Monday 21 January 2013

Angels vs. Skins

'What's The Truth About Hells Angels and Skinheads' is a BBC 'Man Alive' documentary from 1969. With Angels and Skins neck and neck in the contemporary Folk Devil stakes, presenter Harold Williamson decides to meet and talk with members of each group and, crucially, to speak to their parents, in order to find out what they're really like. He does, and it makes for interesting viewing. 


Williamson's first job is to spend some time with a chapter of Hell's Angels from Oldbury in the Midlands. The leader is called Hasser, and is inordinately proud of his Nazi regalia. When asked what it represents, he readily admits that it is purely to set himself against the older generation, to align himself with something they fought against. Just as the Angels cultivate a scruffy, sleazy image, they take a direct route to alienating their elders by adopting the symbols of opposition - a taboo that the Punks would latch onto a few years later. In Williamson's assessment, for the Angels, 'to disgust is to win'.

Hasser, like the Captain of a ship, is able to conduct marriage services although, unlike the Captain of a ship, these are not actually legal. Still, the Angels don't care about little things like that. The ceremony is simple: swear on the Motorbike Manual, exchange oil lock rings and get sprayed with beer by your fellows.

A divorce is even simpler, the husband simply rips up the motorbike manual - but this must be done in one go. The Motorcycle Manual is their Bible, so this feat of strength is not to be taken lightly.

At this point, it's worth introducing the happy couple, Sylvia and Hitler.   


Sylvia is nearly eighteen; Hitler isn't much older. They're not really married, of course, but they are 'in the eyes of the Angels' which is all that seems to matter to them. Sylvia is scatty, chatty and likeable, and says 'am' instead of 'are' (as in 'we're happy as we am') and 'them' instead of 'they' (as in 'them think we barmy'); Hitler is a gangly, gormless boy with an almost impenetrable Black Country accent and a tendency to make comments that highlight just how tough he is: 'I like to beat a skinhead up, that's great. If it were legal, we'd go about hanging skinheads'. 'If it were legal', Hitler? What sort of outlaw attitude is that?

When asked whether he'd ever divorce Sylvia he says: 'if she's a bad girl I'll thump her head in. I could slit her throat or hang her - depends what mood I'm in' (and, presumably, what's legal).

Through all this, Sylvia looks on at him adoringly. It's hard to believe, but she thinks he's brilliant. When she says 'give us a kiss' he says 'what for?' before grabbing her and sticking his tongue down her throat. He's a real catch. Sylvia has no interest in the conventional idea of marriage, anyway, turning up her nose at the idea of a gold ring rather than one taken from a motorbike. At this point, Hitler chips in with: 'You get two things with them brass rings: a ring, and a green finger'. It's the most sensible thing he's said so far.    

Sylvia's parents simply have no idea what their daughter is doing with her life, although they concede that she has never been in trouble. They seem to know Hitler quite well, perhaps even liking him, but clearly not liking what he represents.

Mr. Gough soon gets onto the subject of his sort-of son in law's name. Funnily enough, as a war veteran, he doesn't like it and recognises it for what it is, a cheap attempt to shock.  Hitler comes back with a rather pathetic 'it ain't done anybody any harm' before Mr. Gough delivers the killer blow:

'Is that a clever name, do you think, PAUL?'.


There are, according to Williamson, 8,000 Skinheads in Britain. A Youth Cult in the most fundamental sense, very few of them are much older than eighteen. 'If you're feeling sad and need cheering up' says Williamson, the sarky devil, 'you're never too young to be a skinhead'.

Williamson first meets with a gang from the East End. Chelsea fans, all around 16, they have some things to say, not least about 'Pakis'. Greasers are their natural enemy, one says, Pakistanis 'a pastime'. Eager to clarify, he says: 'It's not their colour because, you know, the Jamaicans are alright. They don't like Pakis either. Anyway, sometimes we hit 'em, sometimes we just leave 'em'

On their 'natural enemy' the Skins are quite clear: 'There ain't no Hells Angels in this country, just old greasers like we used to have'. Comparing the exploits of the UK bikers to their American counterparts one says: 'What they do is mouse like (I love that phrase) compared to what they do out there, innit? They smash up whole towns and get away with it. A band of grease couldn't even smash up a club over here and get away with it. Well, maybe once or twice, but not a third time'.   

Wiliamson asks how long will they be Skinheads:'About 18. We've got nothing to lose now. After 20, 25  you've got yer wife to think about'. There it is, then, the trajectory of a working class youth - a brief, wild hurrah, then domesticity and conformity.    


Steve is 16, and works as an assistant at a Printers. He doesn't really care about his job, he just likes the money it gives him to spend at the weekend.

Steve's Mum doesn't like him being a skinhead because of his appearance. He just doesn't look like her little boy, anymore.

Steve's father is one of those great working class armchair philosophers that programmes like this often turn up. Master of his own home, he maintains a sense of sang froid throughout the interview, ultimately making Williamson sound like a hysterical old biddy. An ex-Teddy Boy, he can relate to Steve's desire to 'be trendy, be one of the crowd', recalling his old uniform of 'midnight blue drape suit, pink shirt and a big stetson hat'

It's a phase, he says, a short-lived craze and Steve agrees (it would be interesting to pinpoint the moment when youth cults went from being a short, intense experience to being something some people adhere to their whole lives. It was definitely some time after the original event: revivals tend to breed fanatics, eager to prove themselves equal to the originals). Williamson asks: 'But what about him not being able to go into cinemas and certain dance halls, being banned from these places?'. Dad thinks for a moment then replies 'I can't really blame him for that, though, that's the old Authorities'.

When Steve is interviewed he seems a thoughtful, soft spoken boy, light years away from one of the crowd talking about 'rolling Pakis' (on this, Dad says he thinks this is exaggerated - merely bravado - Steve agrees it is - for the most part). Steve says that he wanted to be a Journalist but, when he went for an interview, his East End background went against him. After that he couldn't be bothered, and got the first job that came along. He says something very telling about the class system that absolutely pinpoints why he is a Skinhead:

'I thought I could get out of it (his class), but I've come to my senses and realised I can't. If you can't get noticed at work, you get noticed on the streets. They notice us, and that's what we want'. 

Steve tells a story about how a thousand Skinheads converged on Southend and went looking for Greasers. In the crowd, all dressed the same, all shorn the same, all with the same aim, he felt security - a common cause - comradeship - a sense of belonging that nearly brought tears to his eyes.

'There you go' says Dad 'that sums it up, that's what they are: they're sentimental boys'.     

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