Subcultures on Screen

From Teddy Boy Tear-ups to Glam Rock Romps.

By Museum of Youth Culture

Symond and a BBC Camera by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

A Riot on Film

Youth culture has intersected with some of the most influential cinematic movements in film history. Not only has film acted as a valuable means for political and personal expression for Britain's subcultures, but has helped shape their identity, and perception by wider culture. 

Young Mod smiling in front of a film poster, London, 1960s (1960) by Lee Harris ArchiveMuseum of Youth Culture

Teddy boy couple stood in front of Pontiac Trans Am by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

1950s: The Emergence of Teddy Boys 

The Teddy Boys mixed the Edwardian (hence, ‘Teddy’) fashion sported by the likes of James Cagney and Paul Muni in early gangster movies, with the wildness of rock-and-roll artists like Eddie Cochran, Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. Teds were amongst the most memorable youth groups in the UK, and film was just one medium through which they were understood by society. 

Rock'n'roll fan in his bedroom holding a Eddie Cochran record by John IngledewMuseum of Youth Culture

Opened by Bill Haley’s rebellious 'Rock Around the Clock', Richard Brooks' 'Blackboard Jungle' attracted riots from Teddy Boys across the country, and would later be criticised by authorities as an incitement to crime.

Film as Cultural Response

Lewis Gilbert's 'X-rated Cosh Boy' (or 'The Slasher' in the US) reflected the cultural anxiety concerning the Teds and 'juvenile delinquency'. It stars James Kenney as the beastly Roy Walsh, who uses gang force to terrorise the women of post-war London, and overpower love interest, Rene (played by Joan Collins). Nineteen-year-old Derek Bentley had been found guilty of murdering a policeman in Croydon shortly before Cosh Boy released, leading the film to be banned in many cinemas.

Visiting relatives in rural Suffolk (1960) by Clare & Keith LaflinMuseum of Youth Culture

1950s-1960s: Real Life and Real People for the British New Wave

For the British New Wave filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s, the camera was an invaluable tool to raise awareness of real world problems. These films share the sparse, documentary-style filmmaking of French New Wave films like The 400 Blows, though aim to represent the relationships between specifically British families and classes.

Young courting couple eating in their white sports car UK 1969 (1969) by Clare & Keith LaflinMuseum of Youth Culture

Kitchen Sink Realism

The movement is often called 'kitchen sink realism', and includes Karel Weisz's adaptation of Alan Silitoe's 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'. While the novel deals with abortion and seduction, censors insisted the film instead reflect a failed abortion and later miscarriage.

Mod with his Vespa, London, 1964. (1964) by Peter FrancisMuseum of Youth Culture

1960s: Smashing Times and Blowing Up in Carnaby Street with London's Mods

Rooted in young modern-jazz culture and tailored fashion, Mod became a pop culture phenomenon during the early 1960s.

Mods in front of a Man's Shop, London, 1960s, Lee Harris Archive, 1960, From the collection of: Museum of Youth Culture
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The Lambretta, Vespa, ska and modern jazz continue to be emblems of the 1960s Mod culture. Though the period is famously immortalised in Michelangelo Antonioni's 'Blow Up'. British director Desmond Davis satirised the boutique-studded glitz of Carnaby Street in his 1967 film, 'Smashing Time'.

Group of Mods driving their scooters, London, 1964. (1964) by Peter FrancisMuseum of Youth Culture

The subculture saw a resurgence in the late 1970s with Franc Roddam’s 'Quadrophenia'.

OO zeros playing live (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

1960s-1970s: Camp, Whimsy and Liberation during the Glam Era

Hailing camp as its primary aesthetic, the Glam era solidified itself as a tribute to freedom in performance, as well as a fantastical haven for the LGBT+ community.

Adam Ant in dressing room (1980) by Peter AndersonMuseum of Youth Culture

Ken Russell's epic 1975 rock opera 'Tommy' wears Glam’s sensational attitude on its sleeve. A visual retelling of The Who's album of the same name, Tommy sees a disabled boy become a modern-day Messiah through an indomitable talent for pinball. In appropriately kitsch fashion, the film appropriated the costumes used in earlier period dramas, and even wove novelty pound notes into wearable suits.

Madhatters on stage (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

Less well-known was 'Never Too Young to Rock'. Though ultimately a compendium of hits by Mud and The Glitter Band, this strange dystopian nevertheless expresses the chaotic fun of the period.

Russell Clements with kids from Hortus Road Southall (1987) by Mark CharnockMuseum of Youth Culture

1980s: Tension and Togetherness in Multicultural Britain

The British film industry took a hit after the Eady Levy's tax on cinema receipts was abolished by the Thatcher government in 1985. Nevertheless, young British writers and filmmakers were motivated to capture the conflict between certain youth cultures during the era, and their attitude toward the traditionalist views of the State.

