“You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the fourth of July” – The impact of Jaws

Jaws

There was something new about Jaws. It created a buzz that none of us had experienced before. It felt totally modern. A new type of film for a new type of age.

Jaws was released in the US in June 1975, famously becoming the first big summer blockbuster. It wasn’t released in Britain until December 26, by which time the country had been under the grip of Jaws-mania for six months.

The name of the film and its accompanying poster were enough to send our young imaginations into overdrive. Both were elegantly simple, leaving ample room for anyone with even a hint of creativity to think of all sorts of terrible things. It was a masterclass in marketing.

Rumours flew all over the place as to how scary the film was. Very scary seemed to be the consensus. Tales came across from America of people refusing to even dip their toes in the ocean after they’d been to see it. The British press fanned the flames all through the Autumn, reporting on any story that emphasised what a terrifying film this was. Several people reported that they had “almost” been attacked by sharks while swimming in the sea around Britain.

Shark related gifts started to appear in the shops as any novelty item manufacturer worth their salt cashed in on the craze. You could buy shark key rings, shark bottle openers, rubber sharks to stick on the end of pencils, socks with sharks on them, t-shirts with sharks on them, pyjamas with sharks on them and if that wasn’t enough, you could buy plastic sharks to play with in the bath. Rubber ducks were suddenly so lame. Peter Benchley’s novel on which the film was based, only written the previous year, could be bought from just about any shop you cared to walk into, regardless of whether it usually sold books, and there was even a Jaws haircut you could get, where the fringe was cut in a jagged style to resemble shark teeth.

Ideal Games, the kings of kids’ toys in the 1970s, released a Jaws game. Basically, they took the premise of their old Buckaroo game and switched the animal. In Buckaroo you had to carefully load items onto the back of a spring-loaded plastic horse. In the Jaws game, you had to fish objects out of a shark’s mouth which was also spring-loaded and would snap shut at the slightest tremble. Utterly terrifying. Objects included a fish bone, a shoe and a gun.

And it wasn’t just us kids that lapped all this up. My dad was full of Jaws stories, happily retelling any Jaws related tales he’d read in the paper that day and always exaggerating the details. If the newspaper reported that the beaches in California weren’t as busy as they usually were, my dad would gleefully report that they were totally empty. “Nobody in America is going swimming,” he would say. “Even the swimming pools are empty.” If somebody caught a shark off the coast of Australia which was described in the newspaper as being as big as a car, my dad would gleefully report that it was as big as a bus, that it could swallow not just one child whole, but an entire classroom of children and still have room for the teacher. I imagined my teacher, Mrs H, being swallowed by a shark and that particular thought made me very happy.

By Christmas 1975, Jaws excitement in Britain reached its zenith (feel free to hum the theme tune at this point). And incredibly, not to mention controversially, the British Board of Film Censors awarded it an A certificate. An “A”. Blimey!

In the 1970s, British film ratings went like this:

U = Universal. Suitable for all

A = No under 5s admitted

AA = No under 14s admitted

X = No under 18s admitted

I think most of us felt that Jaws was going to be out of reach for us kids. “My mum’s got a friend whose got a friend who went to America,” someone would say. “And they saw it there and they said it’s definitely going to be an X. They said it’s definitely the scariest film ever!”

But when Jaws was released, it wasn’t an X or even an AA. It was an A. The British Board of Film Censors reviewed and awarded the A certificate well before the release date, but even though this was known, we didn’t really believe it. It wasn’t until the release itself when we suddenly realised we could actually go and see Jaws if we were brave enough. Our bluff had been called.

After all the hype, all the excitement, all the rubber sharks in the bath and the Ideal Games shark variation of Buckaroo, Jaws was suddenly on at the local cinema. It was suddenly there to be seen. Older brothers, sisters and cousins were the first to go. Feedback was swift. Jaws was scary.

My dad was full of it, even though he still hadn’t actually seen the film.

“Trevor went to see Jaws last night,” he said, referring to a young guy he worked with. “Said he’s never been so scared in his life. When he got home he flushed his girlfriend’s goldfish down the loo. Couldn’t bear to have it in the house.”

And, of course, amongst us kids the bragging quickly got under way.

“My brother’s seen it twice already. He said it’s the goriest film ever!”

“My brother’s seen it three times. He’s going again tonight. I’m going with him.”

But for some reason that kid didn’t go with his brother that night to see it. I don’t recall anyone in my class going to see Jaws on its initial release. We were just a bit too young. In 1975 my classmates and I were not yet at the age where we could go to the cinema on our own. That was still a couple of years away, so the few trips to the cinema we went on at that point were always in the company of a responsible adult and our responsible adults thought that, regardless of what the British film censors said, we weren’t old enough. Our responsible adults wanted to see it first, no doubt without the hassle of having a screaming kid or two sitting next to them. And when they did see it, our responsible adults sometimes talked quite gravely about the experience afterwards. My Uncle R seriously informed my parents one Sunday afternoon not to let me see it, which was unusual for my Uncle R, as he was usually a very happy go lucky sort of chap. But something in Jaws had got to him.

And our bravado had got to us. All the bragging, all the excitement had made the thought of actually seeing Jaws a bit too scary for us. We were victims of our fertile imaginations. I may have told my friends that my uncle was an idiot for saying I shouldn’t see it and that my mum was stupid for not letting me go, but inside I was relieved that Jaws remained an experience I didn’t yet have to endure.

But Jaws was a massive hit and instead of just being shown at the cinema for a week or two before disappearing, as most films did in the days before home video, it returned to the cinemas again and again and again. It was the film that wouldn’t go away.

