THE LEATHER BOYS, 1964 | THE ACE CAFE, LOVE TRIANGLE, MOTORCYCLES, MORRISSEY & MORE

It was great being a part of 1st Annual NYC Motorcycle Film Festival in Brooklyn last week. Lots of great films and filmmakers were exposed to fresh eyes hungry for inspiring motorcycle art, culture, and history on the screen. An interesting after-film Q & A brought up a seminal motorcycle film of the 1960s, “The Leather Boys”, not just necessarily for the striking “Ton-Up Boys” and bikes– actually more for it’s place in history for being the first British film to be rated ‘X’ for having homosexual themes than actual nudity of a graphic nature,  per se.

I was first exposed to “The Leather Boys” as a teenage fan of The Smiths (it was a very influential and transforming film for Morrissey, and many young gay men in England). Clips and images of the film and it’s stars were used in The Smiths’ video “Girlfriend in a Coma” and their single, “William, It Was Really Nothing.” In a 1988 NME interview at the Cadogan Hotel (where Oscar Wilde was arrested), Morrissey even said, “I’m almost quite speechless now, it’s a very historic place and obviously it means a great deal to me… to be sitting here staring at Oscar’s television and the very video that Oscar watched “The Leather Boys on.” (The ‘Oscar’s television’ comment, obviously an impossibility, is Moz being snarky and insulting the intelligence of the NME  reporter…) Hearing “The Leather Boys” being referenced all these years later by filmmaker Eric Tretbar (Girl Meets Bike), and Paul d’Orleans of The Vintagent made me want to take a closer look at the historical influence of “The Leather Boys”, of which there is several layers.

THE LEATHER BOYS MOVIE FILM 1964

Rita Tushingham and Colin Campbell in the iconic British film, “The Leather Boys”, 1964.

“The Ace Cafe played a leading role in Sidney Furie’s film ‘The Leather Boys’, utilizing many of the cafe’s patrons as ‘extras’. Shooting scenes at the Ace Cafe, Furie, eager to achieve realism, took advice from the local riders. ‘You’d never find an Ace boy wearing them jeans,’ he was told one morning. Furie’s direction and strong performances combined to make ‘The Leather Boys’ one of the great British films of the 1960s. Rita Tushingham, Colin Campbell, Dudley Sutton, and author of the novel, The Leather Boys, Gillian Freeman, were all present for the Ace Cafe Grand Reopening in September 2001. The legend of the Ace Cafe lives on in the minds of those who went there, those who wish they went there and those too young to have been there.” via

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Rita Tushingham the leather boys 1964

Rita Tushingham on the set of the iconic British film, “The Leather Boys”, 1963. “Dodgy” on the back of Reg’s jacket referred to the catchphrase of British TV comedian Norman Vaughan, popular during that time. His thumbs-up gesture meant Swinging! and thumbs-down meant Dodgy!

“In the first half of the 1960s, Tushingham became a symbol of the kitchen sink school of theater, which told stories about working class folk, people who had been ignored previously in class conscious England. It was a decade that saw the rise of a generation of actors born and raised outside Metropolitan London who refused to let go of their accents or adopt posh manners. She became one of the faces of the English New Wave. In 1961, she made her film debut as a teenager in Tony Richardson’s adaption of Shelagh Delaney’s kitchen sink drama, A Taste of Honey (1961). For her work in that film, she won a BAFTA and the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1963, she followed those up with a Golden Globe Award as most promising newcomer.In 1964, Tushingham starred in Girl with Green Eyes (1964), an adaptation of an Edna O’Brien novel about a young Irish woman’s affair with an older man, co-starring Peter Finch and Lynn Redgrave. She next starred as a working class woman married to a biker in Sidney J. Furie’s cult classic ‘The Leather Boys’ (1964), a film released at a time where Marlon Brando’s biker opus ‘The Wild One’ (1953) was still banned in Britain.” via

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1964 the leather boys Rita Tushingham

Dodgy is exactly what Dot thought of Reg’s “friendship” with Pete who is obviously gay and hot to trot for Reg… “The Leather Boys” was a pivotal, ground-breaking film that many cinephiles and historians credit as being one of the first important movies to openly portray homosexuality on the big screen.

“Reg and Dot are teenage lovers: she is 15 and still in secondary (high) school, he works, and both are none too bright. They’re determined to be married, but for the wrong reasons: he for uninterrupted sex, she so she won’t have to get a job. After their rather pathetic wedding (a ride on the bus takes them to the reception, with motorcycles for their escorts), they quickly find that neither is getting what they wanted. Their issues come to a head when Reg’s grandfather dies, and Reg suggests they move in with his “gran.” The couple separates acrimoniously.”

the leather boys movieRita Tushingham and Colin Campbell in the iconic British film, “The Leather Boys”, 1964.

“Reg becomes friendly with another biker, Pete (seen in the background above, leering at Reg over his shoulder), and they both move into Gran’s house, even sharing the same bed; but if their relationship ever becomes physical, the movie glosses over it. In fact, Reg seems oblivious to the possibility that Pete might be homosexual until the end of the movie. Dot becomes jealous of Reg and Pete’s close friendship, and pretends to be pregnant to get Reg back. It doesn’t work. Then, during a 24-hour endurance ride, Reg and Dot realize how much they mean to each other and vow to make a new start. But there are more twists and turns to come…” via

That was a typical standard-fare review for “The Leather Boys”, for a more cutting and insightful review check out Andrew Craig William’s great write-up here.

