Cosh Boy Review
London, the early 1950s. Roy Walsh (James Kenney) lives with his mother Elsie (Betty Ann Davies) and grandmother (Nancy Roberts). But they don’t know that he runs a gang with his not-so-bright sidekick Alfie Collins (Ian Whittaker), mugging and stealing. Then at a dance one night, Roy meets Alfie’s sister Rene (Joan Collins)...
Cosh Boy begins with a long caption, which rather spells out the theme of what we will see over the next hour and a quarter. The film isn’t subtle about it. Early on we see Roy’s father: a framed picture of him in uniform, framed and hung up on the wall. Just seven years after the end of World War II, a contemporary audience would have picked up the shorthand even if the dialogue didn’t reinforce it: Roy’s father was one of the many. Elsie lost a husband, Gran lost four close to her. But it’s the lack of a paternal authority figure in his life which has contributed to Roy’s delinquency. Fortunately there’s one now, as Elsie is seeing Canadian Bob Stevens (Robert Ayres, actually an American), but is it too late?
The film was based on a play, Master Crook by Bruce Walker. It says something of the relative standing of the stage and the screen at the time – even though the theatre was then subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s office – that the film’s content was toned down from the play’s. Even so, and despite the film censor’s age restriction (more of that in a moment), Cosh Boy was controversial and there were calls to ban it. These were fuelled by anxieties of post-War youth running wild. It didn’t help the film’s cause that shortly before its release, the killing of a policeman by tennaged Christopher Craig, which resulted in the hanging of his accomplice Derek Bentley, had hit the headlines. (The Bentley case was dramatised on television in 1972 in To Encourage the Others and in the cinema in 1991 in Let Him Have It.) This was a concern that would continue into the decade with films such as The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause and The Blackboard Jungle causing considerable difficulties for the British Board of Film Censors (as was) who cut the latter two for adult audiences and banned the first outright.
You can also see in this film British cinema using the BBFC’s new adults-only certificate to deal very tentatively with the subject of sex, though it would take until the end of the decade to be more frank. That said, it’s not hard to pick up that Queenie (Hermione Gingold) is a prostitute and that Roy and Rene did the deed, although onscreen they don’t go further than a kiss. Nearly seven decades later, Cosh Boy seems quite mild, and more than a little patriarchal, with order restored at the end – though if it hadn’t been, you doubt it would have been made at all – but that’s not to deny that it hit a nerve in its day.
The central performances are all strong, though you can’t deny that the actors playing teenagers are all a little too old for their roles. James Kenney was twenty-two when he made the film, Ian Whittaker twenty-four and Joan Collins nineteen (playing sixteen – incidentally her character’s surname is also Collins). Kenney had acted since the age of twelve, but if anything Collins – who was loaned to the production from the Rank Organisation – was the obvious rising star, and she got most prominence in the film’s advertising as well as second billing above the title on the film itself. Kenney died by his own hand in 1987, aged fifty-six. Betty Ann Davies died in 1955, aged just forty-four, following an operation.
Behind the camera was Lewis Gilbert, who directed the film as well as co-writing with Vernon Harris. Born in 1920, he had begun his directing carerr during the War on documentary shorts (see the extras for a post-War one) before making his first feature in 1947. He had a long career, including such films as Alfie, Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita and three James Bonds, making his last film in 2002. He died in 2018, aged ninety-seven. He does a good job with Cosh Boy, pulling off a well-done sequence where Roy and Alfie run from the law and find themselves in Battersea Dog’s Home. The film is mainly studio-bound, with some exteriors produced by back projection which looks more obvious in HD, but there is some good location work, including a dash through London’s West End during the opening credits.
One reason Cosh Boy attracted attention was that it was one of the first British productions to receive a X certificate, restricting audiences to over-sixteens. When the BBFC was founded in 1912, it had just two certificates, U and A, both advisory. The H was introduced in 1937, indicating “horrific” content. Again it was advisory, but some local authorities took it upon themselves to ban under-sixteens from seeing such films. The number of Hs in the certificate’s fourteen years of life is only in the twenties – and was restricted still further in the War years. Not every H was a horror film; the BBFC clearly sometimes used it as an all-purpose adult certificate before it formally had one. That said, concerns about the content of films increased after the War, and the controversy over the level of violence in the A-certificate No Orchids for Miss Blandish in 1948 didn’t help. So, at the beginning of 1951, the BBFC introduced the X at the beginning of 1951, restricting audiences to the over-sixteens. The attention was to allow serious adult films to be shown without interference, but the counter-argument went that it would open the doors to unsavoury and exploitative works, and that’s an argument Cosh Boy was caught up in. Passed uncut on 12 November 1952, it was Britain’s second X, following Women of Twilight, passed with cuts on 10 September the same year.
Now that all the fuss has died away, and its content has long been surpassed, it’s easier to see Cosh Boy as what it is: a well-made B-movie that is a fascinating time capsule of its time and that time’s attitudes. That’s the sort of British film the BFI’s Flipside label was set up to showcase, and this is their fortieth release.
