Some People, 1962

While hardly Quadrophenia, the neglected British film Some People (1962) remains a vivid depiction of working-class life, the lure of rebellion and the validation of belonging to some sort of youth culture – not that this was the original intention. Pre-dating both The Damned and The Leather Boys, Some People is the first of this early-sixties triumvirate of true British biker films, all set against the backdrop of the rocker community but hugely different to their US counterparts. (It is also the only one of the three filmed in colour.) While Motorcycle Gang and Dragstrip Riot had been two-dimensional teen movies and The Wild One – their inspiration – was essentially Romeo and Juliet with motorbikes, their UK equivalents were much more serious dramas. These were part of the British New Wave, following the French Nouvelle Vague and exploring both cinematic form and the post-war urban experience, using real locations and local people rather than extras, frequently ad-libbed dialogue, and shot in a vérité style that felt spontaneous and authentic.

Notionally a long advertisement for the relatively new Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme, who commissioned the project, Some People manages to transcend its original purpose because of the talent involved. The screenplay was the last completed work by the documentary film maker John Eldridge, who had collaborated with Dylan Thomas at the Ministry of Information during the war. Eldridge was known for directing a string of gentle, lyrical comedies in the 1950s, and he brought this lightness of touch to the protagonists of Some People as a sense of poignant longing for something – anything – but their apparently preordained fate. The film is also an early work by up-and-coming New Wave director Clive Donner, then on the verge of his career breakthrough with The Caretaker the following year, who had been cutting his teeth on low budget crime movies and melodramas. (A young Nicholas Roeg was on the 2nd Unit.) The film stars Ray Brookes, fresh from the Billy Fury vehicle Play it Cool (1962), and on his way to starring in Richard Lester’s The Knack …and How to Get It alongside Michael Crawford and Rita Tushingham in 1965, and Ken Loach’s ground-breaking BBC drama Cathy Come Home (1966). Then just 23, Brookes is hauntingly handsome, with just the right balance of conflicted artistic vulnerability – he’s a gifted musician destined to work in a timber yard – and smouldering proletarian intensity, quick to anger and not afraid to use his fists. His character, ‘Johnnie’, and his best mates ‘Beeza Bill’ (the Dickensian David Andrews) and ‘Bert’ (a very young David Hemmings, four years from international stardom in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up), take the lead in this coming-of-age story, but it’s as much about the girls in their life. There’s the stylish, intelligent but innocent ‘Anne’ played by Anneke Wills, who would go on to become a household name as William Hartnell’s companion ‘Polly’ in Doctor Who, and the more earthy, working class ‘Terry’ (Angela Douglas before she became a Carry On regular). Johnnie loves Anne, who is socially out of his league and unintentionally slumming it, while Bill fancies Terry, who prefers Johnnie. Anne is destined for university; Terry works in the W.D. & H.O. Wills cigarette factory.

This is all overseen by two contrasting father figures, the veteran character actor Kenneth More playing Anne’s father and the brilliant Harry H. Corbett as Johnnie’s. Corbett, then a journeyman British actor has just done ‘The Offer’ by Galton and Simpson for the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse, which became the pilot episode of Steptoe and Son, broadcast in June, the same month that Some People was released. More waived his fee and worked for expenses only because, he later said, he had no other job offers at the time, and the film was for a good cause. All profits went to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, founded by Prince Philip in 1956, and the National Playing Fields Association (established in 1925 by Brigadier-General Reginald Kentish and the Duke of York, later King George VI), a charity campaigning to protect parks, playing fields and green spaces. What More did get out of the movie was his third wife, Angela Douglas, who he met on set.

Some People is a film full of creatives on the cusp of success, if not greatness, made in a country on the verge of greatness, with Harold Wilson’s Labour government, full employment, social mobility, and sexual revolution only a couple of years away. The setting is equally liminal; not just Bristol (in itself, a stroke of location genius), but the time. As Philip Larkin wrote in ‘Annus Mirabilis’:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Britain in 1962 was still culturally in what my late mother called the ‘frustrating fifties’ and had no idea what history had in store. All our pop stars were still trying to be Elvis while looking like urchins from Oliver Twist. ‘Love Me Do’ by the Beatles would not come out until October and it only charted at No. 17. (‘Please, Please Me’ would not top the charts until January the following year.) Although rationing was over, we were still at the fag-end of an endless Tory government and the overall prospects for youngsters like Johnnie were still looking bleak. As Some People shows several times, Johnnie is well on the way to becoming his father, an inarticulate and repressed blue collar drunk, old before his time – a fate that clearly appals his son.