A Sikh march in Southall (1987) by Mark CharnockMuseum of Youth Culture

The Hanif Kureishi-penned 'My Beautiful Laundrette' celebrates the romance between Daniel Day Lewis' former-skinhead, Johnny and Gordon Warnecke's English-Pakistani entrepreneur, Omar.

Gang of Skins on Balcony with racist graffiti by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

'My Beautiful Laundrette''s treatment of race divisions reflects the tension between the UK's burgeoning immigrant population and the repatriation championed by the National Front. The tension culminated in the race riots of 1979 and 1981, in which Asian youth protesters, The National Front and local police violently clashed.

Topless men on crowded dancefloor in hardcore rave (1990s) by Tristan O'NeillMuseum of Youth Culture

1990s: More Rave, Less Rock-and-Roll

The rave scene had been steadily growing in Britain over the 1980s within the underground DIY scene, but by the 1990s had become a significant cultural craze. Flyers for long-haul parties and 12-hour raves proliferated nineties Britain, leading several independent filmmakers to develop stories reflecting the decade’s hedonistic atmosphere. 

Backstage at Shut Up And Dance performance (1980s) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

In 1996, Danny Boyle adapted Irvine Welsh's 'Trainspotting', balancing an observational critique of living conditions inside Edinburgh's 'skagboy' culture, with a psychological realism that places the viewer inside the mind of its narrator as he wanders through Scotland's rave scene.

©Naki Kouyioumtzis/ PYMCA Homelands festival by NakiMuseum of Youth Culture

1990s: Technology and New Opportunities

Technological advancement in the late eighties and early nineties made filmmaking much more accessible than ever before. The Hi8 camcorder hit markets in 1989, leading to the formation of political film groups.

1990s: Undercurrents in Indie Filmmaking

One such collective was Undercurrents. An alliance between two TV producers and a group of activists, Undercurrents compiled footage from protests and rallies across Britain to create a series of 'Alternative News' films. Released on VHS, these films provided a counter-narrative to that shown on local news television.

Clairemont Road anti-M11 link road demo (1994) by Simon BuckleMuseum of Youth Culture

In 1995, Undercurrents documented the anti-M11 protest, where groups of young protesters occupied the roofs of houses and tower blocks in opposition to the M11 extension.

A group of bored lads sitting and standing by a wire fence by Phil KnottMuseum of Youth Culture

2000 Onwards: Towards A More Emotionally-Aware Style? 

The concerns of the British New Wave can still be felt in much British cinema today, particularly in response to the depiction of the 'chav' and 'hoodie' in the media. Since the millennium, more artists have zoomed in on the emotional, psychological and economic complexities underpinning modern gang culture.

A youth wearing a hoodie with his Pit Bull Terrier dog at home (2006) by Oliver GroveMuseum of Youth Culture

Menhaj Huda's 2006 film, 'Kidulthood' was praised for its realistic portrayal of inner-city teenagers and the friction between youth groups, while Andrea Arnold's 'Fishtank' presented a sympathetic and vulnerable protagonist, while acknowledging her determination and resilience in the face of adversity.

Group of teenagers (2000s) by Oliver GroveMuseum of Youth Culture

Joe Cornish's 2011 comedy-horror 'Attack the Block', meanwhile, uses the sci-fi framework to challenge traditional images of violence and immorality.

Three young men entertaining skiffle style with guitar cello and piano UK 1960 (1960) by Clare & Keith LaflinMuseum of Youth Culture

Continuing to Inspire

Film has contributed to the look, style and perception of various youth groups for over sixty years. With the popularisation of the internet, social media and lightweight camera phones, online videos and the ability to comment on others' work has arguably given youth much more agency over how it is perceived in wider society. Meanwhile, youth identity continues to find onscreen support via festivals such as Sundance; whether in Francis Lee's intimate gay romance, 'God's Own Country' (set in rural Yorkshire), 'Shirkers', Sandi Tan's reflection upon being a young, female cinephile in 1990s Singapore, or Brian Welsh's 'Beats', which follows two teenage boys in Scotland as they head to a rave. 

The main stage at the Hacienda bathed in red light (1988) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

Have a Watch

Jubilee, Derek Jarman, 1978
Quadrophenia, Franc Roddam, 1979
This is England, Shane Meadows, 2007
24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom, 2002
Trainspotting, Danny Boyle, 1996

Credits: Story

Charlie Nicholson has written about film and other mediums since 2016. A recent graduate of the University of East Anglia, he has written as a critic, researcher and creative writer, and is particularly interested in cult cinema, identity, and the relationship between mainstream and underground cultures.

The Museum of Youth Culture is a new destination dedicated to celebrating 100 years of youth culture history through photographs, ephemera and stories. Launching in 2019, the Online Museum of Youth Culture has been developed by YOUTH CLUB, with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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