‘A teenage revolution’
Bill Haley and the rock ’n’ roll cinema riots
in Screening the Hollywood rebels in 1950s Britain
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Chapter 4 reconstructs the stardom of Bill Haley to explore the ‘rock ’n’ roll riots’ that accompanied the first screenings of Rock Around the Clock in British cinemas. The film was a low-budget feature that showcased many of the most popular rock ’n’ roll musicians and performers of the day. The British Board of Film Censors considered the film ‘harmless’ and classified it ‘U’ (Universal) for family audiences to enjoy. Nonetheless, screenings of Rock Around the Clock caused the dreaded ‘organised hooliganism’ that British censors had worked so hard to avoid. In time, the censors were accused of being ‘oblivious’ to the ‘intoxicating’ effects of the exciting ‘live’ performances of Haley and the Comets; the media sensationalised localised outbreaks that pitted Teddy boys and girls against cinema managers and police. The chapter argues that ‘riots’ were the logical outcome of the censors’ generational disconnection from British teenagers and their enthusiasm for rock ’n’ roll. The BBFC was widely criticised by the press and prominent members of the clergy for failing to anticipate and avert these public disturbances. Proving a phenomenal success at the box office, Rock Around the Clock introduced mainstream audiences to rock ’n’ roll. The chapter provides a timely exhibition history by recounting the interactive in-cinema behaviours of British teenagers, which anticipated the participatory screenings of cult movies. Furthermore, a homely appearance and scathing reviews did not hinder Haley’s rise to fame; he toured the UK with his Comets. In this way, his British stardom demonstrates the unflagging ‘power’ of the teenage consumer.

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