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May 2012

The Leather Boys

cast: Rita Tushingham, Colin Campbell, Dudley Sutton, Gladys Henson, and Johnny Briggs

director: Sidney J. Furie

108 minutes (PG) 1964
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Orbit Media DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Leather Boys

The thing is this... He burns rubber up the north circular, revving his powerful Triumph, pursuing the illusory phantom of freedom through a dead-end b&w world at ton-up speeds. She goes to the local fleapit to see nudie-flick 'Return To Nature', "hundreds of bodies running around naked" on an island. It's another form of escape. Before the Beatles, before mod, before England started swinging, The Leather Boys was edgily teasing audiences by screening discontented Reg torn between his teenage wife Dot, and the rival attractions of the rocker lifestyle and his gay biker mate Pete.

Uniquely expressive puckish urchin Rita Tushingham had already established herself with social and gender issues in the genre-defining A Taste Of Honey (1961), but she's allowed less scope and range here. Although it's part of a widescreen tradition in which motorcycling Easy Rider outlaws represent escape from conformity, The Leather Boys is now little more than a fascinating period piece, less a retaliation to Marlon Brando's rabble-rousing The Wild One (1953), and more a dour take on biker subculture, less Born To Be Wild, more born to be mild.

Reg Wilcox (Colin Campbell) is the greasy biker with a Brylcreem quiff and 'Dodgy' on the back of his leather jacket. He likes 16-year-old schoolgirl Dot (Rita Tushingham). She blings her friends with the engagement ring he's bought her. 'Dodgy' bloke marries flighty bird. They catch a bus from the church wedding to the reception. Then go on honeymoon, on his bike, to a dreary holiday camp plagued by bad weather, with actual location shots at the Bognor Regis 'Butlins'. Even a package-trip to Benidorm is way beyond their social underclass aspirations. She wants to dance, "Eric Winstone's playing tonight," she urges - although it's strictly polite ballroom with the dull pop bandleader. He's not interested and heads back to the chalet as she does the twist and gets tipsy. It's a rocky start that just gets rockier, accelerating downhill faster than his mph.

Lively Dot's culinary skills extend no further than tinned beans; she prefers new clothes and frequent trips to Eve's hair salon to anything to do with household chores. This girl just wants to have fun, but winds up reading True Romance picture-story magazine instead. And her spirited independence soon clashes with Reg's more introverted nature. He reacts by going from moody contemplation, to angry bellowing. When she complains "Every time we try to talk, we end up havin' a punch-up," he just gets defensive. "Hey man, she's too much!" exclaims new biker mate Pete (Dudley Sutton), who has a tiger's head on his jacket.

The marital split goes further when Reg moves in with his newly-widowed grandmother, introducing Pete as a potential roomer, and they end up sharing a bed - albeit chastely. "A nice old gaff," quips amiable Pete. For kicks they go for a burn-up to Brighton, "it's all happening at the seaside," where they pick up two birds, although it's Pete who backs off. The two spend more time together, with naturalistic sequences shot at the famously rowdy 'Ace Café' where fast-food means greasy-spoon fry-ups. Innovative motor-bikin' road shots go from misty grey drabness to crisp pin-sharp detail, lending a real sense of speed to the empty traffic-free highways. Director Sidney J. Furie takes advantage of discreet improvisation to invest the gritty mix of tough blokes and sharp women, with spontaneous freshness, convincingly capturing the crazy mixed-up kidults living their inarticulate lives of noisy desperation.

Meeting later in the café, Dot - who's now peroxide 'champagne' blonde, tells Reggie she's pregnant in an attempt to get him back. She isn't. They haven't even been having sex. And he gets into a punch-up with future Coronation Street regular Johnny Briggs. Reg gets a new bike - four quid a week for two years, and they race up the A702 to Edinburgh, him and Pete, with Dot - no longer blonde, dropping the pretend pregnancy, and riding with the new guy Reg had already punched out. Credited simply 'boyfriend', she calls him Brian. There are atmospheric pre-motorway race sequences, then night-time headlight-splashes as they burn back to the Ace.

When Brian's bike breaks down, Reg takes Dot on his pillion. Soon they're smooch-dancing to the jukebox in an empty café, reigniting their mutual attraction, and there's a chance for partial reconciliation, which Pete does his best to sabotage. Sensing their brief window of togetherness closing, Dudley Scott acquits himself honourably as Pete, finding ways to communicate internal homoerotic conflict within the limitations imposed on the film. At one point she accuses them "You look like a couple of queers." As a confused Reg demands, "It's ridiculous, isn't it?" Pete is unable to respond. Reg is finally prepared to give their marriage a last chance, but returns home to find Dot in bed with Brian. Bitterly, he determines to take up Pete's suggestion, and run away to sea together, sign up for a seaman's voyage to New York. At the last moment he realises the true nature of Pete's intentions, and backs out. Reg walks away shaken and alone... No happy endings. Just 'the end'.

Jazz pianist Bill McGuffie provides the cool soundtrack - he also composed music for genre films The Asphyx (1973), and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966). Although Pete sings a tuneless version of Your Baby Has Gone Down The Plughole, later done as a novelty item by Ginger Baker as Mother's Lament on Cream's Disraeli Gears (1967) album. Director Furie came to the project straight from his work with Cliff Richard on the feel-good teen-musical The Young Ones. And his direction of this curious time-capsule shows little of the flashy style of his later The Ipcress File (1965).

A gritty slice of kitchen-sink realism, it is shot in high-contrast b&w widescreen by cinematographer Gerald Gibbs whose credits range back to Whisky Galore (1949). The three main characters were familiar in the British realist theatre and cinema of the time, adding comedy star Betty Marsden from BBC light programme's Round The Horne, and Dandy Nichols (Mrs Stanley) who could later be seen married to Alf Garnett in TV's 'Til Death Us Do Part. Novelist Gillian Freeman based her script on a book she wrote under the jokey pseudonym 'Elliot George', at the suggestion of literary agent-come-publisher Anthony Blond. Her novel is less ambiguous in portraying the sexuality of its two male protagonists. The film's launch came a few short years after Dirk Bogarde's crusading Victim (1961).

Furie, a younger director, working with actors largely unfamiliar to the mainstream, achieves a less fraught take on the issue. Assuming viewer opinion had shifted onto the side of the 'victim', partly eased through small-screen familiarity, he treats the issue with a touching sensitivity. The most explicit term of abuse throughout is "you're a nut-case," and although its more edgy themes are just as coyly kid-gloved, Pete is less caricature, and more fully-fleshed character; his motivations well-articulated with some dignity.

As a youth-market exploitation-quickie, it nudges at mature drama, harmed artistically and commercially by the restrictions imposed upon it. Shot on a budget of just 100,000 and completed in March 1963, its release was nervously held up until the following year. Elsewhere, it fell foul of the American production code, where it is now been reclaimed as part of pioneering queer cinema. Made ten years later, things might have been different. But that would not necessarily have made for a better movie. The thing is this; it still has its place. The Smiths used scenes from the movie in their promo-video for Girlfriend In A Coma.

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