Sunday, 4 January 2015

On your bike… The Leather Boys (1964)

It doesn’t come much more “period” than this: a film that gently pushed the boundaries at the time and which might be damned by our benign condescension 50 years later. Looked at in context though, The Leather Boys deserves the respect its good intentions demand: there’s fine acting from three wildly differing leads and a slice of a life that has almost disappeared. This was a Britain in which new opportunities were opening up – a time of Butlins, self-determination and Triumph Bonnevilles – and yet old attitudes still held sway.

Young motorcyclists – “Ton-up Boys” - may have gathered around the Ace Café on London’s North Circular Road but they were still too eagerly rushing into adult life and commitment: and you shall know them by their velocity…

Reggie (Colin Campbell) is one such young man. He’s not long left school for an engineering apprenticeship and is romancing a girl from his old school, Dot (Rita Tushingham) who dreams of classroom liberation: married with freedom.

Rita Tushingham and Colin Campbell
Sure enough the two precede straight to wedlock and do not pass “Go”… but almost immediately their relationship turns sour as their modest honeymoon in Butlins at Bognor Regis reveals their differing temperaments. Reggie wants a quiet time with Dot whilst she wants to socialise with other campers, see more movies and sample the extensive delights of the holiday camp. Reggie’s the considered romantic one and Dot is the extravert sensation seeker… you forget which one rides the Bonneville.

This could be a Smiths LP cover...
Back home things rapidly deteriorate as Reggie finds Dot disinclined to perform her household duties: shirts are un-ironed, the bed is un-made and, worst of all, his dinner is un-cooked.  Enraged at his new wife’s preference for cinema over chores the spark even begins to go out on their sex life – the one thing once guaranteed to silence any rows.

At the same time Reggie begins to spend more time with an odd-bod biker buddy Pete (Dudley Sutton) – an unconventional presence at the Ace who lives for the moment and dreams of escape to New York. Pete is the most loyal of pals, preferring to spend time alone with Reggie shooting fireworks from the wasteland near where he works or maintaining their bikes together.

Colin Campbell and Dudley Sutton
There’s an instant distance between Pete and Dot and yet Reggie barely notices: he feels the same way about Dot himself from time to time. But Dot is getting worse and as she plays up following his grandfather’s death, she pushes Reggie further away into Pete’s boys-own world of bikes.

Reggie arranges for Pete to stay with his gran (Gladys Henson) and is almost a lone voice in keeping her out of a nursing home and in her own home – Dot joining in with his brother-in-law in arguing for her to sell up. Pete charms the old dear and as Reggie walks out on Dot, the two share her spare room.

Pete's nights with Reg...
Dot begins hanging around with another biker, Brian (Johnny Briggs) whilst Reggie and Pete head off to the seaside where the latter proves distinctly uninterested in chasing two girls Reggie chats up… the modern viewer may easily guess where this is headed but imagine a world where such intimacies was not only underground but illegal?

Dot hatches a plan to bring Reggie back by telling him she’s expecting a baby and he immediately suspects her new friend Brian and decks him at the Ace but it’s all a fiction…

Rita and him off Corrie...
The bikers organise a race to Edinburgh and Dot rides pillion with Brian whilst Pete and Reggie gear up to win… but Pete’s competitive instincts are compromised by his lingering affection and he stops off for the chance to re-connect with Dot. Pete rides on alone…

Will Dot and Pete’s revival survive their return to the everyday and will Pete ever get the point about his mate? Things aren’t straightforward… a bit like life.

Dusty verdict: Whilst not on the same level of say A Taste of Honey, The Leather Boys is never the less and impressive period piece that captures the moment for motorcycle culture.

The boys are confused...
The performances are superb although sometimes the improvised riffing gets a bit shouty – but maybe I’m getting old! Rita Tushingham is a bundle of conflicted energy as Dot whilst Dudley Sutton excels as the biker with a sentimental core - his comic bluster concealing a love that, literally, dare not speak its name.

But the girl understands...
The Leather Boys is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon. 

Elsewhere, the Ace Café is still open for business and you can find details on their site of the last fifty years of ton-up boys and girls!

The Ace Cafe

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoyed the scene in the seaman's pub, it was a while before it dawned on me that 'Big Mary' who was sure to find space for one more aboard was not female.