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About this book

The international controversy (highlighted in Britain by the Bulger case) over the relationship between video nasties and crime is one that has a long prior history. Do books, films or magazines create a corrupting environment which encourages crime and moral decay?
Dr. Springhall has written a highly perceptive and entertaining account of how commercial culture in Britain and America has been viewed, since its inception during the Industrial Revolution, as a force likely to undermine national morals. There has been wave after wave of scares: from the Victorian penny gaff theatres and penny dreadful novels to Hollywood gangster films, and American horror comics. A final chapter refers to video nasties, violence on television, 'gansta-rap' and computer games, each in turn playing the role of folk devils which must be causing delinquency. Why particular issues suddenly galvanize public attention, and why so many people have associated delinquency with entertainment, form the fascinating subjects of this groundbreaking book.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
In recent years, sensational press reporting of violent crimes committed by and against children has led, periodically, to a host of opinion-makers denouncing ‘video nasties’ or violence in movies and on television as somehow contributing to a general collapse in moral standards. British Prime Minister John Major told the Conservative Central Council meeting in Harrogate on 6 March 1993 that those who made and distributed films and videos should ‘think whether a relentless diet of violence won’t have a serious effect on the young’. He was responding to the shocking abduction and murder a few weeks before in Bootle, Merseyside, of 2-year-old James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. ‘UNPARALLELED EVIL AND BARBARIC KILLERS SAYS JUDGE BUT DID HORRIFIC VIDEO NASTY TRIGGER JAMES’S MURDER?’ queried a tabloid newspaper headline on the day after their conviction.1
John Springhall

1. Penny Theatre Panic: Anxiety over Juvenile Working-class Leisure

Abstract
‘Language of the most disgusting kind is uttered, and plans of robberies, no doubt, concocted’, claimed a letter to a London newspaper in 1838, urging suppression of the penny theatre ‘nuisance’. ‘Boys and girls are not only tempted to pilfer from shops, but even to rob their parents that they might have the means of attending these receptacles of vice.’ Similar accusations have been levelled in successive decades to condemn forms of entertainment chosen by children and adolescents but disapproved of by adults. Festive mockery in penny theatricals and early penny bloods of ‘industrial literacy’, or factory work-disciplines and school knowledge, argues Edward Jacobs, citing James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre (1847), ‘functioned as one of the dominant ideologies structuring street culture as a counterculture, and thus constituted one of the major moral threats to the hegemony of the literate, Christian, middle-class values that have come to typify Victorian culture’.1 What follows will attempt to determine the precise nature of the theatrical entertainments that merit both this recent bold evaluation and also the opening indictment, in so far as their managements, audiences and performances can be reconstructed from tenuous scraps of surviving evidence. Local newspapers, in particular, are a rich source of information that the historian of nineteenth-century popular amusements can ill afford to neglect.
John Springhall

2. ‘Penny Dreadful’ Panic (I): Their Readers, Publishing and Content

Abstract
‘The mid-nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary literary and social revolution with the birth and enormous popularity of the Penny Dreadful’, declared George Speaight, historian of the English toy theatre, as long ago as 1946. ‘It is much to be hoped that this fantastic episode in our literature will soon receive the historical study it deserves.’ Not long after, E. S. Turner, in his classic work on generations of British boys’ periodicals, Boys Will Be Boys (1948), devoted several chapters to an engaging overview of ‘penny dreadfuls’, acknowledging it would have been possible to fill his book with an account of them alone.1 The temptation was resisted, partly because the number of his readers who could remember following the adventures of such as Jack Harkaway, Turnpike Dick and Cheerful Ching-Ching had by 1948 become rather finite. Turner’s infectious humour, compelling use of quotation, and underlying affection for these old storypapers, makes these chapters as readable now as when they first appeared in print nearly 50 years ago.
John Springhall

3. ‘Penny Dreadful’ Panic (II): Their Scapegoating for Late-Victorian Juvenile Crime

