Dot (Rita Tushingham) is sixteen years old and still at school, but anxious to leave so she can marry her only slightly older fiancé Reggie (Colin Campbell). They're never happier than when out on the road on Reggie's motorbike and most of his friends are fellow bikers. Their parents may be none too convinced that the marriage is a good idea, yet the couple won't listen and go ahead with it, planning their honeymoon at Butlin's in Bognor but once they get there Reggie is more interested in staying in the chalet than enjoying the entertainments. Have they really wed for the right reasons?
Although from that title it sounds like a fetish movie, which may not have been entirely unintentional, The Leather Boys was more an example of kitchen sink melodrama than a hot gay romance. Based on the novel which more strongly lived up to that theme by Gillian Freeman, who used a pseudonym and adapted the script here, the film has gone on to cult status due to a more overt depiction of homosexuality for its day, a depiction that didn't resort to cliché or opprobrium as it might have done but fell back on a more wistful quality.
Yet this isn't all the love that dare not speak its name, as just as much a run through the doomed marriage of Reggie and Dot. The cast go into Gorblimey overdrive for their working class, South London roles, making for an absorbing time capsule if nothing else. The casual details, which may not have meant much at the time but are tremendously evocative now, include Reggie's leather jacket with the word "Dodgy" on the back, or Dot opening yet another tin of baked beans for tea upside down, imbuing the film with even more interest for fans of sixties culture.
As we could have predicted, Dot and Reggie are headed for a swift breakup, with Reggie growing less and less interested in her both sexually and romantically. The honeymoon ends with her dancing the night away and him retiring for a smoke in the chalet, and it doesn't get better from there, the catalyst being the death of Reggie's grandad. He sees this as a cue to move in with his widowed gran (Gladys Henson) who refuses to go into a home, and the furious Dot won't join him. But Reggie won't be too lonely with the friendship of fellow biker Pete (Dudley Sutton, very nearly stealing the show) who moves in with him.
Although Reggie can't see it, Pete is gay, now very fond of him and eager to see Dot sent packing from his life ("Don't take your coat off, you're not stopping!"). This is all handled with subtlety, though whether out of tact or nervousness about how explicit they could be is anyone's guess - perhaps a bit of both. Reggie isn't gay here, and there's not a lot of indication he can see where Pete's attraction to him lies until the end, but the fact remains they are great friends first and foremost, with Pete witty and engaging company. The race from London to Edinburgh and back is a memorable sequence of how the relationships are set up as well as a fine piece of nostalgia, with Dot and Reggie making moves to patch things up. You may recognise The Leather Boys from The Smiths' video for "Girlfriend in a Coma", but it's worth seeing in its own right, leaving its characters sadder and wiser with surprising poignancy. Music by Bill McGuffie.