Barney Platts-Mills on lost classic 'Bronco Bullfrog'

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'Bronco Bullfrog' was shot in the East End in 1969 and is a lost gem of British cinema. Dave Calhoun meets its director, Barney Platts-Mills

British filmmaker Barney Platts-Mills has been out of it for years – out of the film business, out of touch with the world in which he made two features, ‘Bronco Bullfrog’ and ‘Private Road’, between 1969 and 1971. Film projects come and go, explains this affable, cheeky 65 year old whose voice lurches between the salon and the street: he has been involved with the Portobello Film Festival since it started in the 1990s and recently shot his first film in 20 years in Morocco, where he has a house (‘now I only know people called Mohammed’). But Platts-Mills says he’s a different person entirely from when this son of the establishment (his dad was a QC who defended the Krays) made ‘Bronco Bullfrog’ on the streets of east London with rough-and-ready kids from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop.

‘I lost touch with myself,’ he says over a cup of tea in a pub around the corner from the British Film Institute, which is re-releasing ‘Bronco Bullfrog’ this week and preparing a DVD of the film. ‘From the age of 15, when I went into the film business, to 26, I did one thing: I made films. When I stopped, I didn’t know what to say to anyone. I went to Scotland and grew cabbages. I’ve done the same thing in Morocco.’ Platts-Mills quit boarding school at 15 and spent the rest of the 1960s as a fledgling editor and director, coming into contact with studios and TV, as well as skirting the edges of the looser, more documentary-based Free Cinema scene. It was his 1968 short, ‘Everybody’s an Actor, Shakespeare Said’, about the work of Littlewood, famous for her 1963 production ‘Oh, What a Lovely War!’, that brought him into contact with the kids in ‘Bronco Bullfrog’.

The film is a lost gem, a simple story of a teenage welder, Del (Del Walker), and his relationships with his best mate, Roy (Roy Haywood), his new girlfriend, Irene (Anne Gooding), and Bronco (Sam Shepherd), a lonely boy fresh out of borstal with a flat full of stolen goods. The dialogue is fruity; the locations are as real as the behaviour; and the feeling is of youngsters acting out their lives. The crime is petty; the petting is coy. Platts-Mills says he was copying Littlewood. ‘All any of us knew about acting or directing actors was from Joan. Her idea was that there’s no point hiding behind a part, you have to be there yourself. The main thing she said to me was, “Don’t let the buggers sit down or they’ll go to sleep.” Not that anyone knew what her idea of theatre was. All she said was “fucking cunt”, really.’

The film over, Platts-Mills’s actors went back to their jobs. His leading man, Del, continued as a plumber and is now a grandfather on the Isle of Wight. ‘He sent me an email four years ago asking if there was any money. The answer was no. Sam and Roy still live in east London. I never made a penny from the films.’ How did he get on with these boys? ‘They were all troopers, no nonsense at all. They were slightly condescending about filmmaking, they knew welding and plumbing were more serious. But we were close in age. We were friends, great friends.’

Read our review of ‘Bronco Bullfrog

Author: Dave Calhoun



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