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Machine Made Dirt: “Beat Girl” and the Birth of the British Teenager

This is the first in a series of features exploring British cinema and culture as reflected by the releases in the BFI Flipside series.

A mass of hopped-up teenagers stampede onto a dancefloor, jerking and gyrating to a driving, twangy guitar rock anthem. This is not the youth of Britain as audiences were used to seeing them, which I guess was…what? Cockney bootblacks and pickpockets? This is 1960’s Beat Girl, directed by Edmond T. Gréville. These are children who grew up after the war, who looked upon post-war austerity not as a badge of “stiff upper lip” pride but as something to be raged against, a betrayal of what it is to be alive and to be young. They were, like counterparts all over the world, part of the first generation of “teenagers,” the new kings and queens of a culture that inherited a vast amount of power in a short amount of time.

The world that emerged from World War II was very different from the one that went into it. There was a seismic shift after WWI, but like the wars one and two themselves, this was something on a whole other scale. The violence had been worse, the reach more global, the suffering more profound. But rather than wrapping up a war with a treaty that sought to punish the losers, WWII ended with a push to rebuild and mend fences. The bulk of this effort fell upon the the United States, which unlike Europe and Japan, did not have to fight the war on its own turf. The US came out of WWI stronger than when it went in, and even more so WWII. First with American soldiers, and then with American rebuilders, and then American tourists, American culture was exported en masse in the form of soldiers, rebuilders, tourists, and celebrities, many of whom found themselves congregating outside the bars and nightclubs on a street called via Veneto.

La Dolce Vita Swings

Rome had, like Paris, been spared the type of decimation that was visited on cities such as London and Berlin. But things were still a mess as Italians struggled to rebuild and establish a new, democratic government from the ruins of Fascism. Some canny Italians realized they could take advantage of the stuff that had been built by the deposed Fascists, which included the massive film studio Cinecetti. They used the promise of facilities, economic incentives, and cheap labor to entice American productions to Italy, giving birth to “Hollywood on the Tiber.”

At the same time, young Italian fashion designers challenged the Paris elite. Italian designers had always been regarded by the French as provincial, but this new generation wasn’t satisfied groveling for Parisian approval. By throwing their own shows and indulging their own whims, Italian fashion catapulted to the forefront. Between that and the celebrities prowling the city between film shoots, Rome was suddenly flush with cool.1 But while rowdy, poorly behaved, and decadent, this was still “cool” by and for adults: elegantly attired, sipping cocktails, dancing to big band combos, and making movies that were sophisticated, complex, and aimed at an older audience.

Something was percolating, though, something that started in the US (which, though rich and powerful, hadn’t had a genuinely cool moment since black doughboys brought jazz to Europe during WWI) and was named Elvis Presley. Presley and the rock ‘n’ rollers who followed the template he helped establish made music that appealed to this emerging thing called the teenager. More importantly, he made music that didn’t appeal to the parents of teenagers — and nothing binds a teen to something quite like realizing how much their parents hate it.


While this was going on, low-budget film company American International Pictures (AIP) noticed there was suddenly a huge population of potential new customers. More teens were earning a wage — small, perhaps, but enough cash for them to buy the occasional 45 record or a ticket to a movie. A good many of these movies were being consumed in a new setting — the drive-in — by teenagers who never had so much freedom and privacy at home as they had sitting in the back seat of their dad’s borrowed car. AIP realized money could be made by supplying these drive-ins and their young patrons with a steady stream of films for and about teenagers — even if the teenagers were played by people in their thirties.2

The smartly-appointed decadence of Rome would persist through the 1950s (who’s going to argue with Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren?), but the rise of teen films, rock ‘n’ roll, and young people with money began to shift cultural cool to the younger set. In the late 1950s, in the grim surroundings of a London still rebuilding from the Blitz, several things happened so quickly that it would give you whiplash, which caused the focus of cool to swing from Rome and via Veneto to London and Carnaby St. A young designer named Mary Quant made a very short skirt; a photographer named David Bailey took a photo of a woman named Jean Shrimpton; and a guy named John Lennon formed a skiffle group with Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

London had started to swing.

“Next Week…Boom! The World Goes Up in Smoke”

There were differences between what happened in Rome in the 1950s and what happened in London in the 1960s. Everyone in London was young. Many of them were broke. Very few of them started out as celebrities. They were kids, people in their twenties and younger, infused with a DIY spirit forged by the leanness of England after the war. They made their own clothes, opened their own clubs, started their own bands, built their own scene. And just about everything was priced cheaply enough so that someone with a part-time job at a department store could afford at least a piece of the fun.3, 4

If what happened in London has a parallel, it’s the Lost Generation, that group of artists who, in the wake of a world war, rebelled against misery and went a little mad. They adored crazy, dangerous music. They broke down gender barriers. They endured horror and decided to throw a party. It was a generation of flappers and swells and a broke Ernest Hemingway, stringing his way through Paris. There was a sense of liberation, a sexual awakening, a breakdown of long-protected social norms. Hemlines were raised.

