Filmed in the Stratford area of East London in 1969 with a cast of untrained young actors from the area the film ‘Bronco Bullfrog’ should be rightly hailed as a lost classic of British cinema as well as a testament to the subtle changes in street style from skinhead to suedehead.
The streets, alleyways and wastelands of a depressing east end perfectly capture Britain at the end of the sixties and remind us that the kaleidoscopic, explosion of colour known as the ‘swinging sixties’ did not in fact permeate the whole of the uk – not even across the country’s capital.
The story is a simple one. Caught between adolescent and adulthood Del and his friends struggle to find a place and purpose in the world. Trapped by the twin curses of economy and geography and still under the watchful eye of their parents the group meander around the broken and neglected streets that provide the films backdrop in search of whatever entertainment they can find or make. A lone pinball machine in a bleak cafe, bunking in to the local cinema, petty crimes, vandalism and turf wars are pretty much all that is on offer.
A new motorbike, meeting Irene and the re-emergence of Bronco Bullfrog after a spell in borstal offer at least the potential for optimism and the prospect of escape. It is however not to be. After visiting a relative in the countryside and hopes of a new life dashed Del and Irene return to London and find themselves on the run from the police. Holed up in Bronco’s flat (amidst the pots, pans, sheets and other domestic booty the young thief has amassed) Del and Irene have no where left to go. With the police closing in the trio make a run for it and for a fleeting moment the films finale looks reminiscent of other films of the sixties. Films featuring other young people hand in had, running, skipping into a brightly coloured future, but Del, Irene and Bronco are never running to something but always from something.
They run a far as they can only to hit the water. Whilst the young couple look resigned to their fate of returning to face the music (they at least have each other) Bronco, with his freedom all he has left to save has to keep running “I can’t stay, I ‘aint goin’ back to that place. I’m goin’ – good luck” he offers before heading off for good.
The films writer and director Barney Platts-Mills came from a very different background to that shown in the film. Platt-Mills had lived on the other side of 60’s London and in Notting Hill was immersed in the world of Pink Floyd happenings, LSD, hashish and other familiar aspects of the flourishing 60’s counter-culture. After encountering a theatre workshop set up for local youths and trouble makers by the outspoken actress and director Joan Littlewood Platt Mills began to film the groups activities.
The half hour film “Everybodys An Actor, Shakespeare Said’ was shot in colour in 1968. In it the delinquent drama group act out various scenes and situations based on their own lives in the east end of london. More revealing are the scenes in which the youngsters talk about their own lives. A feeling of resignation hangs heavy over these conversations as if optimism and opportunity are permanently out of reach. Littlewoods ground-breaking theatre workshop at least offered some kind of escape.
With the film complete the group badgered Platts-Mills in to making a proper film. A film that would deal specifically with the frustrations and claustrophobia of their own lives. Armed with story ideas from the youngsters he wrote up a screenplay, secured £18,000 to finance the project and Bronco Bullfrog was born. Shot in black & white and heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism and the Free Cinema movement (We are the Lambeth Boys, Momma Said Don’t Allow and The Aldermaston March etc) Platts-Mills approach to the film proved the perfect approach to capture the gritty truth of the youngsters lives.
The young, untrained actors fumble through the dialogue (much of it improvised) playing out familiar scenes and lives each in turning in fantastic, believable performances, their pauses and uncertainty expressing everything about their lives. One of the best scenes occurs as Del and Irene first meet. The boys persuade the two girls to rejoin them in a local cafe but following a brief murmured introduction a silence endues and with any chance of conversation eluding them the girls get up to leave as swiftly as they had sat down. The sense of reality is all to palpable and it is this kind of awkward charm that makes much of the film a success.
Released in the summer of 1970 Bronco Bullfrog also provides a era glimpse into the evolving street fashions of the time. Emerging out of the world of mod in the mid 60’s the skinhead look had retained the mods fascination with clean, sharp style but tempered the fashion for increasing flamboyance and dandyism returning the look to its street roots and mixing it with a harder, working class influence. In addition to button down shirts and tailored suits the new look added boots, braces and solid looking crombie overcoats to the street savvy youths wardrobe.
The look sported by Dels crew is entering the suedehead phase. The actor Del Quant (playing the lead role of Del) has much longer hair. V neck tank tops have entered the picture joined by wider fitting trousers and jackets. Key here is that the actors wore their own clothes. When Bronco emerges back on the scene after a period away at her majesty’s pleasure he sports a pretty much spot on skinhead look; boots braces, button down. By the end of the film and his final dash for freedom his shirt is patterned, has wider, larger collars and he sports a matching tie. The braces are still their but again much wider and his trousers are a pair of high waisted, multi buttoned style reminiscent of oxford bags, a look that would continue to evolve across Britain during the early seventies.
Upon its release in 1970 the film received small pockets of critical and public acclaim (in 1971 it went on to win the Writers Guild award for best original screenplay). The film debuted at the cameo-poly cinema in regent street but was pulled after 18 days to make way for the royal premiere of Lawrence Oliviers Three Sisters. Arriving at that premiere Princess Anne was met by a small group of protesters including Bronco Bullfrog cast members and their friends displaying their annoyance at the films truncated run. Further protest and an apology directly to Princess Anne from Sam Shepherd (who played the part of Bronco Bullfrog) resulted in her accepting to see the film at the ABC in Mile End, on the groups home turf as it were. The film enjoyed a brief time in both the headlines and on screen but due to poor distribution soon fell from public view. It has recently rightfully acknowledged and released by the BFI through their Flipside programme devoted to re-discovering lost gems format British cinema. More information on the BFI release here.