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the leather boys pete reg

Reg’s first motorcycle in “The Leather Boys” is a Triumph Speed Twin (bathtub), which he later replaces with a Bonneville after getting toasted by his “buddy” Pete’s Norton Dominator in a “burn-up”, a pretty cool scene. There are also great shots of old Gold Stars, BSA, and other British bikes and cafe racers in the film.

“An important economic factor was the introduction of hire-purchase (rent-to-own) in the late fifties. A working teenager could lay down “thirty bob” (one pound fifty) and buy a new Tiger 110, Road Rocket or Dominator on the “never-never” – a dollar down and a dollar a week, perhaps. Typically, the teenage biker’s uniform was mostly war-surplus: flying boots, seamen’s hose, blue jeans and black jacket – leather for the better-off, vinyl or waxed cotton for the rest. For this generation, the motorcycle was more than just a way to get to work; it became a personal symbol of rebellious freedom.”

ton-up boys rockers ace cafe london
“These newly mobile teenagers were now able to congregate away from their parents’ influence, and their chosen venues were Britain’s “transport cafes,” like the Ace Café. These eateries offered a place to get together with your “mates” for a cup of tea and a smoke, and to talk bikes. The talking often turned to action, and the sport of “cafe racing” was born. And though the Ace Café was the best known, there were hundreds of English cafes where bikers flocked.”

“The sound of the era was Rock ‘n’ Roll. In Britain at the time, there was no pop music radio, and what was new and now only sizzled through the jukebox. Transport cafes had the best, sometimes the only ones in town. Domestic life could be pretty bleak. The temptation of these glittering palaces, combined with the heady rhythm of rock ‘n’ roll was irresistible. Not to mention the bikes and the ‘birds.’ If the jukebox became the metronome of cafe racing, it also tolled the death knell for many riders, and what the tabloids called the “suicide cult” of café racing took at least one life a week at its height.” via

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the leather boys cover

“The Leather Boys” conflict between convention and taboo

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Colin Campbell the leather boys

A still of Colin Campbell from this film was used for the artwork of the German edition of the Smiths’ single “Ask”. The image was used again for the cd reissue of the Smiths’ “William It Was Really Nothing” single. via

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scorpions the ace cafe london

Paul Trudelle’s photo of his father and friends taken in the 1960s. His father, Roger (aka Trad) frequented the Ace Cafe London and founded the Scorpions. He was also a member of the 59 Club (church group that evolved into an MC).

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ace cafe london ton-up boys 59 club

Note the 59 Club patch above on the ‘Ton-Up Boys’. “Graham Hullett was a biker and earned his respect from the young rockers through giving it and walking his talk. Graham ran The 59 Club on a daily basis from 1962 to 1970 looking after the Rockers at the club nights, and was responsible for all the specialist sections such as sub-aqua and football team. And it must be said, a considerable time in Court bailing the young rockers out! He went with the lads on runs to the notorious mid-winter Elephant Rally in Germany 6 times, the Dragon Rally in Wales and summertime Isle of Man TT Races – all of which are documented here.

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The Pirates Ace Cafe London

The Pirates — Rock ‘n’ Roll band born out of the Ace Cafe, London Ton-Up / Rockers scene

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ton-up boys rockers

Ton-Up Boys / Rockers of the 1950s / 1960s

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Ton Up boy with his bike outside the Ace Café henry grant

ca. 1960s — Ton-Up Boy with his bike outside the Ace Cafe, London by Henry Grant

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“The Leather Boys” resources:

The Ace Cafe London History 

The Leather Boys on IMDB

The Leather Boys on RoadRUNNER

7 thoughts on “THE LEATHER BOYS, 1964 | THE ACE CAFE, LOVE TRIANGLE, MOTORCYCLES, MORRISSEY & MORE

  1. In a 1988 NME interview at the Cadogan Hotel (where Oscar Wilde was arrested), Morrissey even said, “I’m almost quite speechless now, it’s a very historic place and obviously it means a great deal to me… to be sitting here staring at Oscar’s television and the very video that Oscar watched “The Leather Boys on.”

    That’s an odd quote from Morrissey, did Oscar Wilde had a time-traveling telly?

    Nice piece otherwise, never saw the flick but will search it out.

  2. Interestingly, a lot of kids of rockers and Teds grew up to also be Rockers and Teds, like members of an urban tribe. On a trip to London years back, I encountered a group of latter day Rockers. I had read about them and fathomed that if I encountered any of their kind, I would walk right up and introduce myself as a cross cultural cousin from across the sea, but once I locked eyes with their alpha, I kept right on walking. The only time in that country that I came across someone I wouldn’t have cared to cross.

  3. It’s a favourite film of mine, though the UK PAL DVD release is terrible quality

    In addition with reference to The Smiths, the film is sampled in the video for ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’

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