Cosh Boy is released by the BFI as a daul-format release. A copy of the Blu-ray edition (Region B) was supplied for review. Cosh Boy is now a 12. Among the extras, Johnny on the Run and Harmony Lane both carry U certificates. The Ten Year Plan and Stranger in the City, both documentaries, were originally a U and a X with cuts respectively on their original releases.
Made a year before the widescreen era, Cosh Boy was shot in black and white 35mm in Academy Ratio. The Blu-ray transfer, from a 2K remaster from the original negatives, is in the correct ratio of 1.37:1. The transfer is fine, with good contrast and filmlike grain, even if it does show some of the shortcomings of what must have been a fairly low-budget production, such as the back-projection referred to above, given that a 35mm cinema print would have been further generations away from the original than a HD scan from those negatives.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0, and it’s clear and well-balanced, if a little quietly mixed. Subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing (feature only) and I spotted no errors in them.
In the USA, Cosh Boy was released as The Slasher, though Roy doesn’t actually use a razor and only threatens people with it a couple of times. Included on this disc is the opening and credits sequence of the US version (2:53), minus the initial caption but with the pre-credits material, and at least one shot that isn’t in the British version.
Next up are three films, two shorts and a short feature, from Lewis Gilbert. First up is The Ten Year Plan (17:04). This is a public information film about port-War prefabricated housing, as investigated by young screenwriter Charles Martin (Charles Hawtrey). Hawtrey, thirty at the time and more than a decade into his screen acting career, is a long way from his Carry On persona, and even has a girlfriend in this film.
On to 1953, and Johnny on the Run (68:14), made by Gilbert for the Children’s Film Foundation. We begin in Edinburgh, and young Johnny, or Janek (Eugeniusz Chylek), is fostered by Mrs MacGregor (Mona Washbourne) who has little time for him. So Johnny runs away, hoping to return to Poland. He falls in with a pair of crooks, Harry (Sidney Tafler) and Fingers (Michael Balfour) and finds himself in an International Children’s Village in the Highlands, with an unusually racially diverse cast for the time. It’s a pacy, economically made film, which no doubt went down well with its intended audience and the adults who saw it.
Harmony Lane (27:12) was made in 1954. The Festival of Britain in 1951 had resulted in the first 3D short films made in Britain. Gilbert (credited here as Byron Gill) saw the potential of the new technology and devised this short film, a musical revue in which the street of the title had a different act behind each shop front. The film was released “flat” (it wasn’t restored to 3D until 2017) and it’s flat on this disc, but you can certainly see how Gilbert made use of the extra dimension. The film is music-only until the Beverley Sisters begin to sing sixteen minutes in, and it’s only twenty minutes that we have any dialogue, when Max Bygraves appears.
The remaining items on the disc deal with some of the main feature’s themes. Teddy Boys (8:23) was made in 1956 by Associated-Rediffusion, who at the time had the ITV franchise for the London area. This was a film report broadcast as part of the magazine programme This Week. It centres on Mike, who is a Teddy Boy, sharply dressed, elaborately hairstyled and in many older people’s eyes, a violent menace. Mike and his mates get turned away from a club just for being Teds. We see his bedsit in Hounslow, his getting an expensive perm (yours for three guineas) and he and his girlfriend having a night out at the Flamingo Jazz Club near Piccadilly Circus.
We get to see another side of Soho in Stranger in the City (22:31), made by Robert Hartford-Davis in 1961. It shows a day in the life of the city, from early mornings and homeless people waking up under blankets of old newspapers, Our travels through the day at night include the foreign films showing at the La Continentale cinema (on the site of what is now the Odeon Tottenham Court Road), a strip club, and the 2i’s Coffee Bar, an important venue in London’s rock ‘n’ roll scene. Given the makers’ later credientials in exploitation – Derek Ford, one of the producers, was the director of one half of the last Flipside release, Secret Rites – there’s a sense of some of the content being about as far as the censor would allow at the time.
One of the cast and crew of Cosh Boy still with us is Ian Whittaker, now in his nineties. In a short interview (9:22, including extracts from the film) he passes on his memories of the film, his co-stars and its place in his career. He played the same role in the original stage production of Master Crook.
Finally on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (6:56).
The BFI’s booklet, available in the first pressing only, runs to twenty-eight pages. It begins with “Cosh Boy and the Hex of the X) by Matthew Coniam, details the story from play to film, and the differences that each medium made to the acceptability to the censors. Jenny Hammerton contributes a short piece on how the cosh boys of the early 1950s evolved into the perceived social menace given a new name: the Teddy Boys. Richard Falcon describes Cosh Boy’s history with the BBFC. Also in the booklet are full film credits and notes and credits for the extras, including reminiscences from Tony Kinsey (whose jazz quartet can be seen playing in the Teddy Boys television piece) and by Jean Hartford-Davis on her father Robert.