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A Complete History of Happy-Slapping

Did we really live through an era of flip-phone ultra-violence?

by Angus Harrison
26 February 2018, 6:19pm

Illustration by Calum Heath

happy slapping
British informal
the practice of attacking, esp slapping, an unsuspecting passer-by and filming it with a mobile camera phone, footage of which is then circulated for the amusement of others – Collins dictionary

In the mid-2000s, a panic spread across the UK as reports of teenagers attacking each other for thrills consumed the news. The playground craze quickly escalated into a nationwide moral panic, as the UK struggled to comprehend this new form of savage delinquency.

Only: did it? Did we actually live through an era of flip-phone ultra-violence? Using new interviews and news reports from the time, we’ve pieced together the strange story of happy-slapping.

Prologue – The Orange Man

In 1991, Tango introduced the nation to the now-infamous "Orange Man". The advert, featuring a bald assailant clapping the face of a Tango-drinker, was widely credited with sparking a wave of copycat attacks across the country. As folklore goes, many a school-child was left with perforated ear-drums as a result of being Tangoed too hard. The phenomenon is seen by many as a spiritual predecessor to happy-slapping.

Trevor Robinson, the advert's creator, remembers needing a concept that was bold. Something that would scare Coca-Cola. "Me and my creative partner Al came up with the idea of doing an anti-advertising thing," he explains. "We wanted something really bad to happen to you when you had this drink. Something stupid, slapstick and crap."

Originally, the advert was set to include a kick up the arse, but when advert clearance board Clearcast ruled something that violent out, the kick became a slap.

"Then the slap was seeming too small, not impactful enough," Trevor recalls, "so we made it bigger. If you watch the commercial, the Orange Man’s arms go right out and swing back in. I don’t think Clearcast thought it was going to be so violent." The advert was an instant sensation. "I thought it would be big throughout the industry, not ripple throughout society," says Trevor.

While he never witnessed anyone get Tango-slapped himself, Trevor and his team began to hear about copycat incidents in the news. "I actually heard the story about the kid getting perforated ear-drums, from a doctor. He was saying it was right that it got banned, not just because of that but because him and his fellow doctors were slapping each other as well!"

The client pulled the advert, and a revised version involving a kiss was filmed, but by then it was too late: the Orange Man’s influence had hit the streets. "We just wanted something people would talk about. Not for a minute did we think they would start slapping each other. I don’t think we believed in ourselves that much."

A decade later, headlines would be full of kids slapping each other all over again, this time under a different banner and with even more ruinous consequences. That said, Trevor’s never seen the trends as connected. "That’s violence and schools," he told me. "There’s always something."

Part I – "Bitch Slap Sum Norman"

"If you feel bored wen ur about an u got a video phone den bitch slap sum norman, innit." London community web forum user Happyslapper2 (reported by the Guardian, 26/04/2005).

Michael Shaw was a reporter at the Times Education Supplement in 2005 when a news editor approached him with a report written by a London teacher. The report described random acts of violence that were being filmed on mobile phones, and how the footage was being shared around for the amusement of other students. "I posted a message on a teachers' forum asking if anyone else had witnessed anything like it," Michael recalls. "The response wasn’t overwhelming, but they weren’t just from London, they were from other cities, like Manchester, saying they had also witnessed this happening in their schools."

The teacher also mentioned what they were calling it, and on the 21st of January that year Michael published an article including the first mention of the term "happy-slapping" in the press. "Bullies film fights by phone" contained accounts from a small selection of schools which had witnessed the behaviour, outlining the basic patterns of behaviour. "The phrase 'happy-slapping' wasn’t always used," he adds, "they weren’t all aware of that."

As with most trends, it's impossible to pinpoint the exact epicentre of happy-slapping – some reports say Lewisham, others blame St Albans. The difficulty comes, of course, from trying to locate something so notional. Happy-slapping was a buzzword, an idea, that tore through the playground at a faster rate than the videos themselves ever could. Those who were at school during the mid-2000s will struggle to remember where they first heard about it – or how serious an issue it actually was. All that's obvious is that at some point in 2004, playground scraps and mobile video technology congealed into something more.

