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Teen Terrors On Film

Juvenile delinquency: the myths, the legends and the reality

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The passage from childhood to adulthood has long been one that exerts considerable fascination for artists and the wider public. It's a time of profound physical, emotional and social change, with many individual stages happening rapidly (breaking voices, age-based legal issues), and the resulting turmoil has provided much fuel for sympathetic and sensationalised coverage alike - especially when expressed through rebellion that takes many forms from verbal disobedience to physical violence.

Though the notion of the teenager as a separate entity from child and adult was still some decades away, early 1900s British cinema features numerous examples of antisocial behaviour and delinquent youngsters. James Williamson made several films starring his two sons as mischievous pranksters (The Dear Boys Home for the Holidays, 1904; Our New Errand Boy, 1905), and the protagonist of Cecil Hepworth's Tilly the Tomboy series (1910-15) is clearly in her teens. W.R. Booth's A Juvenile Scientist (1907) showed that even outwardly studious types should be watched like a hawk, lest his experiments be used to wreak havoc.

Specifically teenage misbehaviour occurs comparatively rarely in pre-WWII British cinema, exceptions including Tom Brown's Schooldays (1916), whose bully Flashman is an ancestor of the juvenile delinquents of the 1950s, and Alfred Hitchcock's cautionary tale Downhill (1927), in which a boy's expulsion from school triggers an inexorable decline. One possible reason for this apparent lack of interest was the notoriously draconian list of prohibited subjects that the British Board of Film Censors enforced in the 1920s and 1930s, including "dangerous mischief, easily imitated by children", "stories in which the criminal element is predominant", "brutal fights carried to excess" and "girls and women in a state of intoxication". Virtually all the films mentioned below would have fallen foul of at least one of those strictures.

However, one of British culture's most memorable teenage terrors, precocious gang leader 'Pinkie' Brown, initially saw the light of day in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock. Brilliantly incarnated by Richard Attenborough in the 1947 film (d. John Boulting), it is worth noting that the more despairing and nihilistic elements had to be toned down to appease the BBFC. The censors also trimmed Good-Time Girl (d. David Macdonald, 1948), a sobering study of female delinquency presented as a cautionary tale to a sixteen-year-old (Diana Dors), and would subsequently refuse a certificate to The Wild One (US, 1954), with Marlon Brando's archetypal teen rebel ("What are you rebelling against?" "Whaddaya got?"). However, it was clear that the film industry and audiences increasingly favoured a more realistic approach, one upshot of which was the introduction of the X certificate, restricting films to over-sixteens (over-eighteens from 1971) and allowing the depiction of subjects previously considered off limits.

The immediate postwar era, dominated by rationing and social deprivation, saw the rise of the "social problem film", and many of the problems in question involved teenagers. Gainsborough Pictures' late-1940s social realist strand produced Good-Time Girl and Boys In Brown (d. Montgomery Tully, 1950), the latter set in a Borstal, or prison for serious juvenile offenders. It co-starred Dirk Bogarde, who also appeared in The Blue Lamp (d. Basil Dearden, 1950) as a delinquent turned murderer, shunned by the more established criminal fraternity for his immaturity. Cosh Boy (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1953), the first X-certificate British film, is as unsubtle as its slam-bang title suggests (it suggests a damn good thrashing is an instant panacea for most social evils), but it's also one of the first British films to offer an unflinching study of problem teenagers and their social milieu, with the sixteen-year-old title character's naïve girlfriend (Joan Collins) becoming pregnant at a time when abortion was still illegal. Five years later, Violent Playground (d. Basil Dearden, 1958) showed teenage delinquency in Liverpool from the point of view of a specialist juvenile liaison officer (Stanley Baker), though one of the most vivid studies of 1950s teenage criminality was in the Scottish amateur short film Chick's Day (d. Enrico Cocozza, 1950), in which a youth's attempt to go straight is undermined by his socially deprived background and alcoholic mother.

By the mid-1950s, teenagers themselves had become a separate target market, with British producers rushing to cash in on the success of The Blackboard Jungle (US, 1955), Rebel Without a Cause (US, 1955) and Rock Around The Clock (US, 1956). The teenage audience wanted to see films that reflected their own lives and (often musical) interests, though Expresso Bongo (d. Val Guest, 1959) and 'Beat' Girl (d. Edmond T. Gréville, 1959) also had a strong cautionary element, showing how teenagers of both sexes can easily be exploited by older predators unless they looked out for themselves in gangs. Of numerous teenage gang exploitation films in the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Damned (1963) stands out for the way director Joseph Losey's attempts to present his hoodlums (one played by a young Oliver Reed) as simply being more aggressive versions of an equally malicious and destructive political establishment.

Many British screen delinquents are essentially well-meaning but misguided, good examples being the petty criminals in Bronco Bullfrog (d. Barney Platts-Mills, 1969) and shy swimming-pool attendant Mike in Deep End (d. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970). However, some were calculatedly malicious, whether spurred by revolutionary fervour (If.... d. Lindsay Anderson, 1969) or hedonistic pleasure (A Clockwork Orange, d. Stanley Kubrick, 1971). The latter was the most potent teenage-terror film of its era, its bleak message that human beings must be given free will even if they misuse it to commit rape and murder echoed a widespread feeling that society was breaking down in the wake of the liberal reforms of the 1960s. The tabloid attacks on the film were so relentless, blaming it for almost every juvenile crime going, that Kubrick famously withdrew it from British distribution in 1973. It would not be legally reissued until after his death some 27 years later.

