Saturday, 7 May 2016
Bronco Bullfrog (1969)
Bronco Bullfrog, Barney Platts-Mills' forgotten film of 1969 deserves wider attention. Like Ken Loach's work from the same era, it has much to say that is truthful about the so called swinging sixties. In focusing on the dead end existence of east end teenagers, it shows that the party the history books erroneously claim everyone was having was clearly going on elsewhere in London, for a select few.
Shot on the cheap with non-professional actors schooled by the great Joan Littlewood, Platts-Mills' film garnered rave reviews at Cannes and even picked up a Writers' Guild award but, with distributors uncertain about what to do with it, it quickly disappeared from view, remaining untroubled by the BBC and Channel 4 (indeed it's been shown just twice on British television in 47 years) probably because it fails to fit the collective narrative of the 1960s, pre-empting as it does the more authentic works of Alan Clarke et al at the tail end of the subsequent decade instead. Unearthed by BFI Flipside six years ago, it stands as a rare time piece of the watershed between the '60s and the '70s.
Bronco Bullfrog plays out along the sink estates, LV accepting cafes and the bomb sites of Stratford populated by amateur moddish/suedehead actors who actually lived in that area and lived the lives they were tasked with depicting. At its heart is the mixed fortunes of a pair of star-crossed lovers, Del (Del Walker) and Irene (Anne Gooding), whose budding relationship is hampered at every turn by their elders and society as a whole. Their parents nag them, each believing that the other is a bad influence on their child and effectively banning them from seeing one another, ensuring their coitus is pretty much a non-starter never mind interruptus. With no employment opportunities to be had at the fag end of the decade either, they have little in the way of cash to set themselves up or even go out much to live as they'd like.
In the midst of all this comes Del's old friend, the titular and near-mythic Bronco Bullfrog (Sam Shepherd), a Borstal runaway who, like Del and Irene, is also kicking his heels and pondering the possibilities of a better life. In between bottles of coca-cola in the local greasy spoon at night, before going back to his digs, he dreams and schemes of robbing a goods train and making good with the loot.
It was Platts-Mills desire to create a new kind of cinema; exclusively independent and authentic, it would be free, accessible and working class. In Bronco Bullfrog he nails his ambitions perfectly, depicting a brisk and engaging slice-of-life drama right up until its Truffaut Les quatre cents coups inspired freeze-frame hanging ending. His direction is observational, as befitting a man who cut his teeth in independent documentary productions (having previously shot St Christopher concerning the education system for children with special needs, and Everybody's An Actor, Shakespeare Said which introduced him to Littlewood and the cast he would subsequently go on to use here) and his direction remains rough and ready, capturing the occasional hesitant, unsure and unschooled moments, but that's all just part of the appeal; reality is caught and captured on every single frame.
What's surprising (or perhaps not, given how quickly the film was buried) is the actors involved never worked in the profession again. Walker, who shines in the lead role and looks not unlike a young Pete Townshend, was never to be heard of again, not even an episode of The Bill to his name. This is a real shame, but not as much of a tragedy as the one which befell his equally impressive leading lady Gooding, who Platts-Mills recalls died at an early age, 'on the dancefloor' And Bronco Bullfrog himself? Sam Shepherd is now a porter at Spitalfields market with a memory of the night he really was the ring-leader of this unlikely mob; confronting Princess Anne at the premiere of Olivier's Three Sisters in Oxford Circus to ask her to come and see their little film instead. His admirable chutzpah paid off in the end, and the princess duly took her seat alongside Shepherd at the Mile End ABC a week later. When she confided to him that Irene's mother's endless moaning about her daughter's taste in boys had reminded her of her own mother's stance, it took Shepherd a moment to realise that she was of course referring to the Queen!
Proof perhaps that what Platts-Mills was attempting really was accessible to all. It might be showing the reality of the 60s in all its monochrome, grubby glory, but it still has something to say to everyone...even a royal!