For those who experienced a happy-slap first-hand, the rules at tarmac-level were simple. First: there was no motivation. They were not attacks driven by anger or revenge; the happy-slap was the motivation, and the less the victim was expecting it, the better. Happy-slaps often took place while the victim was sleeping, or facing the opposite direction. They normally occurred in the weird in-between places that break up the school day – the bus, the basketball courts, the top-floor corridor – where the act could go ahead suddenly and unnoticed. The heavy blow brought down out of nowhere, the gasp of silence, the plunge into screeching laughter.

Secondly: they were filmed. A happy-slap was just a slap if nobody caught it on camera. Nokia 7600s, Motorola Razrs, the Sony Ericsson K750i, the Samsung D500, were all set to capturing videos that amounted to little more than people-shaped moving blocks. Pixelated bursts of movement, soundtracked by clattering, indiscernible audio. The video completed the act; it was a vehicle for the component that made happy-slapping whole: the humiliation.

If caught, the defence was always the same: it was only a joke.

Once the video was recorded, it was then shared between phones via Bluetooth, or Infrared, depending on how shit your phone was. Videos would travel around schools and, possibly, if funny enough, to other schools further afield. Theories as to why kids did it ranged wildly. When asked, some said they were bored, others blamed violent video games, others said they wanted to be famous in some small way.

For most people, first-hand experiences with happy-slapping were rare. Instead, they tended to be the stuff of legend; short clips huddled over in the minutes before a class started. Videos were uploaded to Ebaumsworld or a just-launched Youtube, or simply sent over MSN as a Quicktime file. The compilations – put together by bedroom "production companies", like Slap Happy TV, using Windows Movie-Maker – contained school-kid happy-slaps often alongside random (more brutal) attacks between adults. Very few of the old slaps remain online, but the below video gives a flavour of the scene.

On the ground, schools immediately began grappling with how best to deal with this new breed of bad behaviour. Tied to fears of phone thefts, head-teachers began banning mobile phones in school altogether. St-Martins-in-the-Field school in Lambeth were early adopters, but soon the majority of the capital’s schools were taking action. In April of 2005, a spokesperson for Lewisham council described the trend as a "London-wide problem", adding that police were working with head-teachers to investigate criminal behaviour.

The British Transport Police were also involved, responding to incidents on buses and trains, with then-Superintendent Mark Newton telling the Standard: "It is a cowardly form of attack – childish but also criminal. These people who think it is all a bit of a jape could end up in jail." Two years later, the headteacher of a Catholic boys school in Wimbledon went a step further, suggesting an ambitious ban on YouTube.

All the while, the term "happy-slapping" was going nuclear in the press. In the media's eyes, it was only a matter of time before somebody got really hurt – which, of course, they did. Local papers began to report on isolated acts of violence, any that involved either young people or mobile phones, joining the dots, blaming the violence on this new craze.

In May of 2005, Becky Smith – a GCSE student from Blackley, suburban Manchester – was attacked on her way home from school and left unconscious, ultimately spending two days at North Manchester General Hospital. The next day, the video started to circulate around her school, leaving her too scared to return. Her mother, Georgina, told the press at the time: "The school should get rid of video phones, or are they going to wait until someone has been murdered before they take the phones off the kids?"

The same month, in Bexleyheath, a 41-year-old IT manager – described in reports as 18 stone and 5ft 11 ins – was slapped on the back of his head several times while riding a bus. After the incident, the man told the Bexleyheath News Shopper, "They were hefty slaps, and although I wasn't hurt, I was stunned." He continued: "Had I hit the kid he would have flown across the bus, but then I would have been charged for hitting a minor. I don't know the answer to solving the problem, because kids have no respect and no discipline."

Even the deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, described being intimidated in a motorway service station by a gang of youths carrying "a kind of movie camera". Once the newspapers had tasted happy-slapping, they couldn’t leave it alone.

Michael Shaw remembers a conversation the night before the publication of his piece first announcing the arrival of happy-slapping: "My editor said, 'You do realise the kids who aren’t already doing this out there are going to be doing this when it comes out?' The next day, the story actually did get picked up by all the national daily papers. It did start getting talked about that weekend, and from then on."