At the end of the first act, an exuberant display of ton-up boys and rocker girls riding and hanging out in Bristol, Johnnie, Bill and Bert lose their licences for a year after causing an accident through dangerous driving, after a lecture from the magistrate:

‘When you young chaps buy these powerful machines, you have in your hands a most dangerous weapon. I think it’s most monstrous that mere boys like you should be able to buy these things so cheaply and easily.’

As an aside to the clerk he disapprovingly adds, ‘Hire purchase, of course,’ indicating the massive class barrier between the bench and the dock, as well as the growing moral panic about rockers, and the establishment disapproval of ‘live-now-pay-later’ working and lower middle-class consumerism. This brought back a lot of memories of the first time I was up before the beak for speeding and any biker whose ever been in court will recognise the tone. There’s a similar scene in Quadrophenia.

Robbed of their wheels, the lads mooch around the city centre at night in drainpipes, winklepickers and donkey jackets, being charmingly British 1960s bad boys. They can’t afford the pub or the coffee bar, they ogle girlie magazines they’re too young to buy through a newsagent’s window, they run past tourists shouting, and get chucked out of a youth club (by Richard Davies – ‘Mr Price’ from Please Sir!) for being ‘Teddy Boys’ after partially dismantling a locked piano so Johnnie can play it. (This reminded me of American comedian Bill Hicks’ joke about the difference between British ‘hooligans’ and the Crips and Bloods.) They finally end up in an empty church so Johnnie can play rock ’n’ roll on the organ. While being bollocked by the vicar (Hammer stalwart Michael Gwynn), the choirmaster ‘Mr Smith’ (More) intervenes, having discerned potential in Johnnie’s playing. He asks the friends about music and it transpires they all play guitars but have nowhere to practice. Smith offers the church hall and after some initial reluctance, the trio take him up on it after eyeballing his beautiful daughter.

Things initially go well, and a halfway decent group is formed with Terry singing a la Helen Shapiro, and two new members from the choir, a young black guy called Jimmy (Frankie Dymon Jnr, musician and later indie director), and obvious grammar school alumni ‘Tim’ (Timothy Nightingale, who had literally just graduated from RADA), who works with Smith at the Bristol Aeroplane Company and looks like ‘Brains’ from Thunderbirds. (For aircraft wonks, the film includes a real test flight of the supersonic Bristol 188, in a juxtaposition of middle-class professional life with scenes of Johnnie and Bill at the timber yard and Terry at the fag factory.) Johnnie, Bert and Bill (soon replaced by Tim) do some Shadows moves, coordinating footwork, and the musical numbers were performed by local band Valerie Mountain and The Eagles, with incidental music by the prolific film/TV composer Ron Grainer, who had just scored A Kind of Loving. (A soundtrack album and a single were released by Pye.) The songs have the catchiness of an early Cliff Richard musical and ‘Some People’ is a real earworm.

Only Bill is sceptical, fearing a ‘catch’, but Johnnie is falling for Anne, so he and Bert carry on. Much to Bill’s annoyance, Terry chooses the band over him, and obviously has eyes for Johnnie. Bill withdraws back into the world of rockers, dancehalls and pubs. Johnnie and Anne start going out, but of course it all ends in tears, as the different classes can never really connect…

In Bill’s terms, there is a catch, and that’s the clumsy promotion of current theories in British social engineering. The underlying moral assumption is that pop music and motorcycles inevitably lead to juvenile delinquency, and that what these young tearaways need is discipline, religious guidance, and a haircut. Bereft, having lost their subcultural identities – the bikes – and facing the miserable complexities of adult life – relationships, dead-end jobs, money worries, heartbreak and disappointment – the boys are ripe for recruitment into the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme, of which Smith is a local leader while Tim and Jimmy are award holders. This is presented as a path to self-improvement, as well as a genuine challenge – tell a young man he can’t do something and then stand back. If nothing else, it’s something to do, which is the point of all youth schemes at the end of the day. It’s a pity that no one made a movie about the 59 Club, but Some People is what we’ve got as a contemporary drama that at least tries to examine the lot of the confused and frustrated British teenager at that moment in history.