Abstract
Some attention has been given by social historians to both crime and popular culture as independent variables in the past, but few attempts have been made to look at the interchanges between the two. Victorian middle-class moralists were less scrupulous and hence their attempts to link delinquency with the reading of cheap fiction. The most vociferous critics of new forms of entertainment for the young were recruited from the ranks of the expanding professional middle class and the intellectual clerisy rather than from the manufacturing or business middle class. ‘Boys and girls reared in the cellars and garrets of large cities’ were accused in 1865 by Harriet Martineau, political economist and champion of middle-class values, of reading a literature of ‘animal passion and defiant lawlessness’. She went on, echoing a familiar complaint, ‘lives of bad people, everything about banditii anywhere, love stories from any language, scenes of theatrical life, trials of celebrated malefactors, love, crime, madness, suicide, wherever to be got in print, are powerful in preparing the young for convict life.’ If compulsory elementary education from the 1870s onwards did not lead working-class school-children towards the high ideal of self-improvement, comments Joseph Bristow, ‘then it would appear to have abandoned them to the supposedly corrupting influence of penny fiction’.1
John Springhall

4. Gangster Film Panic: Censoring Hollywood in the 1930s

Abstract
From the end of the nineteenth century onwards, the technological innovation that, commercially exploited, completely transformed the non-working lives of ordinary urban youth was a device for the projection of moving images, an apparatus to resynthesize motion. British electrical engineer Robert W. Paul gave the first exhibition of his Theatrograph projector (an adaptation of ideas embodied in inventor Thomas Alva Edison’s coin-operated peepshow device, the Kinetoscope) to a scientific audience at Finsbury Technical College on 20 February 1896, but had considerable problems achieving any sort of adequate image on the screen. The first screening outside Paris of the Lumière brothers’ more famed Cinématographe was given on the same evening to the London press (admission charges were made the following day) hosted by entertainer and magician Félicien Trewey in the Great Hall of the Regent Street Polytechnic. It transferred on 9 March, as an attraction in the variety bill of the Empire Theatre, north of Leicester Square, where it ran to full houses. The race was now on to bring moving pictures to the general public. On 19 March, Paul’s Theatrograph opened at the Egyptian Hall, almost opposite the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, under the aegis of magician David Devant. Another screening of Paul’s invention, renamed as the Animatographe, ran at the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square from 25 March 1896 and enjoyed a long residency.
John Springhall

5. ‘Horror Comic’ Panic: Campaigning against Comic Books in the 1940s and 1950s

Abstract
This chapter focuses on a controversial period of American comic-book history, from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, during which a wide variety of violent and explicit ‘crime’ and ‘horror comic’ titles could be purchased for only 10 cents. The term ‘comic book’ refers to four-colour pamphlets, 165 mm by 255 mm, with narratives in sequential illustrated form (usually in conjunction with text), slick covers and a pulp-paper interior. They represent a relatively new form of commercial culture emerging out of New Deal America, like the law-and-order cycle of crime movies, to act as an eventual replacement for declining newsstand sales of the ‘pulps’ or detective, sport, adventure and science-fiction short-story magazines with racy covers, printed mostly on cheap wood-pulp paper.1
John Springhall

6. Mass Media Panic: The 1980s and 1990s

Abstract
During a ‘moral panic’, the suspect category is either created or, more often, argue Goode and Ben-Yehuda, relocated, dusted off and attacked with a renewed vigour. New charges may be made, old ones dredged up and reformulated. In many cases a deviant category or stereotype already exists, but is latent and only activated at times of crisis or panic because secondary targets are needed to deflect attention away from some of society’s most pressing or insoluble problems. Since the reasons for scapegoating them vary according to historical circumstances, deviant categories are often refurbished over time. Violent crime or action movies reproduced on video are a case in point.1
John Springhall

Conclusions

Abstract
Continuities over many generations in the ‘moral panics’ induced by fears of new technology interacting with revised forms of popular culture should have become apparent by now. Whatever amuses the young for a price but does not appear to elevate public taste will invite criticism. The language directed against present-day forms of mass entertainment with an in-built youth appeal has much in common with the exaggerated rhetoric once generated by the allegedly mimetic ‘effects’ of the ‘penny dreadful’, the gangster film, or the ‘horror comic’ on juvenile delinquency. Intellectual rigour and honesty are in short supply on all sides of the on-going debate about the behavioural effects of certain forms of entertainment on a young audience. Academics engaged in a radical re-examination of the whole ‘media effects’ debate have recently questioned not only whether the media is capable of directly influencing young people’s views and actions, but also whether the simplistic idea of ‘effects’ is the most useful way of conceptualizing the relationship between the media and audiences.1
John Springhall
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