This egalitarian, DIY attitude of London in the sixties was inherited from the first British youth culture to arise after the war: teddy boys. With London still in ruins, with so many dead, with so much money spent on the war effort, it was considered poor taste to flaunt oneself. Of course, as soon as adults give a speech on what is sensible, a group of kids is going to do exactly the opposite. Accoutrements that wouldn’t normally be associated with teenage rebellion — sweaters and ties, frock coats, velvet collars, waistcoats and pocket watches, walking sticks — became badges of revolt. As fanciful as the dress could be, however, it wasn’t expensive. The stuff was out of style, after all, and teens looking to adopt the teddy look prowled second hand stores in search of frilly, frivolous bargains. In the media, teddy boys were sensationalized for their impractical style, their flagrant disregard for the advice of their elders, and the tendency of some of them to run in violent street gangs.

Teddy girls were a little younger — usually no more than sixteen. Many of them had jobs. Like punks would decades later, stitched together their own variation of the flamboyant style in defiance of the otherwise bleak world awaiting them. Where the boys favored Creepers — shoes with large crepe rubber soles, that rose to prominence during the war — the girls wore flats and Espadrilles. They rolled up their jeans and decorated their Edwardian drape coats with brooches and other accessories. They listened to American music and went to the movies. They were tut-tutted for their androgynous style, for their trousers and short hair and men’s topcoats — all unbecoming of a lady, especially when the country was trying to rebuild and it was important that everyone pitch in to form more families, make more babies, and get everything back to the way it had been.5

Teddy was a short-lived trend, giving way at the end of the 1950s to new youth subcultures. Newspapers fanned the flames of anti-teddy hysteria. The kids found themselves banned from a growing number of concert halls, movie houses, and bars. The flappers of the pre-War period who had been demonized by the proper Edwardians were now themselves demonizing the next generation of youth gone wild, who were ironically wearing the clothes of the Edwardians who had condemned the flappers. Teddys affection for American rockabilly, pompadours, denim, and leather went to Rockers. The interest in R&B, jazz, fancy dress, and tailoring went to the Mods. The clashes between the two opposing yet linked tribes became so legendary that they dwarfed the panic over Teddy gangs.

They weren’t celebrities, like the people staggering down via Veneto. They weren’t anybody. But inch by inch, they were claiming the right to determine what was cool.

Jiving, Driveling Scum

With so much happening, Beat Girl easily gets lost in the social upheaval. No one would claim it was a clarion call to the youth of what was about to become Swinging London — that honor went to more serious films like Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger (both 1959) — but Beat Girl is something else. It was England’s first teen film, its first AIP production. The slang was corny, written by people who didn’t seem to know the difference between jazz and rock or rockers and beatniks. But at the same time, it was still a film about teenagers, and unlike the AIP films, it starred actual teenagers. Gillian Hills was barely 16. Co-star Adam Faith had just turned 20.

Beat Girl was also edgier (or at least more exploitive) than the usual AIP picture, which for all the hot rods and finger snapping delinquents calling people “daddy-o” remained relatively clean. Beat Girl, however, gleefully delved into the sleazier side of things, reveling in seedy Soho strip clubs as often as it did teen dance halls. If AIP was willing to show a girl in a tight sweater and Capri pants, Beat Girl was willing to show her out of those things as well. The British Board of Film Censors did not care for the film which, when originally submitted for their pursed-lip consideration, was titled Striptease Girl. It was crude and perverse. “Machine made dirt,” the censors cried.6 If creatures like these were the future of Britain, then Britain was doomed. The film was eventually released under a new title and with an X rating.

Critics also hated the torrid tale of a “hop-head UK school girl” lashing out at authority figures, drinking and smoking, hanging out in smoky clubs, and listening to jazz. The Daily Express called it “a film which no one could like.” 7 Parents hated it, too. Which meant, wacky slang notwithstanding, it must have been doing something right. British youth may not have seen a totally accurate reflection of themselves in Beat Girl, but at least they didn’t see a reflection of their parents, either. It didn’t matter about the details, or if the movie got the lingo right. What mattered was it acknowledges there was a lingo. Moral guardians demanded teens not see Beat Girl. You can guess how that worked out.

If its more serious contemporaries — the so-called “angry young man” movies — explored existential crisis and ennui and the sense of directionlessness plaguing the post-war generation,  Beat Girl mined the same crisis in a more juvenile, but perhaps more more relatable, fashion. Beat Girl is happier in the company of High School Hellcats (1958) and movies about teen cliques, hot rods, loud music, and parents who just don’t understand. It’s about frustrated teenage rage. It is awash in hormones and confusion and restlessness as a generation struggles desperately to emerge from beneath the thumb of its elders. The titular “beat girl” Jennifer, played with fiery recklessness by Gillian Hills, lashes out against anything and everything in a desperate attempt to find her voice. It’s a feeling all too familiar during the teenage years — you don’t know what you are, but you know what you don’t want to be.