Throughout the summer of 1976, a year after its initial release in the US, it was still showing in just about every seaside town in the country. By now the hype surrounding its release had died down and it wasn’t just known as a scary film, it was earning a reputation as a great film, a classic, so my dad was now keen to take me to see it. It’s only an A, he’d reasoned, how bad can it be?

During a holiday on the east coast, we’d noticed that it was showing at one of the two cinemas that were an easy drive from the caravan park where we were staying. The other cinema was showing At The Earth’s Core. I decided at last that I wanted to see Jaws. My dad was delighted. My mum was going to stay at the caravan. No Jaws for her, thank you very much.

That afternoon we went to a local swimming pool and as we dried off in the communal changing room afterwards my dad struck up conversation with a couple of boys who looked to be about three or four years older than me. He asked them if they’d seen Jaws. They said they had and they said it was brilliant. “You’ve gotta see it,” they said. “It’s the best film ever, There’s this amazing bit where there’s this boat and it’s got a hole in it and suddenly this head comes out and it makes everyone really jump and some people even scream. It’s brilliant. You have to see it.”

I bottled it. We went to see At The Earth’s Core instead, which I enjoyed but my dad thought was rubbish.

Years passed and what amazing years for movies they were. The phenomenon of Jaws was followed in 1977 by the phenomenon of Star Wars. Other sci-fi mega-hits soon followed including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman. Then there was Saturday Night Fever, which we couldn’t see on its initial uncut release as it was for over 18s only, but we all bought the records and pretended to be John Travolta in front of our bedroom mirrors. And then there was Grease, which we could go to see as well as buy the records. In 1978 You’re The One That I Want was number one for nine weeks and Summer Nights was number one for seven weeks. I may have considered myself a punk, but I still bought the Grease soundtrack. Many of my classmates wanted to move to America because the school in Grease, Rydell High, looked so cool. Two actually did!

And all through this, Jaws remained unseen.

I went to see Jaws 2 when that came out, but the best thing about that movie was the poster, with the image of a shark rising up behind a water skier and its famous tagline, “just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water”. There was the moment when the charred body pops up out of the sea, but other than that Jaws 2 was a disappointment. It lacked punch. It lacked gore.

I finally saw the original until 1980. A failing fading cinema in the next town had a Jaws day. Jaws 1 and 2 running back to back for 24 hours. You could buy a ticket when you wanted and could stay for as long as you liked. We arrived, my cousin and I, just at the right time. Jaws 2 was meeting its fiery demise. The end credits rolled, the lights came on briefly then dimmed once again, a few ads were shown and then the film’s single word title appeared on the screen with the phrase “This film has been passed A” written underneath. This was it. I felt like I do when a rollercoaster starts to move. No turning back now.

Just over two hours later, I wandered out of the cinema’s exit as someone who could stand tall and say that they had seen Jaws. It had taken me five years to see the film that defined my childhood like no other.

What did I think? I thought Jaws was wonderful. It was properly scary, the sort of scary that puts a big fat grin on your face. Even though I knew a head would appear through the hole in the boat, it still made me jump, and I had never seen anything like the scene where Robert Shaw meets his demise at the end. How that got an A rating in Britain in 1975 I’ll never know. I’ve seen films released in Britain in the 1970s with an X rating that featured less blood than Jaws.

But it wasn’t just the gore, it wasn’t just the shocks, Jaws changed the way I watched films. As a kid, I’d divide films up into “the slow bits” and “the action bits”. I hated the slow bits, loved the action bits. But with Jaws, I loved all of it. I especially loved the way that Jaws sounded. Jaws is packed with sound and therefore it’s packed with energy and life. Spielberg, I think, does this better than anyone. Take the scene when the Brodie family is getting up in the morning. A simple enough scene which would be boring in most films, but here there’s the chatter from the radio in the background and while Chief Brodie takes a phone call, his wife and son are also talking, both conversations being audible at the same time. It feels real.

And Jaws is full of great dialogue. Of course there’s the infamous remark about the bigger boat and there’s Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis disaster, but all the way through there are snappy lines, which if you’ve watched the film many, many times, as I have, greet you like old friends each time you hear them. I love the lady with the tight perm, polo neck and glasses – such a great 70s look – who is not impressed with the joking that takes place at the council meeting and responds with “I don’t think that’s funny, I don’t think that’s funny at all.” I just love that bit.

As the 1970s rolled into the 80s and therefore into the era of E.T., Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Stallone and Schwartzenegger, the phenomenon of Jaws wasn’t quite over yet, at least not in Britain.

For its Autumn schedule in 1981, ITV announced a season of blockbuster movies which were to be broadcast each Thursday evening. This was unusual. Saturday night was when the big movie premiers were traditionally shown and Thursdays had long been a strong night for the BBC, with Top Of The Pops still providing the nation’s youth with must see television at that point. Apart from the occasional hit show every now and again, Thursdays for ITV were usually something of a lacklustre affair so to set that particular evening aside for the season’s big movie premiers was noticeable.

The season was based around one film in particular – Jaws. It dominated the ads, but it was not the season opener. ITV held it back, creating a buzz that mimicked the autumn of six years before.

The season kicked off on September 3 with the World War II thriller The Eagle Has Landed and in the second week it was the turn of another underwater shocker, The Deep. Telefon, Earthquake and The Cassandra Crossing followed and then finally, on October 8, it was time for the UK network television premier of Jaws, the one we’d all been waited for. And once again, we lapped it up. We talked about it at school in the days before it was shown and in the days after as well. By now we were older and we watched it with different eyes and we talked about camera tricks and acting, but most importantly we still loved it. My dad saw Jaws for the first time that night too, and he thought it was brilliant.

That particular broadcast of Jaws was watched by over 23 million people and is still in the top 5 for the most watch programmes in the history of the ITV network.

Yes indeed, Jaws was something special.

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