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What I Learned About Britain From These Rare Documentaries on Youth Subcultures

The new BFI online archive 'Other Grooves' collects films about historical youth movements, from the founders of Carnival to pissed-up punks and 'long-haired layabouts'.

by Joshua Surtees
12 July 2016, 2:40pm

A documentary about female punks called 'Squatparty'. Stills provided by BFI

If you're the kind of person who spends hours sifting through YouTube for archive documentaries about Millwall football hooligans first broadcast on LWT in 1984, or super-8 film reels of the Stones performing Stray Cat Blues live in Milan in 1970, you're going to love the BFI's new online film collection Other Grooves, which includes dozens of rare and previously unseen films about British youth culture, free to watch online. It's a weird collection featuring the most extreme types of eccentrics. I spent the weekend watching it to work out what subcultures used to mean to young Brits.

The first thing I noticed when trawling through the collection was that white people were much whiter in the past. In the 1970s, before you could fly to Malaga on Easyjet for 60 quid, the nearest most British people got to seeing the sun was taking a vandalised British Rail train to Clacton-on-Sea. The lack of vitamin D is almost squint-worthy in two short films about the punk era.

The Punk Kebab Documentary from 1977 features a pale, virginal 19-year-old Shane MacGowan arsing about with a sheep and his band mates from The Nipple Erectors in a 14-minute comedy-cum-docusoap about doner meat. In it we learn that exiled Turkish shepherds invented kebabs after being driven out of their cities and finding that skewering their sheep and cooking it on open fires provided sustenance, and that most people want punks banished from the city. The link between the two is never fully explained but it's intensely watchable.

Meanwhile, Phil Munnoch's Squatparty from 1981 shows us what female punks got up to when they weren't idling up and down the King's Road. Perhaps they were just as pale as their male counterparts, but you can't tell from all their heavy, brash make-up that they wear morning noon and night. Their main hobbies include: swigging Smirnoff straight from the bottle, smoking John Player Specials, shopping for clothes and going to gigs at places like Brixton Town Hall and the Lyceum.

What stands out most from these two films is that punk was not a culture taken overly seriously by its protagonists. Those writing straight-faced treatise on its influence today would do well to watch these women pissing around in their flat, slathering on facepaint.

Chris Tarrant in 'Birmingham Teddy Boys'

The same can not be said for the Teddy Boys. Birmingham Teddy Boys, presented by a fresh-faced Chris Tarrant, is the most bizarre short in the collection. Filmed in 1973, it shows a group of forlorn Ted revivalists standing outside The Hideaway Club in Yardley (which had just been closed down without warning or explanation). Wearing brightly coloured, velvet-trimmed drape jackets, bootlace ties, suede creepers, drainpipe trousers, greased quiffs and muttonchop sideburns, the Teds boast about how much their suits cost and how long it took to make them. Tarrant asks one whether they feel like the odd ones out walking the streets looking like a 50s throwback. One Ted tells Tarrant, "It's coming back." But it never did, and the film confirms that there has always been something a bit pitiable about revivalism. These Teds looks as out of step in the 70s as a beer-bellied 50-year-old turning up at a Specials reunion gig in Camden wearing cherry red DMs and a Fred Perry polo shirt would look today.

One of the Teds tell Tarrant, defensively, "I don't like bell-bottomed trousers, and my parents would rather me be a Teddy Boy than a skinhead or Hell's Angel..." Perhaps the mid-70s was not a great time for rebellious youth culture.

Long-Haired Layabouts, from 1964, reveals the disconcerted conservatism of the British public in not-so-hip places like Plymouth, where young men are asked to explain why they have long hair. These interviews are juxtaposed with "normal" people interviewed on camera, describing them as girls, maniacs, posers and people who have been dragged out of a bin. Defending his tribe, one beatnik says, "We're only putting the clock back 300 hundred years – what's wrong with that?"

But the masterpiece of the collection is Extremes, a brilliant film about the outliers of British society shot in the early 1970s. We see groups of Hell's Angels, rudeboys, skinheads, communists and a load of naked revellers at the Isle of Wight Festival.

It begins with the filmmaker politely asking a Hell's Angel: "Are you interested in politics?"

"They should turn the House of Commons into a sewage farm," he sneers.

Later the director asks a mixed gang of rudeboys and skinheads: "What do you think of Hell's Angels?" "They're cunts," one of them says, and they all laugh.

Despite this antagonism, there is a certain unifying character to the subcultures of the time, and that's nudity. The latter segment features a lot of breasts and arses and stubby penises wreathed in thick tangles of pubic hair. These young folk dance and frolic on the beach and in the foamy brine of the English Channel, surrounded by the detritus of a three-day open-air rock concert, letting their genitalia breathe.

Getting naked was clearly a thing that young alternative people did back then. Imagine 20-year-old lads today standing around at Glasto 2016, ankle-deep in mud with the sound of Foals drifting from the main stage, bottle of Magners in hand, willies out. Inhibition has replaced exhibitionism.

Besides the odd royal wedding, Britain has never really been that good at finding ways for people to come together in the streets. Grove Carnival shows how the Caribbean community gave Britain the annual party it badly needed, Notting Hill Carnival. Made in 1981 (the same year as the Brixton Riots), the film is a beautiful snapshot of everything good about Carnival. Steelpan music resonates through west London streets. A beaming Darcus Howe parades in costume. Kids wave at the camera. Black, white, Asian and mixed-race people sway to calypso beats. Afros and drainpipe jeans are seriously on point. It's life-affirming stuff.

Still, archive films like these demonstrate a perpetually fascinating fact: that at any given point in history, no matter how archaic it now looks, youth cultures assume they are as advanced as it's possible to be. Looking at footage of 90s techno raves or the first ever Glastonbury festival in 1970, these people thought they had reached the pinnacle of liberal modernity. Now it looks fun, quaint and a bit daft.

The people in these films are our parents. As anti-establishment as they were back then, they now shop at Waitrose and are mostly concerned with catchment areas for their grandchildren's schools. Some of these punks, hippies and Hell's Angels are now UKIP voters. Maybe it will encourage the birth of radical movements, but this collection is more than a little sobering.

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