I’d like to look at three films which have been influential in motorcycle culture and which continue to resonate today as to how bikes and bikers are seen, by bikers themselves, the general public and, not least, the marketing departments of bike manufactures.
None of the three films is itself primarily about motorcycling, hence the inverted commas, but have sufficient bike related interest to qualify them for an article in Progress. In chronological order they are ‘The Leather Boys’ (UK 1964, Dir.Sidney J Furie), an atmospheric rendering in black white of early 60s working class London; ‘The Girl on a Motorcycle’ (France/UK 1968 Dir J Cardiff ) which treads or perhaps crosses a fine line between ‘art’ movie and soft porn; finally ‘Easy Rider’ (USA1969 Dir D Hopper), era defining pioneer of the new Hollywood.
First, ‘The Leather Boys’. The storyline involves an immature young man, Ray (Colin Campbell), the difficulties of his marriage to the sixteen year old Dot (Rita Tushingham) and the subtle grooming of him by fellow biker and closeted gay Pete (Dudley Sutton). It takes place in a London where there’s permanent gloom and drizzle.
The film opens in the Ace Café in its original incarnation. The forecourt is packed with Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs, no doubt the odd Enfield or Ariel and a Vincent can be glimpsed in one scene. In the interior of the Ace you can just about smell the damp leather and cigarette smoke emanating from the customers.
‘Two teas please.’ ‘That’ll be eightpence’ – eight old pennies that is! Outside Pete, who rides a Dominator challenges Ray, who has a bathtub Triumph, probably a Speed Twin, to a ‘burn-up’. We see the two bikes hurtling along a nearly empty North Circular, riders flat on the tanks as they try to squeeze out a couple more mph. This begins their friendship. Ray’s marriage is undergoing its early stresses and Pete uses every opportunity to further undermine it. Behind his wisecracking however Pete is clearly lonely and rootless, perhaps looking for friendship as much as anything more.
The regulars at the Ace decide to have an endurance race to Edinburgh and back, each putting £1 into the prize kitty. By this point Ray is temporarily separated from his new wife, and in order to be competitive trades his old bike in for a new Bonneville – ‘four pound a week for two years and it’ll be mine’. We see the start of the race from the Ace forecourt as the massed bikes start their journey and there are some fantastic scenes of very competently ridden bikes being chucked around the narrow and relatively deserted roads of that era. However, Dot has a new love interest, also a biker, and goes as pillion passenger, though on what so far as I can tell is an Ariel Arrow they can have stood little chance of winning. Much to Pete’s chagrin Ray uses the occasion of the Ariel’s breakdown to offer Dot a lift and thus begins to rekindle their relationship. However, Pete successfully prevents him building on this and, overcome by frustration Dot returns to her new boyfriend. Ray has not given up, but after discovering that Dot has been unfaithful succumbs to Pete’s spurious promise to get him a passage to New York, selling the Bonnie. However, surrounded by predatory men in a dockside pub the penny finally drops and Ray walks away from Pete, who now appears sad and isolated. Ray has lost his bike and his friend. Has he lost his wife? Quite possibly, but he’s definitely lost his innocence.
This film is a fascinating window on a vanished era both of biking and of working class society and culture. With the advent of the 650cc parallel twin and Hire Purchase plans offered by dealers, this was the first generation in which high performance machines were within the reach of young working people and this has left a lasting mark on British bike culture. Ray’s Bonneville continues to provide the design template for Triumph’s current generation of retro bikes, while many of the Ace regulars would not look out of place in a Motolegends catalogue. The stripped down aesthetic of the time informs both the current ‘shed built’ custom scene and the rash of Chinese engined learner legal café racer pastiches, examples of which can be seen at the present day Ace on any weekend.
Although motorcycle action comprises no more than perhaps ten minutes of total running time it’s very well rendered, and I suspect that club racers were used in the group riding scenes. Attitudes to safety were casual, with helmets not universally worn and we see Ray fighting fatigue on the return ride from Edinburgh, courting disaster. However; this was not confined to the bikers of the era, when road casualties were far higher than today. Those of us who were around in the sixties will recall the death toll being announced on the news after every summer Bank Holiday.
The Leather Boys is by far the most realistic of the three films. There are no crashes or explosions; bikers banter, they check their bikes before a big ride, stop for petrol and cups of tea and sometimes break down, just as we do. It’s real life, with all its messiness and confusion. The film’s lasting legacy can be seen in the big turnout of Ace customers to ride in the funeral cortege of Colin Campbell, who died in in 2018.
If you haven’t seen it yet it’s on YouTube – don’t delay.
Next month: The Girl on a Motorcycle
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