Melvyn Bragg reveals footage telling the history of modern Britain. He looks at when Britain broke free of the burdens of WWII and the teenager was born.
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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented
and changed forever the way we recall our history.
For the first time, we could see life through the eyes of ordinary people.
Across this series, we'll bring these rare archive films back to life,
with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.
We'll be inviting people with a story to tell to step on board
and relive moments they thought were gone forever.
They'll see their relatives on screen for the first time,
come face to face with their younger selves and celebrate our amazing 20th-century past.
This is the people's story.
Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967 to show training films to workers.
Today it's been lovingly restored and loaded up with remarkable film footage,
preserved for us by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives.
In this series, we'll be travelling to towns and cities across the country
and showing films from the 20th century
that give us the Reel History Of Britain.
Today, we're pulling up in the 1950s.
Remembering a time when young people in Britain broke free
of the burdens of World War II and the teenager was born.
# Well, they said you was high class
# Well, that was just a lie... #
Hello. We're in the middle of Soho in the middle of London.
And in the middle of the '50s, something extraordinary happened in this country.
We're going to be hearing how it changed Britain's youth forever.
Coming up, the rockers who ripped up the dance floor.
Through my legs and over the top. Like a jitterbug.
A glimpse of a much-loved friend and sister.
'I never thought I would see Joyce dancing like that again.'
To see her, it's like as if she's still alive.
And '50s heart throb Marty Wilde,
on how the new music scene brightened up post-war Britain.
Suddenly, rock'n'roll came along. It was pink socks and colours!
"Oh, at last! The war's over!"
We've come to Soho in the middle of London,
a place at the vanguard of change for the nation's youth in the 1950s.
This is where the first coffee bars sprung up, and it became a magnet for teenage music fans.
The 2i's Coffee Bar here was where the first British rock'n'roll stars -
performers like Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and Adam Faith - were discovered.
I remember it quite well.
This was the generation they said had never had it so good,
as post-war Britain prospered and jobs were plentiful.
# Roll over, Beethoven
# I gotta hear it again today... #
By the late '50s, Britain was under attack.
Not from enemy forces but from a US rock'n'roll invasion.
It horrified the older generation.
It is Pagan in origin.
And, as one looks at the faces, one cannot help but feel that
it's having a bad spiritual and mental effect upon them.
A new word was needed to describe the young delinquents
and the "teenager" was born.
My guests here in London's Soho have come from North and South
with stories to tell about their teenage years.
Some will be seeing the films we're about to screen for the very first time,
showing us photos of their younger selves
and revealing what life was really like for the generation that broke the mould in the 1950s.
Here to tell us at first hand how rock'n'roll music arrived in London
is Wee Willie Harris.
In his day, Wee Willie was a trendsetter with oversized jackets and crazy hair.
I'll tell you something, Melvyn.
Believe it or not, I'm here with this red jacket with my name on the back.
As you can see, look.
And I was the very first rock'n'roll singer with a coloured jacket.
It was me, really, that started off the fashion.
They all started buying different coloured jackets.
We're going to take Wee Willie Harris back to those heady days
with the help of films that capture the spirit of those early times.
What rock'n'roll memories will they conjure up for him?
There was nothing for the young 'uns.
I mean, let's face it, when you're young you don't want to hear ballad singers all the time.
And then it suddenly changed.
It suddenly became rock'n'roll music.
# One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock
# Five, six, seven o'clock... #
The music Wee Willie Harris was talking about was Rock Around the Clock. And the singer? Bill Haley.
# Put your glad rags on... #
It was the soundtrack for the movie Blackboard Jungle,
about anti-social youths at an American inner city school in 1955.
At the time, he was the first king of rock'n'roll.
The film hit Britain and caused riots inside the cinemas.
In the film, when they started playing Rock Around The Clock,
some of the kids got up and started jiving.
# Gonna rock, gonna rock, around the clock tonight... #
And all of a sudden, there was one or two seats torn up.
And, before you know it, it was bedlam.
Rock Around The Clock zoomed to number one as teenagers snapped up the new seven-inch, 45 rpm singles.
When Bill Haley came to Britain for his first tour, he was mobbed at Waterloo station.
# We're gonna rock around the clock tonight
# We're gonna rock, rock, rock, till broad daylight... #
Bill Haley was the first king, but he was soon outshone by a breathtaking rival.
And Wee Willie Harris remembers the moment it happened.
'I was in a coffee bar, having a coffee.
'And it was on a Saturday.'
Where the market was, there was a record store.
And I could hear, "Since my baby left me..."
# Since my baby left me,
# I found a new place to dwell... #
When I went over and spoke to the guy,
he said, "It's some new singer called Elvis Presley."
