This is England – Skinheads in British Film

“The rude boy culture was everything that British youth culture wanted to be, it was edgy, it was dangerous, it was completely anti the mainstream and that is what youth culture should always be.”

(Wayne Hemmingway, 2012)

“Skinheads definitely came out of the Mod thing, there’s no doubt about that at all.  They were the younger brothers, they weren’t even called skinheads, that was a media term.  It was a really cool, underground, subversive thing…you couldn’t read about it in magazines, there was only a couple of shops, hardly anyone knew about them and then all of a sudden it did explode.”

(Kevin Rowland, 2012)

Synonymous with the far right, neo-Nazis, violent racism and anti-Semitism the truth about skinheads is much less straightforward and much more complex.  While there can be no denying that in its later incarnation during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s here in the U.K and its explicit ties to fascism in the United States thanks to groups like the Aryan Nation, in its original form the skinhead was a very different subculture and one that deserves a fairer deal from cultural commentators.

Film and television has, often, taken the dimmest possible view of the skinhead and certainly Hollywood has only ever shown the culture in the worst possible light.  The neo-Nazis of “American History X” or “The Believer” may well portray one side of the story of the skinhead but the real story for the kids who were there at the beginning of the story is not one of racism and far right politics, instead it is the age old story of trying to find your place in the world while looking good at the same time.

As the Mod movement began to take a shift towards the softer drugs, sounds and styles of the “flower power” and psychedlic scenes of the West Coast of America the young men on council estates across England found themselves unable to relate to the look or the music and a hard Mod emerged…a militant, utilitarian and functional look emerged, taking elements of Mod, rude boy and American Ivy League to create the original skinhead.

By the time 1969 arrived the scene had found its way into the wider public consciousness and thanks to the fondness that so many of those young men had for a tear up they quickly found themselves at the centre of a moral panic.  At the same time their near omnipresence in the media meant that the magical element of being able to pass unseen by the majority was lost and within 18 months the whole thing was over, replaced for a short while by the suedehead look and then gone until the revival of interest in the 1970’s.

_Bronco_Bullfrog__(1969)

The first time a skinhead was seen on the big screen was in the 1969 classic “Bronco Bullfrog”.  With a cast of untrained actors and with much of the dialogue being improvised the film has an air of honesty that very few others match, certainly it is the first time that the lives of English teenagers was captured so accurately.  The skinhead in the film is Jo (known, enigmatically, as Bronco Bullfrog) who can be seen wearing a button down shirt, jeans with turn-ups and a thin soled work boot.

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Jo “Bronco Bullfrog” far left

In 1982 writer David Leland and director Alan Clarke brought a much more recognisable version of the skinhead to the screen with “Made in Britain”.  Here, as ever with Clarke, a tale of British working class life is delivered without any moralising or need for complext plot.  “Trevor” is a disaffected, disillusioned and violently miserable 16 year old who is raging against the machine.  Played, to perfection, by Tim Roth the character is, arguably, the definitive interpretation of the skinhead in film…certainly it is an accurate representation of what the culture had morphed into by the early 1980’s.

tim roth
Tim Roth as “Trevor” in “Made in Britain”

With attacks on a Pakistani shopkeeper, glue sniffing (huffing) and a sneering contempt for authority Trevor is the poster boy for the second wave of skinheads in the UK and, in all probability, he helped define the scene for the American far right…many of whom still adopt the image portrayed by Trevor.  What is most interesting about this second wave is that all of the peacocking has gone out of things; the influence of the rude boys has been erased and in its place is a near militant utilitariansim and a much harder look that better suited the more politicised nature of the scene at that time.

A year later and another British film arrived with another skinhead in the thick of the action.  This time it was the Mike Leigh project “Meantime” and the skinhead was played by Gary Oldman.  This was Oldmans screen debut and he played the part of “Coxy”,  a “…crude and impulsive” skinhead.  The look, again, is pure 80’s skin…the flight jacket, bleacher jeans and 14 hole Doctor Marten boots.  All of the despair and disillusion of the early part of the decade is channeled through Coxy and it is interesting to note that it was this film, and not the Mod musings of “Quadrophenia”, that Damon Albarn cited as his “go to” film of choice during the height of Britpop.  Albarn suggested that it had been the performance of Phil Daniels in “Meantime” that had been behind the decision to use him for the spoken word elements of “Parklife”.

meantime
Gary Oldman as “Coxy” in “Meantime”

2003 brought Richard Jobson’s “16 Years of Alcohol”, a film based on Jobson’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.  The central character, Frankie, is played by Kevin McKidd and is based on both Jobson and his brother during various stages of their lives.  During his teenage years Frankie is a violent but ska obsessed skinhead.  This is one of the interesting conundrums of the skinhead scene…how can such a violent and, at times, racist gang be so obsessed with Jamaican culture and music?  Of course when the far right began to target the skinheads they used the sounds of “oi” and not ska to soundtrack their political ideology.  The joyous, righteous, loving, rocksteady beat of ska was no use for people who wanted to advocate a message of “white power”.

frankie
Kevin McKidd (centre) as “Frankie” in “16 Years of Alcohol”

In 2006 Shane Meadows delivered “This is England”, a film that dealt with the British skinhead scene in all of its forms and which used the scene to deliver a message about identity, belonging, father son relationships, family and the enduring power of music to express the thoughts and feelings we don’t have the vocabulary for.

What sets “This is England” apart from the other films in this brief history of skinheads in UK film is the fact that Meadows is not a non-participant observer.  He was a skinhead and he saw, first hand, how the far right attempted to hijack the scene for their own nefarious ends.  Meadows revisits all of that through the central character in the film, “Shaun” (Thomas Turgoose) who has lost his dad in the Falklands war and who is brought under the wing of good guy “Woody” (Joseph Gilgun) and is converted to the skinhead scene.  Woody’s gang includes “Milky” (Andrew Shim) a black skinhead…not something that is as rare as one might imagine…as well as various rude girls and goths.  They are, in fact, a family.  They listen to music, hang around in the underpass, argue and get up to all sorts of good natured high jinx.  When “Combo” (Stephen Graham) arrives home from prison he works his way into the group before staging a coup and dragging Shaun and one or two others from the group into his web of far right conspiracy theories and violent racism.

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Woody and the gang, “This is England”

Skinheads continue to make appearances in film and television fairly regularly, mainly because they are a wonderful shorthand for violence or racism…but “This is England” does a great job of showing the other side of the story, that most skinheads are more interested (only interested in) clothes, mates and good times than they are with politics of any stripe.

Spirit of ’69…let the good times be never ending.

 

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