The Leather Boys

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Kino Video

Calling the experience a "rite of passage" might be overstating the case a bit, but watching The Leather Boys for the first time was certainly a watershed in my teenage years. I was thirteen, though able to pass for older, and motorcycle-mad when The Leather Boys hit the big screen in 1963. The movie had received an "X" certificate from the British Board of Film Censors (16+), an indication that it could contain bad language, violence and possibly even some brief nudity - all strong inducements for a 13-year-old determined to cut some apron strings.So, on a dark winter's evening, I boldly presented myself at the box office, adopted as deep a voice as I could, and asked for "One, please." To my surprise, the ticket slid across the counter. I was in!Watching what I then considered to be adult material was a new experience, but beyond the bikes, the riding scenes and the colorful language, I came away disappointed. Most of the movie seemed to be about relationships - something I had no interest in at the time - and although there were references to sex, none of that behavior appeared on the screen. The movie's main theme, the shifting nature of the relationships between the three main characters, went right over my head.

The setting
The 1950s were a bleak period in British history. The country had an economy devastated by war, an industrial base undermined by worn-out equipment, and a persistent trade deficit that kept food rationing in place until 1955. But the fifties also brought great social change. The influence of American media, especially movies and rock & roll, was taking hold; the "teenager" as a distinct entity was just being fully recognized, and Britain's young people, tired of their drab lives, were looking for excitement. Hollywood began its love affair with teenage angst, and while movies promoted Marlon Brando's sulky nihilism, Britain's tabloids went searching for homegrown equivalents of the "wild ones."

An important economic factor was the introduction of hire-purchase (rent-to-own) in the late fifties. A working teenager could lay down "thirty bob" (one pound fifty) and buy a new Tiger 110, Road Rocket or Dominator on the "never-never" - a dollar down and a dollar a week, perhaps. Typically, the teenage biker's uniform was mostly war-surplus: flying boots, seamen's hose, blue jeans and black jacket - leather for the better-off, vinyl or waxed cotton for the rest. For this generation, the motorcycle was more than just a way to get to work; it became a personal symbol of rebellious freedom.

These newly mobile teenagers were now able to congregate away from their parents' influence, and their chosen venues were Britain's "transport cafes," like the Ace Café. These eateries offered a place to get together with your "mates" for a cup of tea and a smoke, and to talk bikes. The talking often turned to action, and the sport of cafe racing was born. And though the Ace Café was the best known, there were hundreds of English cafes where bikers flocked.

The signature sound of the era was rock 'n' roll. In Britain at the time, there was no pop music radio, and what was new and now only sizzled through the jukebox. Transport cafes had the best, sometimes the only ones in town. Domestic life could be pretty bleak. The temptation of these glittering palaces, combined with the heady rhythm of rock 'n' roll was irresistible. Not to mention the bikes and the "birds."

If the jukebox became the metronome of cafe racing, it also tolled the death knell for many riders, and what the tabloids called the "suicide cult" of café racing took at least one life a week at its height.

Against this background, The Leather Boys spins a tale of how love between two semi-literate teenagers quickly goes sour within the restrictions and pressures of marriage, and how they find that the freedom they expected outside the relationship isn't what they wanted either.

So, does The Leather Boys represent Britain's answer to The Wild One? Hardly. Even though both movies broadly deal with teenage nihilism and angst, motorcycle rowdiness and seemingly doomed love affairs, the similarities end there.

The 1950s heralded a new era of dramatic realism in plays and movies in Britain, known as the "kitchen sink" movement. Instead of depicting the idealized lives of the wealthy (or at least, the superficially successful), Kitchen Sink drama tried to examine the sad lives of ordinary people, their struggles and disappointments, and failures. Gritty realism replaced fairy-tale romance. People were depicted as they were: moody, selfish, ill tempered, manipulative, angry. In many ways, the motorcycles are superfluous to the underlying story of The Leather Boys, but it was probably the movie's depiction of the teenage biker culture of early sixties (pre-Beatles) Britain that sold it.

The Story
Reg and Dot are teenage lovers: she is 15 and still in secondary (high) school, he works, and both are none too bright. They're determined to be married, but for the wrong reasons: he for uninterrupted sex, she so she won't have to get a job. After their rather pathetic wedding (a ride on the bus takes them to the reception, with motorcycles for their escorts), they quickly find that neither is getting what they wanted. Their issues come to a head when Reg's grandfather dies, and Reg suggests they move in with his "gran." The couple separates acrimoniously.

Reg becomes friendly with another biker, Pete, and they both move into Gran's house, even sharing the same bed; but if their relationship ever becomes physical, the movie glosses over it. In fact, Reg seems oblivious to the possibility that Pete might be homosexual until the end of the movie. Dot becomes jealous of Reg and Pete's close friendship, and pretends to be pregnant to get Reg back. It doesn't work.

Then, during a 24-hour endurance ride, Reg and Dot realize how much they mean to each other and vow to make a new start. But there are more twists and turns to come...

The Bikes
Motorcycles and the teenage bike culture are major background themes in the movie. Reg rides a Triumph Speed Twin (with its "bathtub" fairing) early in the movie, but soon trades it for a Bonneville. Pete's ride is a Norton Dominator, and Dot's on-again, off-again boyfriend, her beau-on-the-rebound, has an Ariel Arrow. There are many other scenes with classic bikes of the day: Gold Stars, BSA, Triumph and Norton twins, etc.

These were the GSXRs and R1s of the day, motorcycles capable of over 100mph ("the ton") and with good handling and reasonable brakes. That they stood up to the abuse meted out by café racing says much for their basic sturdiness, too.

The riding scenes in The Leather Boys are quite well done for the time. Early in the film, Pete challenges Reg to a "burn up" to see whose bike is faster. Pete's Dominator outpaces Reg's Speed Twin, prompting him to trade it for the Bonnie. The scenes and sounds of two British twins roaring along suburban roads and dicing on the curves are a treat, even in black and white. Later in the movie, there are great scenes of an endurance ride to Scotland, which also underscores how much Britain's landscape has changed in 40 years.

RoadRUNNER's Rating
The Leather Boys is much more than a bike-sploitation movie. Though the bikes and sixties bike culture are central to the story, the movie is also an important piece of social history, depicting the lives of the less fortunate and less well educated trying to cope with increasingly complex emotional situations. But if you want to follow the dialogue closely, you might need a translator. The accents and the colloquialisms make some scenes difficult to follow. Excellent acting, especially from Rita Tushingham. Great footage of the bikes and the "burn ups." Four stars (out of five).

Trivia
The slogan on the back of Reg's jacket ("Dodgy") was the catchphrase of then-popular British TV comedian Norman Vaughan.

Reg and Dot's honeymoon: Butlins Holiday Camps were wildly popular with blue-collar Brits in the fifties and sixties (until the advent of cheap Spanish vacation packages). They featured regimented cafeteria-style meals, organized entertainment and "chalet" accommodation. Cynics compared them with wartime internment camps.

Roadside trailer vendors: On their way to Scotland, Reg and Pete stop at a roadside tea stand. These popular ad-hoc vendors would set up their trailers in roadside turnouts, selling tea and bacon sandwiches. Popular with truck drivers - and bikers!
The Leather Boys (1963) directed by Sidney J. Furie, starring Rita Tushingham, Colin Campbell and Dudley Sutton. 105 minutes. Black and white. Available from Kino Video, 333 W. 39th St., Suite. 503, New York, NY 10018, (212) 629-6880, (800) 562-3330. www.kino.com