Part II – "Mugging For Kicks"

Three days after the attack on Becky Smith, ITV aired a Trevor McDonald happy-slapping special called Mugging for Kicks. It featured academic Dr Graham Barnfield, then a senior lecturer in media and journalism at the University of East London, as a talking head. Barnfield had contributed an essay to a book, which touched on the voyeurism of reality TV formats like Big Brother.

"It was a paying gig, so I wasn’t complaining too much," he remembers, of filming his section of the documentary. "We went to a private members club, sat in a booth, where I was supposed to watch these [happy-slap] clips." Many of them wouldn’t load, and Graham remembers the director encouraging him to look appalled. After an extensive, stilted interview, he eventually made an off-the-cuff remark that stuck. "I said something along the lines of 'kids see these clips and think they can get their 15 minutes of fame', which was then incorporated into the show."

It made the press release, and soon Barnfield was being quoted everywhere as blaming happy-slapping on TV shows like Jackass or Dirty Sanchez.

Overnight, his passing comment turned him into something of an accidental expert. "It got picked up in a way that I was talking about 'copycat behaviour', which is the opposite of what I was saying." In fact, the more Graham looked into happy-slapping, the less sense the crimewave made in real terms. As he saw it, the technical capabilities for a deluge of mobile-phone-filmed attacks just wasn’t there in 2005. While peer-to-peer sharing of videos via bluetooth might have been going on, the prospect of a generation capturing acts of violence was far-fetched. "Put it this way – without full 3G rollout or home broadband, the idea that there were tens of thousands of these videos being uploaded didn’t make sense."

Reflecting on it now, Graham reckons the actual danger was minimal, and that happy-slapping was really just the circulation of a small number of videos – many of which were fake. "People would mention the same videos over and over again: 'the traffic cone one', there was a comedy one that involved a fish," he explains. He concedes that it’s impossible to say how many people were filming their own videos and sharing them via bluetooth, but doesn’t see how the incensed media could have known this either. "That was murky for me, but was also murky for newspapers reporting on it so confidently."

And they were confident. While Graham was sceptical of the actuality of the problem, the media saw it otherwise, and reports of high-profile happy-slaps continued to rise. With the broad definition of a "happy-slap" being any act of violence filmed on a mobile phone, the net was cast wide.

In December of 2005, the Mirror reported on Myleene Klass's "happy slapping hell" after she had chips thrown on her head outside a newsagent in Bermondsey by a group of teenagers. In 2007, a series of the X-Factor was rocked by a "happy slapping scandal", when footage emerged of Emily Nakanda – the show’s first ever 14-year-old contestant – attacking a girl in an alleyway in North Finchley. Gradually, the news became focused on more serious crimes, and happy-slapping came to take on a far more sinister meaning.

In October of 2004, near Waterloo station, 14-year-old Chelsea O’Mahoney approached David Morley, a bar manager in his late-thirties, with a group of three others. She told him, "We’re making a documentary about happy-slapping," before telling him to "pose for the camera". The gang then kicked Morley to the floor, where they stomped his body until he eventually died from a ruptured spleen.

While the killing itself took place before the happy-slapping panic had reached fever pitch, the trial lasted well into 2006. Morley, who worked at the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho and had survived a homophobic nail bomb attack in 1999, was well loved. His senseless murder accentuated the darkness at the heart of happy-slapping, and Clockwork Orange comparisons were a popular motif in reporting at the time. That O’Mahoney had filmed the attack meant that happy-slapping had lethal potential. The gang was eventually sentenced to a total of 44 years in prison, with O'Mahoney convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years.

Over the next five years, a slow but steady march of murders and life-changing attacks were attributed to the trend. In 2006, two girls – aged 16 and 17 – stripped, punched, kicked and sexually assaulted a 17-year-old boy for three-and-a-half hours in a flat in Woolwich. Much of the incident was recorded on a phone, so again the incident was labelled a happy-slap. The same goes for the murder of Gavin Waterhouse in Bradford a year later, who was beaten to death by two teenage boys while a younger teenage girl watched and filmed.

