Flavio Frezza, author of Italia Skins and translator of George Marshall’s Spirit of 69 into Italian, introduces us to a rarely seen British gem. Originally published in Italian on Crombie Media.
Anyone into skinhead, mod, and related youth styles knows Bronco Bullfrog (1969), which was largely shot round Stratford E15 by Barney Platts-Mills. As is commonly claimed, the movie documents the transition from skinhead to suedehead, which was completed at the beginning of the following decade.
The suedehead style was smarter compared to the skinhead look, and suedeheads had longer hair than their predecessors, so that style can be considered a partial return to modernism, albeit in a different social and economic context than the one that gave birth to mods.
Before I continue, let me clarify that Platts-Mills probably had no interest in the subcultures we’re discussing: he came across the future protagonists of his films because they hung out near a theatre run by the famous director Joan Littlewood, located in the East End of London.
The gang regularly harassed actors and theatregoers. Eventually, the exasperated director invited the youngsters inside the theatre and ultimately convinced them to attend a theatrical course. Barney Platts-Mills decided to document that experience by directing the colour film Everybody’s an Actor, Shakespeare Said (1968), which lasts 31 minutes.
The boys were initially wary of the director due to his hippie influences and well-off social background: in fact, his father John was an important Labour politician. In spite of that, some gang members became friends with Barney and started hanging out with him. One day, they suggested he direct a feature film with them as protagonists: he accepted, and shortly after they began work on Bronco Bullfrog, which was shot in black and white for economic reasons.
SOME COMMENTS ON STYLE
As stated earlier, many believe that Bronco Bullfrog documents the transition from skinhead to suedehead. To tell the truth, the look of most actors is not much different than what is seen in Everybody’s an Actor.
In the second film, some actors’ haircuts are longer, but even in the first film, few boys sport a shaved head. However, this is perfectly normal since the very short hair and shaved heads only became widespread with the onset of the 70s skinhead revival.
What’s more, not many of Platts-Mills’s young friends can be identified as belonging to the skinhead cult, or even to the earlier mod cult. Part of the reason is that in 1968, some aesthetic aspects of skinhead were not that well-defined yet.
In fact, it is believed that the skinhead look became somewhat standardised only about 1969, which some mistakenly consider the birth year of the subculture. This, of course, does not mean that there was no further evolution in style. In fact, there were developments of various kinds, resulting in the suedehead style, as well as other youth styles deriving more or less directly from skinhead (boot boys, smoothies, crombie boys).
Back to our young actors, there is another factor that must be taken into account: some of them were obviously school age, so chances are that not all of them could afford to dress like the older skins, who had some money of their own.
There is a strong chance that at least some of these youngsters did not identify with any particular youth cult and simply followed – entirely or partly – the working class fashion of the moment.
In light of all this, it’s tempting to say that the common interpretation of Bronco Bullfrog‘s documentary value is too schematic, and probably not well-informed. It’s true enough, on the other hand, that not many are aware of Platt-Mills earlier documentary, even though everybody knows his ‘suedehead movie’.
However, a stylistic comparison between the two films isn’t all useless: for starters, Bronco Bullfrog testifies to a certain popularity of Dr Martens, which in fact established themselves at the expense of other types of boots precisely in 1969.
The actors of Everybody’s an Actor and Bronco Bullfrog seem to represent a certain part of the British working class youth quite well. Hence, we hope that the frames shown here will inspire those wishing to investigate the stylistic evolution of East End youths in more depth, so as to increase our historical knowledge of mod, skinhead and suedehead cultures.
An important final note: if you are curious to see Everybody’s an Actor, you can find it among the extras of the wonderful dual format edition (Blu-ray + DVD) of Bronco Bullfrog, curated by the British Film Institute.