# Well, it's down at the end of Lonely Street
# At Heartbreak Hotel... #
Of course, as Elvis got popular,
and his face started to show and how he looked, hunky and sexy,
Then I'm afraid he sort of knocked poor Bill off the peg a little bit.
# And they're so lonely, baby
# They're so lonely
# They get so lonely, they pray to die... #
Then of course it all happened. You had Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino.
You name them, they all came along.
The new music became a symbol of working-class rebellion.
Skiffle groups sprung up everywhere, using cheap, improvised instruments
like the washboard and the tea-chest bass.
It seemed everyone wanted to be a rock'n'roll star -
including Wee Willie Harris, who was playing skiffle
and working in a Soho coffee bar when an agent had a brainwave for getting him noticed.
He said, "I've got an idea for you.
What about dying your hair pink?"
I said, "What!?" He said, "Dye your hair pink." I said, "You're joking?"
So, anyway, I did.
And...it took off.
# Six-Five Special, right on time... #
It's time to jive on the old Six-Five!
Wee Willie performed on the Six-Five Special on the BBC,
one of Britain's first ever youth music programmes
and soon became known as Britain's wild man of rock'n'roll.
# Oh, wild one
# I'm a-gonna take you down
# Take you down... #
Well, I've been around a long time and, you know, I've loved it.
I loved the '50s. It was great times.
For Willie, with the music came the dancing.
The rock'n'roll dancing spread very rapidly.
A lot of British kids were inventing steps and movements?
Yeah, I used to go back like that.
I wouldn't chance it now. I used to jump my legs out like that, and go right the way back and jump up again.
And through me legs and over the top, like a jitterbug. But I'm...
getting on a bit now to start doing all that!
The young Wee Willie Harris typified the exuberance of his generation in those heady days.
But soon a new, home-grown hero came along - Marty Wilde.
# Each night I ask the stars up above
# Why must I be a teenager in love? #
In 1958 and '59, Marty had five top ten hits.
His good looks did him no harm at all.
He sold millions of records.
# ..The stars up above
# Why must I be a teenager in love? #
Half a century later, I'm meeting Marty to find out why
the new music of the '50s captured the spirit of the time so well.
The war years for me were, like, grey.
They were grey, and black, and brown. All you ever saw was khaki.
Suddenly rock'n'roll came along it was pink socks, you know?
And colours and blues. "Oh, at last. "Colour! The war's over!"
Was rock'n'roll the catalyst - the thing that took you forward, that distinguished you?
The music played a huge part.
Talking about it now, I still get that buzz.
I think that we only were doing in the '50s what black America had been doing through the '30s and '40s.
You know, having good fun and listening to great music.
Looking back on it now, do you see it as a time of real fun, hope and change?
It was exciting, it was vibrant.
It was everything we all ever wanted.
It was a fantastic time.
And it was THE time to have been alive.
I tell everybody, it was THE time.
He could be right.
We're still in Soho, in London,
one of the most thrilling places on earth for a '50s teenager.
Soho. The all-night cafes and the nude shows.
Garish, gay, avaricious and a little sleazy at the edges.
While we're in Soho, we have to visit the site of the 2i's Coffee Bar.
Well, this is a historic site for British rock'n'roll.
I came here in late '50s with my girlfriend and listened to skiffle.
After we'd been there, we decided to test our luck in Soho,
then thought to be a place of extraordinary danger.
Gangsterdom, knife fights, prostitution.
So we walked up Dean Street, along there, fearful but excited.
And there wasn't anybody there. It was completely empty.
We've parked our cinema in Soho Square in London.
But in the '50s rock'n'roll was spreading like wildfire across the country.
Two northern girls who thought they were just as lucky as me were Jennie Prescott and Molly Lowton.
This is Molly in 1956, when she was 16.
And this is Jennie, aged 17, dressed to impress.
They both grew up in Standish, near Wigan.
And they've come along today to see a film that has a particular poignancy for them.
We're showing them amateur footage from 1958 of the village social club they danced in.
How will they feel about seeing the early days of their youth once again?
'It brought a lot of very happy memories back.
'We lived all week for Saturday night, jiving.'
During the week, we just used to play the records.
We used to push all the furniture back,
and leave the centre of the room,
and we used to practice all our jiving steps.
# It's almost dawn and the cops gone
# Let's all get Dixie fried... #
We had these full circle skirts.
When we used to wash them, we used to make a solution of sugar and hot water.
And as the sugar set, it used to make them stick right out.
The more it stuck out, when you were bopping round,
you saw your suspenders.
The film is about to reveal something special for the girls,
when Jennie spots herself dancing with her best friend, Joyce, Molly's sister,
more than 50 years ago.