The most recent high-profile murder to be described as a happy-slap occured in 2010. Ekram Haque, a 67-year-old retired care worker, was leaving his mosque with his granddaughter when he was ambushed by two teenage boys. The pair hit him, while a third filmed. Haque fell to the floor and sustained head injuries which killed him a week later. His attackers – Leon Elcock and Hamza Lyzai – filmed the assault under the banner "Lane Gang Productions". Prosecutors found a series of unsolicited attacks recorded on their phones with this tag attached. The case was making headlines as recently as 2012, when the pair were given an early release.

Part III – Why did the chav cross the road?

Why did the chav cross the road?
To happy slap the chicken. – 'The Little Book of Chav Jokes', Lee Bok

It’s hard to get people to speak about happy-slapping. Those who were happy-slapped are still embarrassed, the people who slapped them even more so. The teaching unions we approached for comment politely declined to speak on the subject – with one saying there was nobody who remembered the phase – while others just scratched their heads and asked what it actually was again?

Clearly, it had very little to do with real violence. People who were in school during the happy-slapping wave can normally remember it on some level, yet what’s surprising is how few people recall actually witnessing a happy-slap in action. Very few of the people asked for this article could summon instances of actual attacks, and for those who could it was normally one or two across their entire school career. The legend was built on a small network of video nasties – kids trading pixelated clips of Turkish barbers slapping their customers, or 30 seconds of a school-boy being rushed in an underpass.

Ultimately the myth far exceeded the reality. Happy-slapping was a meme before memes – the sharing of images, of an idea, from person to person, phone to phone. Yes, acts of violence ranging from playground bullying to brutal murders were filmed, but it was the early days of the camera phone that made this newsworthy – a time when filming everything was an emerging phenomenon, not a way of life. Considering how mobile technologies have disrupted our lives since, the literal threat of happy-slapping seems almost quaint for its physicality.

Of course, the term became something else. An anti-bullying guide written in 2006 describes happy-slapping as starting life "on the UK garage music scene" before moving to schools. It’s a link that was also made by the Guardian, in both cases with no evidence to back the claim up.

It’s safe to assume both reports meant grime where they said garage, and the link isn’t totally random. Both grime and happy-slapping were propelled by user-generated, self-produced media circulated via mobile phones. Happy-slaps found a home on grime forums, just as artists from Devilman to JME to Roadside Gs referenced them in lyrics. This clip of Crazy Titch playing mobile phone footage of someone being stripped and stranded in the countryside isn’t exactly a happy-slap, but the comparisons are there to be drawn.

The grime connection also taps into what happy-slapping came to represent in the imagination of the teachers, parents and publications who feared it. This was a crimewave that came from a class and a race. Between 2005 and 2006, the nation's obsession with "chavs" was reaching fever pitch – in 2006, a YouGov survey suggested that 70 percent of TV industry professionals believed Vicky Pollard was an accurate reflection of white working class youth. It was at this time that Bluewater shopping centre in Kent banned hooded jumpers in an attempt to crack-down on anti-social behaviour. Happy-slapping became the pastime of "chavs" – the mindless ultra-violence of an underclass with nothing better to do.

The same goes for the eagerness to blame the influence of grime and black British kids. Spend long enough on the internet, reading forum posts or comments under news articles, and it’s not long before talk of happy-slapping turns to talk of race. The way the craze was characterised reflects a toxic notion, present in British identity politics throughout the 2000s, which perhaps gained its most vivid articulation following the 2011 riots when David Starkey claimed on Newsnight that "the whites have become black" – quoting Enoch Powell to bolster his point. Accusing certain groups of bringing happy-slapping "into our schools" is an incremental chapter in this line of thinking. Eventually, despite being as well known to white kids in Surrey as it was black kids in Lewisham, happy-slapping became little more than a tool for tabloids to shit-stir Middle-England with.

Over the past few years, the term has continued to surface occasionally – from Karl Pilkington’s book Happy Slapped By a Jellyfish, to this very questionable-looking feature film about happy-slapping from 2013. Just last week, the Plymouth Herald ran a story on "happy slapping youngsters" targeting rough-sleepers.

In our imaginations however it remains a strange and misremembered phase. Part playground craze, part media freakout, its notoriety tells a story of anxieties about class, race and technology: an old world turning into a new one and the struggles that brings. And also, like, it was only a joke.