Starting Big School is a challenge at the best of times, but I remember my first few weeks of Secondary Education (circa 1970) being haunted by spectres considerably more troubling than such run-of-the-mill anxieties as making new friends and keeping on the right side of teachers given to doling out beatings as readily as snarky put downs. Playground gossip played up the constant threat we were under from… The Green Jackets! The desperadoes in question were a gang of disaffected black youths (though I imagine they were referred to by a more politically incorrect collective noun back in those days) who would swoop on random unsuspecting schools (especially those considered a bit posh) and form a double line outside the gates at kicking out time. One by one, hapless school kids were forced to run a gauntlet of blows and insults from green jacketed assailants until they reached the end of the line, where a leading proponent of verdant violence would ask them… if their Mum could sew. When a kid replied in the affirmative he’d be dismissed, his face carved with a Stanley knife, to ask her to “sew that up, then!” Those who denied any such needle and thread expertise on the part of their maternal relatives fared no better… they too got slashed up a treat and advised to “get her to practise on that, then!” History doesn’t record whether those who professed ignorance of their Mum’s tailoring skills escaped, or what fate befell anyone sassy enough to question The Green Jackets’ right to pry into their family’s domestic arrangements. Probably just as well…
You’d better believe we were paralysed by fear of them Green Jackets, despite the complete absence of any corroborative reportage in local TV, radio or print news. Nor did we stop to ask ourselves why no staff members at any of these educational establishments had ever intervened or why the police were so tardy in arriving to break up the alleged gauntlets and subsequent Q&A sessions, allowing the culprits to repair back to whatever urban sink hole they hailed from and plot new outrages. Clearly The Green Jackets were a particularly colourful urban legend, an especially f*cked up figment of somebody’s fevered imagination and you’re probably thinking my peers and I were dopes to fall for it. C’mon, we were 11 years old! Furthermore successive, allegedly more savvy generations have continued to fall for this kind of baloney and social media, in supplanting playground chit-chat, has only made matters worse. It’s not so long, I seem to recall, since we endured a mass panic about killer clowns planning school yard massacres… The extent to which such grass roots memes influence or are influenced by mass media is an argument that will go on long after we’re all dead (slashed to ribbons by Green Jackets or massacred by Killer Clowns, only time will tell). Suffice to say, cinematic exploitation of juvenile delinquency (the JD genre) has never let any sense of perspective hamper the depiction of yoof running wild as box office bait.
Groovy Juvies have regularly wrecked havoc in Hollywood, ever since the first zoot-suited reefer addict flipped out, daddyo. Marlin Brando rebelled against anything you got, James Dean tore himself apart and bikers rioted on Sunset Strip, anticipating more recent offenders such as the perpetrators of the Purge phenom.
Here in Blighty, ill informed moral panic over youth cults has been reflected and indeed festered in, e.g. the bizarre depiction of Teddy Boys in Joe Losey’s (These Are) The Damned (1962) and Nicky Henson‘s plastic Angels, dabbling with the occult in Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1973, above). The depiction of edgy youth in Michael Reeves’ (otherwise excellent) The Sorcerers (1967) has to be seen to be believed. Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979) celebrated the spiritually uplifitng aspect of Mods and Rockers kicking the shit out of each other on Brighton beach. More recently, the prospect of machete mayhem at screenings of Andrew Onwubolu’s gang saga Blue Story have had tabloid editors drooling, while the intolerable TV twaddle of Peaky Blinders continues to exercise its mystifying grip on the nation’s imagination.
Occasioning even more outrage and unease among the habitually concerned than John Clowes’ universally reviled No Orchids For Miss Blandish (1948), Lewis Gilbert’s Cosh Boy (1953) was one of the first British productions deemed worthy an ‘X’ Certificate, a device first introduced something like two years previously. Adapted from Bruce Walker’s orginal stage play Master Crook (which had enjoyed a successful run in the West End), Gilbert’s film reaped the bonus publicity / censorship hassles attendant on its release coinciding with the notorious real life Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley murder case. In response and underlining the film’s moralistic (and arguably cop out conclusion), producer Daniel M.Angel appended a rolling prologue caption deploring “the post war tragedy of juvenile delinquency”, expressing the pious hope that Cosh Boy could do its little bit to help stamp out “this social evil”. Unimpressed, several local authorities ignored the BBFC’s ‘X’ and banned screenings of the film in their bailiwicks.
