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THE TERRIFYING GANGS OF ENGLAND

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Adam Curtis | 14:00 UK time, Saturday, 20 August 2011

In the immediate aftermath of the riots there is a media fascination with the terrifying "feral" youth and the gangs who were behind the looting and the violence.

But this fear and fascination with gangs is not new.

I want to put up a wonderful and odd film I have found in the BBC archives. It is a documentary made in 1969 in response to a growing panic about violent teenage gangs in England and it focusses on the Hells Angels and Skinheads.

The filmmakers went off to get in with a group of Hells Angels and with a gang of skinheads. Their aim was to find out who the scary psychopaths were that made up the gangs that were threatening society. But what they came back with is a weird and brilliant mini-drama about two groups of individuals who are not that different from us - but more bored.

It is also sometimes very funny - because the gangs have their own rules and structures that are absurd and distorted reflections of our own society.

The Hells Angels part is also as good - possibly even better - than the previous Hells Angels film I put up last year - about a group of Angels going on a weekend mini-break.

 

The media fear and fascination with gangs had begun in the mid-60s with mods and rockers. By 1969 the rockers had morphed into the apparently even more terrifying Hells Angels, while the mods had split - some becoming hippies, but others turned into aggressive skinheads who had started racial violence they called Paki-bashing.

First is a section from the Hells Angels part of the film. It is a brilliant piece of film-making (almost like a Fassbinder movie) that focusses on just two episodes - and holds them longer than any documentary would do today.

It begins with the Angels in a pub outside Birmingham. Then the chapter go off to attend a Hells Angel wedding ceremony where Sylvia is married to one of the other members of the chapter - who is called Hitler. This is Hitler.

 

And here is Sylvia. She is very knowledgeable about the complicated laws of Angel marriages - explaining that divorce can only happen if the man can tear up the Angels' "bible" (a BSA bike manual) in one go.

But they seem to get on well. When the interviewer asks Hitler what he would do if Sylvia misbehaved in their marriage, Hitler replies - "I'll slit her throat, or hang her."

The reporter asks Sylvia "What do you think of that?"

"I agree" says Sylvia

 

Then Hitler goes with Sylvia to meet his new in-laws. Sylvia hasn't told her parents that she's married a leading light in the Hells Angels - and she and Hitler sit down in her parent's front room to tell them.

The dialogue that ensues is just wonderful.

And I love the way the cameraman holds on Sylvia's face as dialogue about her goes on off camera.

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The second bit is from the Skinheads section of the film.

It is about a group of skinheads in London. It starts with the the group posing and spouting horrible racist claims about how they go round beating up "pakis".

But then the film goes off in an odd direction. It focusses on one skinhead called Steve who turns out to be much more complicated and thoughtful than one would expect. Steve goes round to see his mum and dad and we discover that his dad had been a Ted.

Here is a frame grab of them sitting watching TV together - it's a lovely shot

 

Steve's dad listens sympathetically, like an old soldier reliving his past glories, as his son describes how being part of a thousand-strong group of skinheads marching through the Kursaal at Southend "brings tears to your eyes" - because, he says, you feel part of something, and people take notice of you.

"It makes you feel proud" says Steve - "It will last for a little while. Then something new will come along. But till then you've got us. It's just the way it goes".

