'Cosh Boy' is a short, slightly manic film from 1953. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, it tackles the social issue of teenage delinquency and was one of the first ever recipients of an X-certificate. It seems rather tame these days, and the crimes pretty petty, but you can perhaps imagine fifties punters fainting in the aisles and writing to their MPs about the violence, pre-marital sex and over acting contained within.
Roy Walsh is a little shit. His father died in the war, so his mother treats him like a tiny tin God. His grandmother, who also lives in the house, despises and fears him. In a hugely significant moment, Roy flops on the sofa of their little house, lights a cigarette and simply throws the spent match over his shoulder. Mum will pick it up, stupid cow.
It’s hard to know how old Roy is supposed to be, but I think he’s supposed to be 15 or 16 (star James Kenney was 23). He doesn’t work, or go to school, he simply combs his hair incessantly and hangs around on bombsites with his crappy gang of mildly retarded urchins and balding thirty year olds trying to act like adolescents.
Roy runs the gang like a crime syndicate, but their modus operandi is extraordinarily pathetic: they mug women on their way home from the pub. Hard men that they are, they use coshes to assault their drunken female victims, although Roy doesn’t like to get his own hands dirty. They use the cover of a youth club to carry out these attacks, and bikes to make their getaway. The Corleone Family, they’re not.
In between planning a ‘big job’ at Bob’s dance hall, Roy has time to pinch his Gran’s savings from under her mattress and to force his attentions on a young Joan Collins. Joanie is less than keen at first, but Roy is very insistent and uncomfortably aggressive and, in an unlikely twist, she seems to rather like it. As soon as he gets his end away, of course, he loses interest and, when she tells him she’s pregnant, he simply walks away, so she throws herself in the river.
On the evening of the heist, Roy packs a gun and, inevitably, ends up using it. Secret stepfather Bob saw the whole thing, so there’s no question of Roy getting away with it. The master criminal runs home, of course, crying to his unimpressed Mum, the swaggering bully reduced to a snivelling baby. Before the Police take him away for a long stretch, they allow Bob a few minutes to teach his new step-son an important lesson that he should have learned years ago. As Bob whips the cowering Roy with a belt, the camera cuts out into the street and the action fades out on the little shits anguished, childish screams of pain.
The chief message of ‘Cosh Boy’ seems to be ‘beat your children into submission’, which, I suppose would still have its advocates today. What the film does tap into is public concern about a generation of teenagers who had their childhoods disrupted by the anarchy of the Second World War and subsequently grew up to be hyperactive and troubled, violent and amoral, obsessed with money and crime and sex. The war had seen a huge increase in criminality on the home front, and a corresponding rise in youth offences, with gangs of teens taking advantage of the blackout to assault and rob, and numerous cases of guns and ammunition being stolen from Home Guard stores.
The headmaster of Ashurst Wood Council School later said: "There were many explanations for the growth of juvenile delinquency such as poverty, bad housing, absence of facilities for recreation, insufficient clubs, greater temptations which beset the modern child, decay in the standards of conduct and of parental control, a weakening of religious influence, a lack of opportunity for amusement, new housing estates and the cinema... The desire for adventure and war stories of deeds at sea, the field, and in the air, led to stealing and destructive behaviour. Gangster films and the 'tough' gangster idea also had their influence... A lack of discipline applied to boys owing to the father's absence in the forces was another factor."
The Welfare State and a new post-war focus on social issues sought to address many of these concerns, but it was a slow process, and, just as Britain’s bomb scarred cities took decades to rebuild, teenage delinquents apparently moulded by the conflict kept coming well into the fifties, and public fear and condemnation of these young tearaways was exploited in films about out of control kids like Roy Walsh.
Interestingly, despite us not having a proper war for nearly seventy years, juvenile delinquency in the UK has not gone away, and neither has the public fear of it. I wonder what they blame it on now?