Jennifer’s vitriol is aimed primarily at her conservative father (David Farrar) and his new bride, a French woman named Nichole (Noëlle Adam) who wants a healthy relationship with the daughter but can’t seem to get a toe-hold. She’s kind, tolerant, even understanding, but Jennifer isn’t having any of it. Nichole is still her step-mother, still part of her father’s dull grey world. Nichole doesn’t deserve Jennifer’s wrath, but then, teenage rage is rarely rational. It’s carpet bombing. Anyone who hasn’t forgotten youth can relate to the feeling, the proverbial “I’m mad all the time, and I don’t understand why.” Jennifer wants to be heard, and that only seems to happen when she’s at her meanest and most venomous, so that it becomes her dominant form of expression, proportional in its viciousness to her father’s austere stoicism. She is so used to being ignored and commanded that she can’t even process that someone might be willing to listen to her.

And so, like a Blitz bombing, Jennifer’s fury takes out everyone around her, be they dour parent or understanding stepmother. It may seem as if her rage is unjustified, the same way people don’t understand how famous people can be depressed or feel alienated. But then, that’s puberty, isn’t it? That’s the sort of irrational, incomprehensible, nihilistic reaction teenage can create, and it is at its core just as incomprehensible and terrifying to the teen dishing it out. And while Beat Girl is a hard sell as some sort of feminist victory, it does at least hint at the imbalance between how society regards angry young men and angry young women. The directionless rage of angry young men is to be taken seriously and analysed seriously. But that same rebellion in a girl is often branded as petulant, spoiled, and childish…as if their rage isn’t even more powerful and just as worthy of consideration. It’s probably not a coincidence that Beat Girl was written by Dail Ambler, a woman with a history writing for the pulps.

Live for the Kicks

Hills forged an interesting career out of Beat Girl. Though she appeared sporadically in mostly made-for-television movies throughout the early 1960s, her focus was on becoming a pop singer in France, a career at which she succeeded twice — first when she was doing it, and then again when her song “Zou bisou bisou” was made famous (again) when Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré, as the eternally screwed-over Megan Draper, serenaded her dreadful husband Don with it. Hills didn’t receive or take many lead roles, though she did pop up in interesting places: as a model having a saucy menage-a-trois with David Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up; as a record shop customer who has…well, what do you know…a saucy menage-a-trois with Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. She also appeared as part of an ensemble in the off-kilter, hypnotic folk-horror series The Owl Service and even starred in a late-era psychological horror film from Hammer, 1972’s Demons of the Mind. She then launched a successful career as a book illustrator.

Surrounding the sneering tempest that is Gillian Hills is an able cast of veterans and newcomers alike. Christopher Lee, relatively fresh of sudden fame thanks to the success of Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy, pops up as a sleazy sex club owner anxious to channel Jennifer’s potent combination of rebelliousness and naivete into a strip act. Also on hand is Nigel “the Most British Brit Who Ever Britished” Green. Adam Faith, whose career as a singer would finally break shortly after this movie, plays Jennifer’s guitar-playing compatriot who, coincidentally is at one point jumped by a gang of teddy boys for wearing his hair long and being “too feminine.” Noëlle Adam is a tad wooden (English is not her first language) as the put-upon stepmother Nichole, who finds herself victim of a clumsy blackmail attempt when Jennifer learns a secret about her past, but what she lacks in acting deftness is made up for with earnestness. And of course, shimmying like a madman in the background is rookie actor Oliver Reed, who was, according to Gillian Hills, determined to craft a fully realized character out of the miniscule bits thrown his way (seriously, his character’s name is “Plaid Shirt”).8

Let’s not forget the film’s composer, a nobody named John Barry turning in his first score (working alongside Adam Faith), and whose guitar-driven theme song for Beat Girl presages another guitar-driven theme he would make famous two years later, in a film titled Dr. No.

Often regarded as disposable, Beat Girl deserves greater regard for the small but important role it played in developing the sense of youth-driven cool that would come to fruition in the shops and clubs of Soho. If Swinging London was British youth culture come into its own, Beat Girl is, fittingly, British youth culture’s awkward teenage phase: a high-energy — at times goofy — tangle of rebellion, anger, exploitation, confusion, and cool. You could sit and critique its daft portrayal of teenagers, but that would be like dwelling on the fluff of Elvis lyrics instead of reacting viscerally to the beat. Like Jennifer says, you’ve got to live for the kicks. It’s all you’ve got.

Notes

  1. Levy, Shawn. Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2018.
  2. Betrock, Alan. The I Was a Teenage Juvenile Delinquent Rock’N’Roll Horror Beach Party Movie Book: A Complete Guide to the Teen Exploitation Film, 1954-1969. St Martins Press, 1986.
  3. Weight, Richard. Mod: From Bebop to Britpop, Britain’s Biggest Youth Movement. Vintage Books, 2015.
  4. Levy, Shawn. Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London. Broadway Books, 2003.
  5. Havlin, Laura. “Teddy Girls: The Style Subculture That Time Forgot.” AnOther Magazine, 25 Nov. 2015, www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/8064/teddy-girls-the-style-subculture-that-time-forgot.
  6. Glynn, Stephen. The British Pop Music Film: The Beatles and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 40.
  7. Glynn, p.40.
  8. Johnston, Trevor. “From Beat Girl to Mad Men: the Life of Gillian Hills.” Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, 11 July 2016, www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/gillian-hills-beat-girl.

About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

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