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Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Adam,
    Since you have in depth knowledge re Kabul as well as the English-riot scene, I thought I might combine both in one piece. It's an idea that I hope you like.
    Ten persons dead as Taliban suicide gang storms Brit base in Kabul!
    I saw a video of Afghan security forces carrying a wounded British man from the site; I also saw a video of a British policeman being shot - at home, on his own streets.
    The connection between = RAGE!
    Enough rage to spark days of rioting in Britain, as well as that intense, murderous, five-hour firefight at the British complex in Afghanistan.
    Terrified staff cowered in safe rooms as marauding gang of terrorists blasted the complex with rockets & sprayed bullets from assault rifles. Terrified civilians cowered in their homes as marauding gangs of looters stole, destroyed, and otherwise made mayhem throughout British streets.
    Former Gurkha soldiers employed as guards, a New Zealand SAS squad & British troops finally overpowered the terrorist gangs...but one has to believe that more attacks will follow, if not at the complex, then elsewhere; there will be no peace for western forces in Afghanistan; there is no peace for Afghan civilians. One suspects there will be no peace for the British elite in Britain either, and those poor slobs who have been dumped into a foul underclass who will keep rising up to be recognized, acknowledged, dealt with.
    The attack in Afghanistan marks Independence Day from Britain in 1919, Independence Day!
    In the past year the Taliban – frustrated by NATO push into Helmand, where 8,500 Brits are fighting – have turned their attention to Kabul's soft targets. So,it would seem to me that a sort of injustice is fueling both scenarios, and we must stand back; we must seek & sort for the valid emotions in both situations, and ask ourselves if we have the courge to deal with both situations justly.

  • Comment number 3.

    The UK riots, in my opinion, were caused by a combination of corruption in the police and indifference to crime. I think 'riot' does not really describe what actually went on across the country, but mob behaviour probably does. This mobbish behaviour does not just influence the underclass, who are bombarded with ghetto cultural by the likes of MTV or the Jeremy Kyle show as well as their peers, but also the media and politicians in their overreaction and hysteria, who belong in a mainstream culture of paranoia and blame.

    As for the young kids (Hell's Angels) above, they are comical and tragic in a similar way to the kids who turn up on the Jeremy Kyle Show. In fact, the Jeremy Kyle show reflects the macrocosm of our insane society. It's all about power, the impotent and inadequate in society are forced into gang mentality and consequently crime, because it makes them feel powerful, and gives them a sense of social status. Once they feel comfort among the gang, they then begin to create a distorted and paranoid picture of their enemy. The same process happens among maintream media and politicians.

    They're not individuals of course, they're part of the mob as much as the mob they rebel against.

    I thought the documentary commentary was very accurate in explaining the psychology of gangs. I have sympathy for both the victims of these gangs and the tragic and pathetic figures that make them up, figures that are too inadequate to struggle in life as an idividuals.

    You'll probably find that today's politicians and journalists were themselves happy to join a mob mentality at their communites or universities during their younger formation years.

  • Comment number 4.

    Brilliant so glad to see this material. Plus it gives me a chance to make a request, if at all possible Mr Curtis can you perhaps post the entire Panorama episode on Mods & Rockers, so relevant as is what you've unearthed above. Thanks for creating such an informative blog.

  • Comment number 5.

    Did the boy get his journalism job?!!?! I hope so. A touching interview I thought

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    The liberal media is desperately trying to defuse and re-write the recent riots with the predictable 'Folk Devil's and Moral panic' angle. I'm sorry, but this jibberish isn't going to wash anymore, Adam. What we witnessed a few weeks ago (some of us more closely than others, i'd imagine) was mass-chaos on a national level; five people murdered, many mugged and injured, and hundreds of working-class people's homes and livelihoods burnt to the ground. A bit more than some Skins larking about down the youth club.

  • Comment number 8.

    I was about to respond to TommyK111111111 that imitation is the best form of flattery and not five minutes later: Broke the house rules? Come one--it's bloody funny as ... er, heck. (got to keep this respectable of course) I'm a big fan of your films but got a great kick from that "collageumentary" send-up. Yes, it was a bit dodgy but it's obvious that they really tried their best. Which means they really care, i suppose.

    Adam: If you're receiving this, i'd like to send a tip regarding Miles Copeland (see the recent (terrific!) Syria post, those of you arching your brow about now) so shoot me an email if BBC will allow you to see my coordinates. I expect it's something you'd really enjoy digging into.

    I enjoyed the videos. And, yes--that's a great shot of Poppa Teddy and young Steve.