That's our Joyce. She's there.
Joyce, that I'm dancing with on that film, was Molly's younger sister,
but unfortunately Joyce died when we was 18.
She died soon after that film was made.
Joyce's life was unexpectedly cut short by a brain haemorrhage.
This is the first time Jennie's seen this footage of her teenage best friend.
As you're watching it, you don't feel like she's gone, if you can understand what I mean.
I just transported myself back to that night,
and it just felt like we was jiving, as we was then.
For Molly, watching her younger sister brought back to life on celluloid
is a very emotional moment.
I never thought I would see Joyce dancing like that again.
To see her, it's like as if she's still alive. That's what I felt like, you know.
It's upsetting, but nice. Yeah, lovely.
She was two years younger than me. I was her big sister.
I'm all right, love.
I'm all right.
Although it's tinged with great sadness, the flickering images,
shot by student filmmaker John Turner,
capture the spirit of the social club in Standish, and remind the girls of the boys they used to know.
The boys that didn't have curly hair,
-we used to give them an home perm on top.
-Make it curly!
-Make it curly.
When we went out the night after, and they used to say to them, "How've you got curly hair?"
And they'd say, "I bought this shampoo and all of a sudden, it just went like this."
They never admitted that they'd had an home perm!
Flirting was one thing, but they were looking for a respectable boy with honourable intentions.
I never really got a teddy boy, did you?
I went... Yeah, I had a date with one once, but I never went again.
That's what I'm saying, that's why I didn't go with a teddy boy.
-I couldn't have took a teddy boy home.
My mum said to me, you don't ever bring a lad in this house
unless you intend to marry him, and that's exactly what I did.
It's our golden wedding next year.
Today on Reel History, we're in Soho to meet teenagers from the 1950s.
My next guest, musician Raye Du-Val, was probably not someone
Jennie and Molly would have taken home to meet their parents.
He was a teddy boy, born and bred in Soho.
It was a very lively place.
Oh, it was a great scene. I used to come out of my flat, go to the Top Ten club just across the road.
The good, bad and the ugly worked side by side,
because why it meant so much to me was that I worked most of the strip clubs in Soho
and I worked for most of the gangsters as a musician.
You opened them but you kept this quiet.
Ray's about to be transported back to his youth.
Teddy boys were the bad boys of the '50s.
Why did their image appeal to Raye?
# Bop bopa-a-lu a whop bam boo
# Tutti frutti, oh Rudy. #
I was a teddy boy because I liked the fashion.
# Tutti frutti, oh Rudy. #
You preened yourself.
And everything was immaculate. Nothing was out of place.
Don't touch the hair and don't touch the blue suede shoes, because you're in bother if you do.
Teddy boys were named after the suits they wore, which were cut on Edwardian or Teddy lines,
and they became public enemy number one.
Teddy boys, I don't like them at all.
I don't like their style of dress.
It's just to prove what they are, and they're very ignorant.
I think if their parents watched over them a bit better when they were smaller,
they might grow up to be good citizens.
Raye recalls how the teddy boys were dressed ready for trouble.
Under your lapel, you kept a nail file, in your top pocket you kept a steel comb,
but the biggest weapon you ever had was the real crepe sole shoes.
# Tutti frutti
# Oh, Rudy. #
But it was mostly bravado.
And the films remind Raye of a carefree youth.
I think the '50s was the greatest era of my life.
Your kicks was going into a coffee bar, listening to a juke box.
It was just the beat that got you going, it was # dum per tow, per tum. #
# Ah, tutti frutti... #
If you didn't dance, maybe there was something wrong with you.
# ..Tutti frutti. #
I don't feel 78 now. I feel 28.
I was there, I really went back in time.
# Bop bopa-a-lu a whop bam boo. #
Working class kids embraced the teenage movement with real passion, as we're about to find out.
One of the films we're showing in here is called We Are The Lambeth Boys.
It's about a youth club in south London in the 1950s.
It's quite wonderful, it's another world.
And rather remarkably, today on Reel History we're reuniting three of the men who were in that film.
They were once the youngsters that polite society feared.
Today, life has treated them very differently.
You've only changed a little bit since The Lambeth Boys.
-Not a lot!
Now the three men are going to watch their younger selves on screen.
What memories will the film bring back to them all?
'So the evening gets under way for one small group
'of the rowdy generation that's for ever in the headlines.'
At the time, teenagers were getting a bad press,
but Karel Reisz, a director who was part of the radical new free cinema movement,
made a film that gave them a voice.
-Oh, shut up!
69-year-old Adrian Harding was a young rebel then.
'And Ady, he'll go anywhere for an audience.'
