’ adventure movie; although it also has a strong element of social documentary. The Borstal is run by a sympathetic Governor, played by Jack Warner, who went on to star in the long-running BBC TV series Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76). In this role too, Warner is a kind of embodiment of British post-war social consensus: while somewhat prone to moralizing, he is dependable, paternal and wholly benevolent. The early scenes in the Borstal include documentary-style footage (presumably shot with amateur actors or inmates) showing how the institution works. The Governor is a liberal defender of the Borstal system – it is all about ‘making good’, and moulding the boys into ‘decent citizens’, rather than punishment – and he complains about the prejudice against ex-Borstal boys once they return to society.

However, the main focus of the narrative is on Jackie and his cohorts. Although initially reluctant, he is manipulated by Alfie and Bill to become involved in an escape plan. Jackie is assigned to steal a suit from one of the officers, but he is interrupted and manages to escape after hitting the officer over the head with a table lamp and fracturing his skull. The boys get away, but they are quickly recaptured, and face a possible murder charge. They give the Governor conflicting confessions, but eventually the officer recovers. Meanwhile, as in The Wild One and Blackboard Jungle, romantic love provides an additional motivation. Jackie mistakenly believes that his girlfriend Kitty has taken up with Bill, and this causes him to go along with the escape plot, in despair. At the end of the film, Kitty appears, and the Governor bends the rules in order to allow her to be reunited with Jackie, and give him something to look forward to on his release.

Like Blackboard Jungle, Boys in Brown establishes a clear distinction between the ‘good’ delinquent who is capable of redemption and the ‘bad’ ones, who are not. Jackie is led astray by other, more hardened criminal types at the start of the film, which is why he ends up in Borstal; and while there, he is easily manipulated, particularly by the predatory Alfie (played with a vaguely camp, demonic quality by Bogarde). Alfie fixes the lottery among the group so that Jackie (rather than he) has to steal the officer’s suit, and he eventually tricks him into confessing; but when they are all given the opportunity to recant and apologise, only Jackie and Bill do so. We are invited to conclude that Jackie is weak and gullible, and somewhat out of his depth, but not basically evil or beyond saving. Meanwhile, Bill struggles to make it in the outside world, because of the prejudice he encounters when his background is revealed; but he too is essentially good. By contrast, Alfie and the other escapees are seen as beyond redemption. As the Governor concludes (a little sententiously) in the closing scene, his job is not just to separate the wheat from the chaff, but to understand why the chaff got the way that it did.

The film does not go far in attempting to answer this question, but (as in Rebel) it is clear that parents are to some extent to blame. We learn that Alfie was beaten by his father, and that Bill was an illegitimate child who was given up for adoption: when the Governor finds his real mother, she refuses to have anything to do with him. However benevolent the welfare system may be, it appears there is only so much it can do to address the causes of delinquency.

A very different solution is offered by my third film here, Cosh Boy, directed by Lewis Gilbert and released in 1953. Also named The Tough Guy and The Slasher, it was among the first British films to receive the new X certificate, meaning it could only be shown to adult audiences. This may partly have been a response to the controversy surrounding the real-life case of Derek Bentley, a nineteen-year-old who had been hanged for the murder of a police officer earlier that year. Unlike the other films considered here, it also seems to have required a prefatory health warning of the kind familiar from the US films I have described:

By itself, the ‘cosh’ is a cowardly implement of contemporary evil; in association with ‘boy’, it marks a post-war tragedy – the juvenile delinquent.

‘Cosh Boy’ portrays starkly the development of a young criminal, an enemy of society at sixteen.

Our Judges and Magistrates, and the Police, whose stern duty it is to resolve the problem, agree that its origins lie mainly in the lack of parental control and early discipline.

The problem exists – and we cannot escape it by closing our eyes. This film is presented in the hope that it will contribute to stamping out this social evil.

This gives some insight into the film’s analysis of the causes of delinquency, and its recommendations for treatment. While Boys in Brown and Good Time Girl show ‘good’ young people being led astray, the hero of Cosh Boy is brutal and violent, with no redeeming qualities. And while the other films are keen to offer a benevolent version of adult authority, Cosh Boy is much less sympathetic and much more authoritarian in its response.

The film’s central character is Roy Walsh (played by James Kenney), the leader of a small gang who are seen mugging women in the opening scenes. Roy becomes infatuated with Rene (played by a young Joan Collins), the sister of one of the gang members. Although she rejects him at first, Roy eventually forces her to submit. When she informs him that he has made her pregnant, and urges him to marry her, he refuses to have any more to do with her: she subsequently tries to kill herself, and loses the baby. Meanwhile, Roy’s mother Elsie (who is a single parent) is getting involved with a Canadian named Bob, who urges her to marry him so he can take Roy ‘in hand’ before it’s too late. Bob works as an assistant manager at a dance hall, which becomes a target for the gang: in a bungled robbery, while a wrestling match is going on at the hall, they shoot and injure another member of staff. Later that evening, Bob arrives and learns what has happened. He decides to give Roy a thrashing before the police appear, in the belief that if the judge hears about this, his sentence might be lighter, which would be easier for his mother to cope with. The police arrive just as Bob is brandishing his belt: he tells them he is the boy’s stepfather, as ‘his mother and I were married this morning’. Seeing the belt in his hand, the police officer smiles, and suggests to his colleague that they go and arrest the other gang member first and come back for Roy later. Bob begins thrashing Roy; and in the final shot, we see the police walk away down the street as we hear Roy crying and howling in pain.

The film’s analysis of the ‘social evil’ of juvenile delinquency, and its recommendations for the solution, are unequivocal. Roy’s father is absent (possibly killed during the war), and his mother is indulgent and unwilling to control him. Roy is a brutal thug and a liar, but he is also a coward who bullies other people to commit violent acts on his behalf. He treats his mother like dirt, palming off stolen goods as a present for her birthday (which he has forgotten about). He aggressively forces himself on Rene, and immediately abandons her when she becomes pregnant. Roy is thoroughly unattractive, but he is also vain, and is constantly seen combing his hair. He is also jealous of Bob’s relationship with his mother, which gives him a further motivation to carry out the robbery at the dance hall. When Bob finally steps up to deal with him, the message is very clear: Roy’s grandmother says that they need ‘a man in the house’, and when Bob marries Elsie, she proclaims him as ‘the boss’. The sense of barely suppressed violence escalates through the scenes of the wrestling match, and in the final scene, the taller Bob physically overpowers Roy: ‘now we’ll see who’s boss in the house’, he says. The police, far from the benevolent authority figures of Boys in Brown, clearly condone him in doing what they cannot: ‘the trouble’s all over’, they say as they leave.

While some form of punishment is eventually meted out in Blackboard Jungle and even in Boys in Brown, Cosh Boy offers a much more disciplinarian and brutal response to delinquency. The film works very hard to preclude the possibility that viewers might ‘identify’ with Roy (however we understand that), although that isn’t to say it might not happen: there are some echoes of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson here, but Roy is much less charismatic and appealing. Ultimately, the film offers no possibility of redemption, or of any more liberal response to the problem. Like the anti-social hero of its title, Cosh Boy is nasty, brutish and short.


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