Duke of Edinburgh awards come in bronze, silver and gold, the programmes comprising the categories ‘Volunteering’, ‘Physical’, ‘Skills’, ‘Expedition’ and (at gold level) ‘Residential’. These must be completed by the participant’s twenty-fifth birthday. The exercises themselves were modelled on the German educationalist Kurt Hahn’s solutions to his ‘Six Declines of Modern Youth’, which were:

  1. Decline of Fitness due to modern methods of locomotion
  2. Decline of Initiative and Enterprise due to the widespread disease of spectatoritis (‘excessive indulgence in forms of amusement in which one is a passive spectator rather than an active participant’)
  3. Decline of Memory and Imagination due to the confused restlessness of modern life
  4. Decline of Skill and Care due to the weakened tradition of craftsmanship
  5. Decline of Self-discipline due to the ever-present availability of stimulants and tranquilisers
  6. Decline of Compassion due to the unseemly haste with which modern life is conducted or, as Bishop William Temple called it, ‘spiritual death’.

Hahn proposed four solutions to the above:

  1. Fitness Training
  2. Expeditions
  3. Projects
  4. Rescue Service

(Looking at this lot like a parent rather than a crusty old rebel, I can’t help agreeing with a lot of it. God, I’m gettin’ old.)

Johnnie is trying to make something of himself to hang onto Anne, but for Bill, this is ‘going it straight’ and a bridge too far. He starts riding again illegally, and his resentment over the band and the awards scheme stealing his mates, as well as jealousy over Terry, lead to a depressing close to the long second act in which he and his rocker crew trash the church hall. Johnnie leaves the band and the scheme and goes back to wandering aimlessly around the city centre of an evening, which is where he encounters his father in a pub in a tragic scene in which neither can communicate with the other. ‘You have kids,’ says his dad, ‘you raise them, but most of the time they’re like strangers.’ He seeks out Bill in a roller-skating rink with the intention of starting a fight but instead they reconcile. At the end of the scene, which is really the climax of the movie, Johnnie has a choice: jump on the back of Bill’s BSA, pick up his Triumph and go back to the old life, or aim for something better. The film ends as he returns to the church hall and is warmly welcomed back by his friends, including Smith and his daughter.

The moral of the story is thus quite clear. Having opened the film with a colourful montage of brash shopfront advertisements and images of industrial renewal, the message is that there is work and money available for those willing to learn the rules, which include knowing your place in the class hierarchy. (Or it could be a wry comment on consumerism – or both – you never know with Donner.) The way for rebels to learn the rules is through self-improvement schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, Outward Bound (which Hahn founded), and lots of sport. ‘Juvenile delinquents’, then, can be helped and trained to be productive members of society. As the Jets sing in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, ‘Deep down inside us there is good!’

I watched Some People with my son this week, not long after we saw Motorcycle Gang, and we talked about the ending. I confess, I gave it a kind of Educating Rita spin, in which through his exposure to Smith, Anne and the awards scheme, while rejecting the fast road to nowhere offered by the ton-up fraternity, Johnnie’s horizons have broadened considerably. He has put aside childish things, and now has more choices ahead of him in life. His fate might not be engraved in stone after all. And, as my kid pointed out, the trajectory of my own life was not dissimilar. I gave up hellraising and dropped back into society in the late-eighties – kept my bikes though – and this time managed to work my way into university. Thirty-odd years later, I have a string of letters after my name and get paid to write for a living. (I started out as a builder’s labourer.) So, working class kid made good then, right? Well… not exactly.  I never really escaped my class, as my CV will attest, and in all likelihood neither would have Johnnie, though the boomers did have a better shot than Xers like me, so you never know…