Today, he's a highly successful businessman and author,
and was for a time a director of Leyton Orient Football Club.
Does he think fondly of the outspoken young man he once was?
I got my money back. Went down Tony's, had a nosh-up, ended up at this dump.
It's nostalgic, the man you see, the old age pensioner you see now,
was not the boy you see there.
54 years changes people.
It's a different person you're looking at.
You look at it and you think, "Oh, I'd like to have been richer then."
You tried to save a bit of money for Friday or Saturday
when there was dances, and then you could actually have Coca-Cola.
Thanks to the post-war economic boom,
young men's earnings were rising twice as fast as their parents.
The film showed how teenagers like Adrian had comparatively huge spending power,
compared to pre-'50s youth.
-I spend nearly 30 bob a week on clothes.
-Yeah, out my wages.
-You mean you save up 30 bob a week?
-What do you consider a good price for a suit?
-About 15 guineas.
-For that, you expect something...
-I want a good suit.
How long would you expect that to last?
Well, about eight months to a year.
-Well, after eight months to a year, it don't look smart any more so you got to buy a new one.
# Well, put on the agony
# Put on the style... #
Teenagers then, they were vilified because they were dressing differently.
The older generation couldn't handle it. They thought, "Oh, my God! What do they look like?"
All they were doing was smartening themselves up.
-What about this 30 bob a week for the suit?
-I've still got that suit!
-So it lasted longer than eight months!
-Does it still fit?
Life's not been quite as kind to Tony Benson, or Woody, now 70.
Raised by his mother with three siblings in a council flat,
he started out as a butcher's apprentice earning £1.25 a week,
and he's worked in manual jobs all his life.
Ah, Dooley, what've you done? What're you talking about?
What memories will seeing himself on screen bring back?
Give us a chip.
SHOUTS AND LAUGHTER
Great, great to see my old mates again.
They was happy days.
Kids this day and age have it handed on a plate. We didn't.
We had to work for what we got.
'Being a butcher, like everything else, needs learning.
'Woody is getting good at it.'
For Woody, work meant a way to pay for the weekend, going out with his pals.
'Saturday night's the best night of the week.'
There's a load of girls down there.
I used to say to my mum, "I'll see you Monday, Mum, all right? Bye!"
We'd go out, we used to go up the pub, then we used to go over to the West End. Round Soho.
I'd like to go back to them days. But they won't come back, no way.
Now 68, Brian Mott was the youngest lad featured in the film.
Today, he has successful businesses in Britain and in Paris.
Looking back to his working class south London roots,
how will be feel about the boy he once was?
It was just a snapshot of how things were and what you did.
Do you sell Pepsis?
The film maker took Brian and his mates on a day trip across London,
where they enjoyed living up to their rowdy reputation.
'When the boys pass through the West End,
'the West End remembers for a while that they have passed through,
'and that's how the boys wanted it.'
We were very much boys from south London, from Lambeth Walk,
and here we were, 20 boys, maybe a few more, put onto the back of a lorry.
For a lot of them, it was the first time they'd been to the West End.
# We are the Lambeth Boys
# We are the Lambeth Boys. #
But Brian decided to make it out of Lambeth and go into middle class society.
# We are the Lambeth Boys, oi, oi! #
I was determined to...better myself.
I remember one of the first thing I bought when I started work was Michael Aspel's elocution tapes,
and I sat a long time, listening to him and how he'd pronounce words and what he did.
Once a month I would go to Piccadilly Hotel and I'd sit in the bar and I'd watch people,
as to how they handled themselves,
what they did, what their mannerisms were.
Brian's life today is a world away from the one captured for posterity on that remarkable film.
I don't think many people get the opportunity of seeing themselves as they were 50 years ago,
and that's what happened today.
Many of the teenage rebels of the '50s grew up to be model citizens.
But rejecting your parents' values has been an essential part of growing up ever since.
Talking to people today has been all my yesterdays, really.
Same songs, same fun, same rock 'n' roll, inventing those dances we thought we could never do,
and it's just been great.
I'm delighted we've captured these teenage memories for our future.
Next time on Reel History,
we're at Preston Barracks,
remembering the communities who lost their young men during the Great War.
The counter literally was stripped of young men.
I just think, what a waste.
What a waste of a whole generation.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country, to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain.
In Soho, Melvyn looks back to the 1950s and a time when Britain broke free of the burdens of the Second World War and the teenager was born. One of the original trendsetters, Wee Willy Harris, talks about the rockers who ripped up the dance floor. Molly Lowton and Jennie Prescott glimpse a much-loved friend and sister in films of their village dance. And 50s heartthrob Marty Wilde explains how the new music scene brightened up postwar Britain.