“Roy Walsh” and “Alfie Collins” (played respectively by James Kenney and Ian Whittaker, the only cast holdovers from the story’s stage incarnation) do indeed present eerie parallels with (respectively) Craig and the doomed Bentley. The latter in each coupling is a mentally underdeveloped loser, easily manipulated by his sawn-off psychopathic “mate”. The film opens with Walshy slipping a cosh to Alfie and sending him to beat some money out of an unfortunate old biddy, staggering home, blind drunk from the pub.
Anticipating the way Malcolm McDowell controls his “droogs” in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971), this guy likes to load the bullets for others to fire (literally, by the time his petty crime spree has escalated to armed robbery). It’s easy to see how he could control the half-witted Alfie, but what about the rest of his gang (at least one of whom seems conspicuously too old for this JD lark)? Walshy’s about as charismatic as a piece of plasticine, nevertheless he manages to lure the succulent Rene (Joan Collins, on loan from Rank) away from her goody two shoes boyfriend, knock her up and abandon her. Will she go for a risky back street abortion or is she doomed to continue the cycle of delinquent degeneracy with yet another latch key kid?
Throughout the film, authority figures are presented as powerless to curb Roy’s amoral roving, relying on the improving effects of youth clubs and credulously swallowing his vows to mend his ways. The police struggle to pin anything on him and when he is nabbed, magistrates hand out laughable sanctions. HIs weak, well-meaning mother Elsie (Betty Ann Davies) buries her head in the sand and there’s no moderating paternal influence (perhaps Dad was lost in the War). When the rozzers finally finally arrive to collar Walsh for murder, his new stepfather Bob Stevens (Robert Ayres) pleads for time out to whip off his belt and give the kid a good leathering (a gag revived in Robert A. Endelson’s 1977 “video nasty”, Fight For Your Life)… and no matter how Woke you consider yourself, it’s hard to begrudge Roy this long postponed reckoning.
The expected compliment of interesting extras on this BFI Flipside release includes Johnny On The Run, a 68 minute Children’s Film Foundation production that Gilbert directed in the same year as Cosh Boy. In this charming effort, orphaned Polish refugee Janek (Eugeniusz Chylek) gets up to all sorts of adventures in the Scottish Highlands after finding himself not welcome in Edinburgh. Speaking of which, I wonder if – in the absence of those ludicrous Brexit bongs – the Tories will dig up Gilbert’s Harmony Lane (also on this set) for their sad assed Festival Of Brexit. Originally filmed in 3D and screened at the Festival Of Britain in 1951, this 24 minutes (it seems longer) collision of variety acts includes the Beverley Sisters, assorted hoofers, trick skaters, fire-eaters and a performing dog, alongside the comedy stylings of Max Bygraves (don’t worry, Deck Of Cards is conspicuous by its absence). Anybody mourning the death of Variety should be forced to sit down and actually watch this thing. Gilbert’s illustrious career kicked off even earlier and more obscurely than this, with the likes of The Ten Year Plan (1945), a Public Information Film announcing postwar plans to end homelessness, which are even less convincing than ace reporter Charles Hawtrey’s asides about trying to get some lovin’ out of his girlfriend. Sure thing, Charlie! Stranger in the City (1961) is Robert Hartford-Davis’s 22 minute guided tour through the tawdry glamour of 1960s Soho… could that be a young Paul Gadd (= “Gary Glitter”) caught loitering at one point? Looks horribly like him… Teddy Boys is a short excerpt from a 1956 episode of ITV’s current affairs strand This Week (from a time when ITV involved itself with more elevated material than glorified talent shows and relentless ropey “reality” programming) that actually manages to elicits a little pathos from its gormless subject. Speaking of gormless, There’s a brief 2019 interview with Ian “Alfie” Whittaker, reflecting on his participation in the film (no mention of his subsequent success as a set-dresser on films as varied Alien and Under A Cherry Moon… four times Oscar-nominated, he actually won one for Howard’s End in 1992). You also get the US opening sequence (as “The Slasher”), with a more explicit rendering of the baboochka’s coshing and, in the first pressing only, a fully illustrated glossy booklet stuffed with new writing about the film, its troubled time at the BBFC, Teddy Boy fashion, the contemporary Soho jazz scene and full film credits.