Another banned 1970s classic was Scum (d. Alan Clarke, 1979), though here the ban involved the small-screen production originally commissioned as a BBC Play For Today (1977, finally tx. 27/7/1991). Clarke and writer Roy Minton felt so strongly about this that they remade the film for the cinema, using many of the same actors. This blunt depiction of how the Borstal system further brutalises young offenders instead of rehabilitating them had a huge cultural impact, and may well have been a contributing factor to 1982 reforms that replaced Borstals with youth custody centres. Clarke made some of the most consistently intelligent, probing and honest films about British teenage life, and although most of his best work was for television, Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987) was a ribald comedy about two teenage girls whose apparent confidence in general (and sexual confidence in particular) proves to be only skin-deep.

Since the 1980s, the teenage audience became the dominant cinemagoing one, and it would take a far longer piece than this to chart the period's various cinematic trends. However, outstanding recent portraits of teenage life include the Glaswegian family drama Small Faces (d. Gillies Mackinnon, 1995) in which three teenage brothers get caught up in gangland crime. Shane Meadows' professional feature debut TwentyFourSeven (1997) cast Bob Hoskins as an unlikely youth worker trying to prevent the same from happening to his charges. Sweet Sixteen (d. Ken Loach, 2002), like Chick's Day half a century earlier, depicts a deprived Scottish community where drug dealing becomes one of the few viable methods by which a sixteen-year-old can raise funds for his sick mother (a drug addict herself, in a classic vicious circle). Bullet Boy (d. Saul Dibb, 2004) shows the tragedy that results from a young teenager's uncritical hero-worship of gangstas and bling. Most despairingly, A Way of Life (d. Amma Asante, 2004) graphically shows how deprivation breeds moral as well as financial poverty: violent, racist single mother Leigh-Anne is an archetypal tabloid nightmare. The fact that Asante and lead actor Stephanie James made her hard to empathise with makes their film a genuinely complex and troubling experiencee, and a graphic reminder that society ignores its teenagers' concerns at its collective peril - though a major advantage of the digital revolution is that they now have far more outlets to express their own concerns, instead of relying on well-meaning (or exploitative) adults to do it for them.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 'Beat' Girl (1959)'Beat' Girl (1959)

Cautionary tale about a respectable girl turned sleazy stripper

Thumbnail image of Blue Lamp, The (1949)Blue Lamp, The (1949)

Classic Ealing police drama that introduced PC George Dixon

Thumbnail image of Boys in Brown (1949)Boys in Brown (1949)

A progressive Borstal governor tries to reform his boys

Thumbnail image of Brighton Rock (1947)Brighton Rock (1947)

Graham Greene thriller with Richard Attenborough as a vicious gangster

Thumbnail image of Bronco Bullfrog (1969)Bronco Bullfrog (1969)

Poignant tale of juvenile frustration set in a desolate 1960s East End

Thumbnail image of Bullet Boy (2004)Bullet Boy (2004)

Gritty urban tragedy about two black brothers in north-east London

Thumbnail image of Chick's Day (1950)Chick's Day (1950)

Powerful short film about delinquency and despair

Thumbnail image of Clockwork Orange, A (1971)Clockwork Orange, A (1971)

Stanley Kubrick's dazzling and disturbing vision of near-future Britain

Thumbnail image of Cosh Boy (1953)Cosh Boy (1953)

The first British X film: a controversial study of juvenile delinquency

Thumbnail image of Damned, The (1963)Damned, The (1963)

Joseph Losey's chiller about the after-effects of radiation

Thumbnail image of Downhill (1927)Downhill (1927)

Hitchcock melodrama: a boy's decline after expulsion from school

Thumbnail image of Good-Time Girl (1948)Good-Time Girl (1948)

Gainsborough melodrama about a girl's descent into ruin

Thumbnail image of Juvenile Scientist, A (1907)Juvenile Scientist, A (1907)

A boy uses his chemistry set to take revenge on his parents

Thumbnail image of Small Faces (1995)Small Faces (1995)

Tough family drama set against late 1960s Glaswegian gang warfare

Thumbnail image of Sweet Sixteen (2002)Sweet Sixteen (2002)

Bleak portrait of a Scottish teenager coping with drugs and poverty

Thumbnail image of Tilly, The Tomboy, Visits the Poor (1910)Tilly, The Tomboy, Visits the Poor (1910)

Silent comedy in which Tilly and her sister visit the poor and cause chaos

Thumbnail image of Tom Brown's Schooldays (1916)Tom Brown's Schooldays (1916)

Early adaptation of Thomas Hughes' classic Rugby School saga

Thumbnail image of TwentyFourSeven (1997)TwentyFourSeven (1997)

Drama with Bob Hoskins trying to give Midlands teenagers self-respect

Thumbnail image of Violent Playground (1958)Violent Playground (1958)

Powerful drama with Stanley Baker as a juvenile liaison officer

Thumbnail image of Way of Life, A (2004)Way of Life, A (2004)

Bleak portrait of a teenage single mother in run-down Wales

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Thumbnail image of Social Problem FilmsSocial Problem Films

British cinema and postwar social change

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)

Director, Writer, Producer