  • Comment number 9.

    Oh moderator!

    Thats not fair, I did acknowledge it probably wasnt the 'correct' place - but where is? Could you or Adam set up another feed which would be more suited? Thanks subtropolis I agree but thought the 'argument' within the collageumentary was paper thin at best.... ?

    On a side note Adam if your reading this (or moderator if youd be so kind could you put me intouch?) Id love to intern/assist you how can I apply?

    Thanks and sorry for inappropriatness'

  • Comment number 10.

    Before anyone gets carried away about the domestic bliss of skins and hells angels they might want to review the film "California Reich" and the writings of The Southern Poverty Law Center. All kinds of useful and non-domestic tidbits in there like what the meaning of red laces on a skin's combat boots means. A real eduction.
    I may be mixing my sources but romanticizing skins is not something that should be done without a bit of real life experience.

    However there is a very good amateur documentary on the London Riots called "Perfect Storm" released recently.

    go to wideshut.co.uk

    or resistanceradio

    .... writing from USA

  • Comment number 11.

    A couple of fantastic little film clips. As with the earlier Hells Angels clip, the English chapter of the Angels are just pathetic. The primary difference from the 'real' American chapters is age - in England they are really just kids. In the earlier Angels clip that you posted, most of them were a little older but still without any of the sheer criminality and genuine murderous malice of the gang in most other parts of the world.

    I'm fairly sure, though, that modern-day Hells Angels in the UK are a lot worse than this lot.

    As for the skinheads, that clip was both funny and rather sad, because the skinhead 'movement' turned into something very sinister and ugly just a few short years after these boys were filmed. It's likely that they were actually a good deal more violent than their hopeless parents thought, but still not anywhere as bad as they got in the late 1970s and 1980s. The idea that they would get bored of it by the age of 18, that skinheads were just kids; that didn't really work out, did it? They stayed skinheads and got a hell of a lot more angry about things.

    One of the funniest moments is hearing the 15-year-old skinheads identifying exactly the same thing about the English Hells Angels as we do now - they're not like the 'real' Angels in the US, are they?

    No, and neither were the skinheads. THe Aryan brotherhood's genesis as a californian prison gang in the 1970s made them far more murderous and criminal at the time these kiddies were getting their #2 haircuts. Never mind; the english skinheads caught up soon enough, perhaps not in terms of organisation and revenue generated from drug supply, but certainly in terms of violence committed against ethnic minorities.

    I can't help but wonder if the expectations that the gang members would 'grow up' once they hit 20 and got married and a real job weren't ruined by the economic events of the late 1970s and 1980s. A large number of them found jobs in short supply by the time they got to 20 and put the resulting frustration and anger to work beating the 'pakis' good and proper. They took up football hooliganism as well around the same time.

    It was always Maggie's fault.

  • Comment number 12.

    Also, in reply to loninappleton - that 'California Reich' film is certainly chilling to watch, but it's rather dated now. The History channel did a 24-part series a few years ago with each 1-hour episode giving a fairly detailed look at a specific gang in the US. There's a quite incredible episode about the Aryan Brotherhood, and a few episodes about other white-supremacist groups, while the rest of the episodes cover African-American, Mexican, and Colombian gangs, the Hells Angels and a few others.

    The whole series is a shocking indictment of the war on drugs and the US prison system, because all the gangs are in constant war over drug territory, using huge profits to buy astonishing firepower and use it indiscriminately, while the prison system is an almost perfect incubator for these groups, whose members then spread out in the community once they are released.

    Most people simply have no idea how utterly the US urban ghettoes are dominated by these groups. It's a horror story.

  • Comment number 13.

    Thanks to New Statesman magazine I learned about Owen Jones' "CHAVs: the demonization of the working class." What was (Eng phrase) gob smacking about CHAVs is how closely it parallels all the social ills in the US. Chapter after chapter I could see myself in this book about British life, how media such as Little Britain, "Vickie Pollard", the rigged system defeating legitimate aspiration to succeed by wealth and power, and especially how "the ownership society" was sold to the poor.

