Ted Lewis was the godfather of British crime fiction—Raymond Chandler, Jim Thomson, and Mario Puzo rolled into a single Brit. There have been plenty of others since, but the entire genre in Britain traces back to Lewis. He’s less well known here in the US than in England, perhaps because English noir is so bound up with the particulars of the landscape, argot, and style. Nevertheless, many Americans will know Mike Hodges’ memorable 1971 film adaptation of Lewis’s 1970 novel “Jack’s Return Home” entitled “Get Carter”, starring Michael Caine (The novel was later re-published in 1990 as “Get Carter to match the movie.”)
Even today, fifty years later, the vicious milieu of Guy Ritchie’s films hearkens directly back to Lewis, much as every movie about the Mafia one way or another must acknowledge Mario Puzo, even if only to reject him.
Lewis’ books are more brutal and nihilistic than American noir, almost but not quite unpublishable in 1960’s England, and extremely modern in their absence of moral stance. American noir of the time is almost quaint in comparison—the bad guys were bad, but they were bad against a background in which goodness exists. Even the loathsome psychopaths of Thomson’s novels exist in a world of decent people. Lewis’ characters live out their short and violent lives without any larger moral context. It’s the Hobbesian world of the bleak post-War, post-Empire northern England rust belt. When the law figures at all, it is only as one more corrupt gang (they are referred to as “the filth”) in the dog-eat-dog underbelly of a Britain still economically depressed in the aftermath of the war (rationing of many food staples did not end in Britain until 1954.)
“Get Carter,” the film (be sure to get the Michael Caine film, not the awful Stallone remake) and the book, are both well worth your time, but this isn’t a review of Lewis’s work. It’s about one particular feature of crime in the middle of the last century: pornography. Porn movies—8mm and 16mm “blues”—are a major criminal enterprise in Lewis’s mid-Century Britain, and are more than once the key to the plot.
If Lewis was famous for one thing, it was the accuracy of his ear for dialog and he is precise about the place of blue movies in that not-long-ago world. In the 1960’s, even the near-psychopaths of Britain’s underworld considered porn wicked. The blues are regarded as nasty, not simply because of the implicit abuse of girls and women, but in and of themselves.
Equally striking is the modest quantity in which pornography is produced and consumed. In GBH (which stands for grievous bodily harm) the porn distributor, who claims to be the biggest in Britain, brags about having hundreds of titles in his archive and mentions that the average consumer might see half a dozen of his films in a lifetime. In contrast, Gizmodo ran an article in 2014 about the 500 most popular major genres of porn.
Lewis’s numbers seem plausible to me; I grew up in that period in the US, and (to pick an arbitrary moment) by the time I was 18, in 1972, which was the year Deep Throat came out, I had seen only two very brief 8mm “stag” films, both of which had production values somewhere south of the Zapruder footage; you almost had to take the host’s word for it that they were porn.
For Lewis’s characters, making and selling blues is not like overcharging for drinks or cheating the Inland Revenue Collector; they lump it in with the extortion, murder, torture, robbery, suborning justice, and beatings.
Lewis certainly was not a crusader against pornography—his characters are as indifferent to the harm it does as they are to the beatings and killings—it just wouldn’t occur to either his characters or his readers that porn wasn’t in the same ballpark with extortion or murder. In fact, in Lewis’s novels, it’s in exactly the same ballpark, because what would later be called snuff films are just a category of blues to Lewis’s thugs.
Lewis wasn’t a Victorian—far from it—he was a contemporary of the Beatles, born the same year as John Lennon, and a major cultural figure through the height of the rock-fueled counter-culture until his early death in 1982 at the age of 42. Yet, had he lived just a few more years, he would have been dumbfounded to see porn burgeon in florid diversity, becoming as ordinary as the evening news and piped for free into any home with an Internet connection. The irony would not be lost on him that criminals in jail are now almost the only people in the developed world who do not have unlimited access to it.
I think we are not amazed enough about this, so radical a shift is that in what is considered acceptable in how we treat each other.