Like many in the British New Wave, director Clive Donner had an eye for political allegory, angry young men and so-called ‘kitchen sink’ realism, and he would follow Some People with two dark films about class. The Caretaker by Harold Pinter (1963) explores the social dynamics between two middle-class brothers, one of whom is mentally ill, and a homeless man who exploits the kindness of one and is tormented by the other. He followed this with the black comedy Nothing But The Best (1964), in which an ambitious lower middle-class man is trained to affect the confident arrogance of the establishment upper-class by an impeccably dressed, rich and posh alcoholic, whom he eventually murders to keep his secret. There is thus a persuasive if subtle subtext to Some People that gives Bill’s argument more credence than the film’s producers would have liked had they realised. I’ve read reviews which suggest that Bill causes Anne to break up with Johnnie in a private conversation by putting the idea of the class divide and the inevitability of romantic failure in her head. It could equally be argued that Bill is simply much more of a pragmatist and that he is looking out for his mate. It is not, after all, in Bill’s interest to make Johnnie available to Terry by destroying his relationship with Anne. For Bill, the whole argument against the Duke of Edinburgh scheme is about class, of allowing those above them, like the kind by equally patronising Smith, to de-programme their youthful rebellion and to slot them into an ordered place in society, always below their own. They are, in effect, no different to the snobbish magistrate. When he attacks the church hall, it is this symbol of authority that Bill is intent on destroying, ripping down décor and throwing paint around, not the band, which is probably why Johnnie quickly forgives him. Rather than being the villain of the piece, Bill is more like the iconoclastic Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, who the Romantics read as the hero. Smith, for example, tolerates Johnnie’s relationship with his daughter but makes no effort to repair it when Johnnie reaches out. And while Anne’s relationship with her father seems much healthier than the one between Johnnie and his dad, the younger working-class characters are nonetheless portrayed throughout as much more open, lively and fun than the stiff middle-class characters, who are already miniature versions of their parents while the council estate kids are in full revolt.

Donner leaves us in no doubt that his heroes view their café racing motorcycles and their identities as rockers as an antidote to the monotony of daily working-class life. And whereas the American biker movies of the 1950s ended with the tortured protagonist returning to the fold of conformity and respectability, Bill’s continued rejection of the values of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme represents a necessary and continued rebellion against the soul-crushing job and council house that his social superiors have in store for him. ‘What,’ Bill seems to be asking, ‘do I have to be grateful for?’ Johnnie’s journey perhaps ends more hopefully, but less honestly. Through Anne’s rejection of him, in his heart of hearts he must have already seen the truth of his situation. In England, it is always impossible to transcend the boundaries of your social class, however hard you work to ‘better’ yourself. That’s certainly always been my experience, which is probably why I’ve always loved this movie.

Some People is a lush evocation of provincial British youth culture in the strange era of Joe Meek and Billy Fury, between Elvis going into the army and the rise of the Beatles. You can watch it equally as a film about rockers, a sixties musical, a coming-of-age story, a kitchen sink drama, or the long advertisement for the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme that was originally intended. Any of these approaches will be rewarded. It’s also a fascinating snapshot of Bristol in 1962, with superb performances from a rising generation of talented British actors. If you want old bikes and ton-up boys, you’ll have to accept that these only really feature in the first and third acts but what you get is authentic and intense – and in colour. There’s none of the theatrical posturing of ‘King’s’ gang in The Damned; the rockers here are much more accurate. Many were the real deal, drafted in by Donner from the local biker scene. It is this social and subcultural realism that puts Some People in the same camp as the later and more challenging Leather Boys, which again explored class and sexuality and used rocker extras from the Ace Café.

For me, Some People remains one of the great British biker movies of the sixties and deserves its place in domestic film history as such. Once the plague is over and I can get to a sci-fi convention with my kid again, it’ll be this DVD I ask Anneke Wills to sign, not a Doctor Who boxset!

NB: Some People was released on DVD by Network in 2003 and is still available on Amazon for £6.79 or can be viewed for £2.49 on Prime. It turns up relatively cheaply and regularly on eBay too.

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