    I hope CHAVs is doing well on the reader' lists of best books.

    .... writing from US

  • Comment number 14.

    Yet to watch the videos yet but looking forward to it.

    This may interest some: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b013ptf0/Head_to_Head_Series_3_Is_free_will_an_illusion/ A lot of discussion on BF Skinner and 'free will'.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    Thanks for posting the video Adam, like has been mentioned above, I'm not sure how representative of their various gang groups the individuals in the video are (much like the sad and largely pathetic members of the previous Hell's Angels), though they do sum up quite well the lost people attaching themselves to a rebellious group idea.

    A really interesting recent read on gangs in the Britain is John Heale's "One Blood: Inside Britain's New Gang Culture", it's insightful, very well written and discusses how society as a whole misunderstands and misinterprets our gangs http://bit.ly/oR3E48

  • Comment number 18.

    Brilliant to watch, this is why I pay my fee, thank you.

  • Comment number 19.

    http://warp.net/records/drc-music/kinshasa-one-two-oxfam

    You might be intersted in this Adam.

  • Comment number 20.

    Dear Mr. Curtis ( and BBC2), We are very interested to screen of some of your recent work at a very unique, collectively-run documentary festival in Germany (and invite you for a panel on the subject of Media Analysis, if you're available in Nov. ) How can we contact you ? Our contact info is here: https://www.globale-filmfestival.org/ ... And thx for your work !

  • Comment number 21.

    I know it's over 40 years ago, but I really need to find out what happened to Steve the Skinhead. Thanks for posting this Adam - is it not feasible to revisit the people involved (mists of time I guess)?

  • Comment number 22.

    Steve the skinhead and his parents were fascinating. Though I suspect we'd have got a different take on life from him if he'd been filmed amongst his mates at the Kurzel, what he said was I thought honest and compelling. Oh and I love how his Dad says the phrase "they're... sentimental boys..!" He always sings that line!

  • Comment number 23.

    Oops, I meant almost, not always, apologies!

  • Comment number 24.

    I've come into this conversation late but I wonder if anyone who's still reading this article has come across the Kenneth Anger short film "Scorpio Rising"? I've seen the first and third parts of the film on Youtube but not the second. It's about a gang of gay bikers and the film is structured so as to resemble a religious ritual that culminates in a sacrifice. The gay bikers adopt Nazi symbolism into their uniforms and their leader desecrates the Christian Holy Communion ritual. What I've seen of it is fascinating and drives home the point that gangs have their own rituals and symbols and provide companionship and a direction, however misguided, for their followers.

    The rioting in the UK that occurred over summer had some characteristics of flash mobs which were abetted by people using social networks. I'm aware initially the riots were sparked by police violence against the Duggan family and their community for daring to demand reasons for Mark Duggan's death in police custody. In a sense the police were as much responsible for the outbreak of the riots: if they had been open about the cause of Duggan's death, if they had not reacted brutally when the initial protest by the Duggans was dispersing, the rioting might not have occurred the way it did. Not living in the UK, I have no idea whether the media there was also responsible for fanning the violence but it wouldn't surprise me if it did. In Sydney in 2005, we had a similar but smaller-scale phenomenon of mob riots, caused in part by conflicts between Anglo youth and youth of Middle Eastern origins, in Cronulla which is a beachside suburb. During those riots, talkback radio commentators often egged on the rioters and the general performance of the media in reporting what was happening was abysmal.

    I think society has moved in a more repressive direction that demonises young people and expects them to behave in narrow ways that increasingly are out of reach for them as firms offshore more jobs and governments close down more youth-oriented services. Police are assuming a more paramilitary function and society is becoming insular and fearful of what it refuses to understand.

 

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