We’ve just learned that Gillian Freeman, whose 1961 novel “The Leather Boys” was made into the seminal Rocker/Ace Cafe/Cafe Racer movie of the same name, has died age 89 in London. The novel was commissioned by the London publisher Anthony Blond, who reputedly suggested she write a novel depicting ‘Romeo and Romeo in the South London suburbs’.  Freeman wrote the book under the pen name Eliot George, an inversion of 19th Century writer Mary Ann Evan’s nom de plume George Eliot, used to conceal her identity as the female author of the astounding “Middlemarch”, and the equally famous “Silas Marner”. Freeman’s novels were not literature in the same league as George Eliot’s, and “The Leather Boys” is a one-night read, and a pulpy novella that was nevertheless groundbreaking for its frank depiction of a homosexual relationship as spontaneous and free of even the consideration of shame.

Gillian Freeman, author and screenwriter of “The Leather Boys”. [New York Times]
Freeman’s novel is entirely more scandalous than the film adapted from it, although she wrote the screenplay as well, under her own name (the film still credits the book as written by Eliot George).  The first edition has a graphic cover by Oliver Carson, with its overleaf exclaiming,

“The leather boys are the boys on the bikes, the boys who do a ton on the by-pass. For their expensive machines, they need expensive leather jackets. They are an aimless, lawless, cowardly and vain lot with a peacock quality to their clothes and hair style.”

The two main characters, Reggie and Dick, become part of a casually organized gang of criminals who hang out at cafes much like the Ace Cafe.  After committing rather senseless acts of vandalism and a successful robbery with the gang, Reg and Dick plan a robbery on their own, and Reggie is beaten to death by the gang members in retribution, which is followed by a trial in which the gang leader is convicted of murder.

The first-edition cover of the ‘Eliot George’ 1961 novel “The Leather Boys”, with illustrations by Oliver Carson, and published by Anthony Blond, London. [Vintagent Library]
Freeman adapted her book for the 1964 film The Leather Boys, altering the story line significantly, as the book treated crime, violence, and homosexuality with a frankness that would have been unacceptable in film (for example, Britain banned The Wild One until the late 1960s!). The film starred Rita Tushingham (in her first film role) as teenage bride Dot, and Colin Campbell her husband Reggie, whose relationship becomes a love triangle with Reggie the prize, and Pit (Dudley Sutton) her unexpected rival. Reg rides a Triumph Tiger 110 at the film’s start, and graduates to a new Bonneville, while Pit buys a Norton 650SS, and the pair enjoy fast times at the Ace Café, with fantastic shots of period café racers in the parking lots and on the road. Actual motorcyclists will cringe at a long-distance race featuring a 250cc Ariel Leader keeping up with a Bonnie and Dommie, but in general, the film is surprisingly authentic in its depiction of the Ace Café scene and social standing of the Rockers as generally young, working-class boys and girls.

Reg (Colin Campbell) on his Triumph Tiger 110, and Pit (Dudley Sutton) on his Norton 650SS. A couple of likely lads, denizens of the Ace Cafe scene, in this promotional still for “The Leather Boys” [Allied Artists]
In the novel, the relationship between Reg and Dick is consummated (many times!), but in the film, Reg and Pit’s relationship is apparently innocent – two boys bunking together out of convenience and friendship. But the implications of an intimate male bond were still threatening in working-class culture, which leads Dot to spit out – “Men? You look like a couple of queers.” It turns out at the end of the film, after the boys have sold their motorcycles to ship out of Cardiff as merchant seamen, that Pit is well-known to gay sailors, and Reg, confused and ultimately heterosexual, walks away, lost and disappointed.

Dudley Sutton as Pit in the film version of “The Leather Boys”, wearing a Lewis Leathers ‘Bomber’ jacket. [IMdB]
Gillian Freeman wrote several novels for Anthony Blond before “The Leather Boys”, including “The Liberty Man” in 1955,  followed by “Fall of Innocence” in 1956, and “Jack Would Be a Gentleman” in 1959.  She wrote 12 novels in all, and commented in an autobiographical essay, “I have always been concerned with the problems of the individual seen in relation to society and the personal pressures brought to bear because of moral, political or social conditions and the inability to conform. This is reflected in all my work to date, although I have never set out to propound themes, only to tell stories … My first six novels are in some way concerned with the class system in England, either as a main theme (“The Liberty Man”, “Jack Would Be a Gentleman”) or as part of the background (“The Leather Boys”) … [They] illustrate my interest in and compassion for those unable to conform to the accepted social mores.”

Ms. Freeman also wrote several screenplays after “The Leather Boys”, including for an early Robert Altman Film (“That Cold Day in the Park” – 1969), and also collaborated on scenarios for ballets with Kenneth MacMillan, including his “Mayerling,” about the Austrian crown prince Rudolph, and “Isadora” about Isadora Duncan.  To motorcyclists, though, she’ll always be remembered for “The Leather Boys”, which remains the only semi-realistic account of working class Rockers in the early 1960s, and films their milieu with an accuracy only possible with the use of actual Ace Cafe denizens in the period.  Godspeed, Gillian Freeman.

Rita Tushingham as Dot in her first screen role: she’s wearing ‘Reggie’s leather jacket, emblazoned with ‘Dodgy’, which she dons in their wedding scene: her character is only 16 in the film. Note the actual Rocker girl lounging on the Norton – most of the characters and extras in “The Leather Boys” were real cafe racers, recruited at the Ace Cafe itself, which plays a pivotal role in the film.  [IMdB]