December 4, 2016

Bronco Bullfrog (1969)

Angry, disaffected youth. Gang violence, robbery and unemployment in decaying post-industrial East London. Youthful optimism amongst a bitter lack of work and no hope of escaping to a better life.

If it sounds familiar, it is for good reason – over 40 years after release, this film captures issues that still remain prominent throughout 21st century UK. For what could have been another low budget Swinging London flick with a weak title, this is a notable achievement.

Another release from the British Film Institute’s Flipside stable, which resurrects nearly forgotten British cinematography, Bronco Bullfrog was the directing debut of Barney Platts-Mills. An £18,000 (approx.) production shot over six weeks in the summer of 1969, it’s worth noting how what could have been a throwaway youth flick has so accurately captured cyclical problems the UK seems incapable of breaking.

“As I understood it he proposed that one take a neighbourhood and make a film to represent or reflect that place by using the stories that emerged from the people’s experience and getting the people themselves to act them out in their natural locations. I thought I could manage it.” – Director Barney Platts-Mills, on Rosselini’s recommendations on Neo-Realism.

Casting decisions can certainly take some credit – the actors’ origins could almost be a film in themselves, after greatly respected theatre director Joan Littlewood tired of local youths vandalising her premises and intimidating audiences. Correctly guessing that “The Nutters”, as she termed them, wouldn’t mind helping the young ladies dressing her set, they were soon part of the theatre. From there, Littlewood (once labelled “highly intellectual and a keen communist” by MI5 and banned from broadcasting on the BBC for two years) and her long-term assistant Peter Rankin could channel the youths’ energy into acting and improvisation. In 1968, aspiring director Barney Platts-Mills decided to film her workshops as a documentary, admiring Littlewood’s work alongside an appreciation of the underground Free Cinema movement and Italian and French neo-realism.

Everybody’s an Actor, Shakespeare Said (1968) saw the Stratford East youths acting in different situations based on their everyday lives and hopes. The 30 minute short is included on both DVD and Blu-Ray releases of BB.

The short proved to be the birth of Bronco Bullfrog as the delinquent thespians suggested that Platts-Mills should turn his talents to a ‘proper’ film. He responded by raising a budget through connections and encouraging them to write a story based on their lives. The resulting feature was part script, part improvisation and debuted at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 1970.

After a prestigious release in Regent Street’s Cameo-Poly cinema, the film saw positive press reviews in Britain and America, as well as steady audiences. It would later win the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1971. Yet a comment from the Guardian stating that the film, “…may well be remembered long after most British products of the year have been forgotten,” proved sadly premature. Bronco Bullfrog was pulled from Regent Street, despite its success, after only 18 days for a royal premiere of more typical West-End fare, Laurence Olivier’s Three Sisters.

Princess Anne, the event’s royal guest of honour, was greeted by a loud protest unlikely to have been made by anyone to be found on a guest list, as the cast and friends made their complaints heard. Sam Shepherd, who plays former Borstal boy “Bronco Bullfrog” Joe, wrote a letter of apology explaining their complaint and inviting the royal to a screening of the film at their local cinema, the Mile End ABC – which she accepted in a royal visit to the East end.

Following the obvious publicity this created, Bronco Bullfrog showed across some 200 screens nationally – yet the British Lion production company neglected to make use of concurrent press attention and the film quickly slipped away.

This is a shame, as even today there is much in the film that shouldn’t be overlooked and I am certainly glad that the original negatives were rescued from a skip in the 1980s. While the film’s on-site filming location lends an obvious atmosphere and setting, the young actors’ performances sit near enough to behaviour to create a fluid and natural feel to bleak and depressing circumstances.

Though made in London’s summer of 1969, Bronco Bullfrog has very little in common with the popular Swinging London films of the late ‘60s. There seems to be no charm in this image of youth, but rather a desperate need to make ends meet independently at whatever cost. Crime and money are central issues. Protagonist Del and his friends first appear in the broken frame of a shop door they have casually put through, to take a king’s ransom of sixpence and some cakes. Casual crime is an ordinary way to supplement a meagre income and the cast are all placed in different positions on a spectrum of crime, some petty and some serious.

No character gives a better indication of how easy it is to slide on this spectrum and be trapped into a life of crime than Bronco Bullfrog himself. If Del and Irene nurture hopes of escaping to a better life, Joe makes it very clear that there’s no escape for him. He knows very well that he is entirely dependent on crime – if youth with a clear record can’t find work, borstal has sealed his fate. Even Del’s welding apprenticeship isn’t enough to support his independence, as he remains under the roof of a disagreeable father with whom he shares an often uncomfortable relationship.

The absence of the picturesque around these young characters is particularly noticeable in Joe. Early in the film, he seems to show the beginnings of a softer side away from his friends – helping an elderly landlady clean her kitchen, and offering to do it himself as she is in a rush. At first I thought it was the quiet display of a young character that wasn’t all bad, so it very quickly changed the film’s tone in my mind that he simply wanted her out of the way – so he could rifle the house for valuables and break the lock on her gas meter. Neither Del nor Irene’s parents support their interest in each other and parent/child interactions are often quite awkward. Their attitude is never gentler than actively disapproving and often slides into deliberate sabotage, with Irene’s mother reminding her of an absent convict father and outright racism from Del’s dad. Del’s uncle is distant and uncaring. The only fatherly figure in the production seems to be Del’s boss.

The coldly realistic tone doesn’t spare any character. A cinema trip quickly becomes an opportunity to pick targets for a gang attack, beating up familiar faces encroaching on their territory. Del’s first meeting with Irene and a friend in a greasy spoon grinds to a halt despite his previously cocky tone, with an awkward, drawn out silence before the girls make their apologies and leave. When he takes her out to a West End cinema, the pair take few steps inside before realising there is no way he can afford tickets and making a rapid exit.

“Don’t you have any homework?”
“No. They don’t bother with us.” – Irene and her mother

If Platts-Mills’ script was a revision of local writing, the impact everyday life in a troubled area of East London has had on the film’s chilly atmosphere is clear to see. In truth, the narrative’s progression seems more like a series of disappointments. If characters show the audacity to attempt a little hope, it is simply part of the film’s repeating cycle of hope being crushed by an unfeeling reality.

This ambience is also aided by the deadpan dialogue of the film. While this northerner found the cockney cast’s accents occasionally indecipherable, they certainly add to authenticity (though it is possible that the often unrehearsed dialogue has contributed to the occasional indistinct comment). Yet there is little emotion in any spoken word, even when planning violence or following a particularly crushing blow to a character’s life. The black and white footage sits very well with the film’s stark setting and decrepit industrial backdrop, which would have lost impact in colour. A higher budget would have been entirely unnecessary and would likely have driven away the convincing, down-to-earth feel from which the film benefits.

A feeling of claustrophobia can also be sensed throughout Bronco Bullfrog. Acts begin with shots of decaying heavy industry and grey tower blocks looming over tight, winding streets of cramped terraced houses, as east London sets its own scene. Actors are framed in many shots, by doorframes or the rubble of unrecovered bombsites. The abandoned building the youths occasionally squat in is shadowy and wretched, though it is the only space that can really be called their own. Even when filmed standing on a balcony in her mother’s rooms in one of the loathed “City in the Sky” towerblocks, Irene seems constrained by the enclosed architecture put to full use by Platts-Mills efficient camerawork.

This fits with a sense of inevitability that runs throughout the film. Their lack of legitimate options sees characters slip from petty crime committed out of boredom to serious criminality, initially stealing buns and change but later cleaning out trains carrying electronics. Irene and Del spend the film’s second act in an attempt to escape from their crushing circumstances and in this the film can be seen to open out somewhat. Music is introduced briefly and scenes open greatly – screen furniture is not so oppressive and the sets less restrictive as rigid terraces and looming tower blocks give way to the open air and space of rural England.
It is in these seemingly open settings that the restrictions on the youths’ lives are illustrated on a greater scale. Del’s uncle is reasonably welcoming, but clearly has no interest in helping Del find employment. There is no place for them there and no possibility of escape – they were born in a poor area and will likely die there.

It seems that as soon as freedom is found, it is quickly curtailed. Del’s motorbike, a symbol of independence and maturity, doesn’t survive the film. Any romantic idealism behind Del & Irene’s escape to the countryside is quickly forgotten as she is fifteen – therefore Del is guilty of abduction, rather than caught up in a Romeo & Juliet escape from an untenable situation. Reality cannot be so easily forgotten as to simply run away and though a fictional film, Bronco Bullfrog’s close links with the reality of the time remains clear even after this much time has passed.

Ultimately, I believe this point to be Bronco Bullfrog’s outstanding feature. Even 40 years after release, written and filmed in a postwar Britain living in a different age of the world, the issues central to the film are just as relevant in the modern UK – few urban dwellers have missed their effects and as a young man who has grown up in this country, I can safely say that Platts-Mills’ and the “Nutters”’ film is still relevant (fashion differences aside). The core ideas of this film have been used and re-used many times since, in many decades. In Boys from the Blackstuff in the 1980s and the Kidulthood films of this decade, the same social troubles continue and this is why Bronco Bullfrog feels modern in spite of black and white teenagers clad in Suedehead fashion.

Cold delivery, a general absence of music and depressing setting give voice to a part of London that is often forgotten in an attempt to present our capital in the best light. There can be no doubt that this is not a swinging London film and was never intended to be. If Platts-Mills aspired to realism in his work, I feel that he has succeeded – Bronco Bullfrog gives a clear image of a blighted part of the capital, which nearly half a century later has little improved, despite government claims of Olympic “revitalisation”. The use of local actors and a truly rebellious spirit present throughout production has left the film with a refreshing feeling of being genuine – this isn’t a high budget Hollywood impression of life in a troubled Borough with glamorised crime, choreographed fight scenes and a motorcycle-into-the-sunset finale.

On the downside, I found the film’s ending something of a disappointment. Though this may depend on the viewer’s discretion, I found it left too many loose ends untied, creating more rather than resolving the film’s themes. The plot, also, is quite shallow – though it is well used in displaying contemporary economic and social issues (and their effects on the population), the story itself is basically that of Romeo & Juliet in cockney accents, with simpler dialogue and less suicide. Some characters seem to appear when it fits the plot, with little reason or foreshadowing for exactly how they knew where to be and at a coincidentally perfect time. I feel that much of the story itself lacks depth.

I would recommend Bronco Bullfrog, though it is not perfect. As a film, there is no doubt that it is very different to typical cinema fare, both when it was released and to a modern audience. For those seeking a film out of the ordinary, it is certainly refreshing. If the speech is sometimes indistinct, it is redeemed by the actors’ unpretentious and true to life performance. If the plot is rather shallow, it is more than mitigated by how well the film has captured the history of an area of London that 40 years later is still troubled in the same ways.



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About Andy Checkley

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