How I Almost Made a Film About The Infamous 'Bromley Contingent' Punks
As a British expat in Singapore people often ask me where I come from and why they might have heard of that place. Being from Bromley the story I inevitably end up telling is that of the infamous Bromley Contingent of punk fans who befriended the Sex Pistols and birthed Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin and Billy Idol amongst others. People are always fascinated and wonder aloud why they’ve never heard this story before and I wondered too — so, I decided there was a place to create a film about it.
This was back in 2015, I was becoming bored of running my creative agency in Singapore, so took some time off to research The Bromley Contingent and see what else lurked in their history. Like most punk fans I knew the basics; who they were, where they came from and what some of them went on to do, like sweet Susan Ballion from Chislehurst up the posh end of Bromley who became Siouxsie Sioux of Banshees fame. But how did they know each other? How did they get together? Why was there such a concentration of talent in a nondescript South London suburb?
After much rummaging around the Internet I came across an out-of-print book called Berlin Bromley, a memoir by Bertie Marshall, arguably the founding member of the Bromley Contingent, with a foreword by Boy George who wrote, “Written with considered sarcasm, wit, and should be snapped up by aspiring fashion students, wannabe outsiders or worried mothers—it’s hard to put down.” I’m glad to say the book is back in print now and you can buy it from Amazon but I had to track down a second-hand copy from Oakland Library in California. The book is Bertie’s version of events but they are pretty outrageous. Here’s the synopsis I wrote to help sell the film to investors:
In 1969 androgynous gay teenager Bertie Marshall moves in two doors down from David Bowie’s mum who welcomes him with a casserole and a copy of Space Oddity - one of which changes his life forever...
Soon after Bertie bumps into Bowie on Bromley High Street, which leads him to reinvent himself as Berlin Bromley, with a little help from his best friend Susan Ballion a.k.a. Siouxsie Sioux. Together they discover the Sex Pistols and the infamous Bromley Contingent of punk fans that includes Steve Severin (with whom Siouxsie forms the Banshees) and Billy Idol of Generation X.
For the next two years they, alongside Jordan, Simone Thomas, Simon Barker, Sharon Hayman, Linda Ashby and Debbie Juvenile, partied with the Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and a whole parade of punks but when the party ends Bertie finds himself alone whilst his friends pursue fame and fortune at the forefront of the new wave.
Bertie’s isolation leads him into addiction and prostitution, first in London and then the town of his adopted name. It is whilst living in a Berlin squat that Bertie attends a talk by punk historian Jon Savage who reveals, to a packed auditorium, Bertie’s pivotal role in the punk movement.
After the show, Savage implores Bertie to write his memoir; the eternal outsider story of what it's like to truly be ourselves in a world that consistently wants us to be like everybody else.
And here’s the story in Bertie’s own words...
Amazing, right? And all in my own back yard. I was hooked, I had to make this film!
Having tracked down the book my next job was to track down the author, Bertie, to ask if he would let me tell his story on film. At the time he was not an inhabitant of social media but I found out he was a performer and gave frequent public readings of his work. Somehow I stumbled upon an American tour schedule for him and started contacting all the venues on there to see if they could put me in touch. Most promised just to pass on the message but one actually gave me his email address so I cold-messaged him sketching out my plans and waited until this arrived...
Thrilled and slightly starstruck I responded with some more detailed ideas for both a documentary and a fictionalised account of Bertie's time in the Bromley Contingent and, in February 2016, flew from Singapore to London to meet him. I was nervous. As a flamboyant and sexually confounding kid myself, who often risked violence for dressing the way I did, Bertie was a hero to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had kicked down the door for non-conforming kids and made it okay for me to sashay through. He was a pioneer of sorts and it was my honour to not only meet him but hopefully share his story with the world too.
We met at the café inside the British Film Institute on London’s Southbank (he’s an arthouse film buff). He was dressed all in black with a mop of tousled, greying hair above a boyish face; he always was quite pretty. He was suspicious of me no doubt but open to my ideas and we discussed an option i.e. granting me the exclusive right to develop a film based on his book for a fixed period. I confessed I had never optioned a book before but would find out all the necessary and get back to him. I contacted a friend of mine who happened to work in the media department of a major law firm who agreed to help me out to the tune of just a few thousand pounds (!), but I wanted to do this right, for me and for Bertie. The film industry is filled with frauds and, as his book lays out in detail, Bertie is a man who has been bitten more than once so I felt it was incumbent upon me to do the right thing. I made Bertie a cash offer (not essential if you are optioning a little-known work but a good-faith payment to engender trust), and sent him the option in May 2016. Having spent a decent chunk of my own money, I now needed somebody else's.
The phrase “production company” covers a multitude of sins, from financing to filming, from wedding videographers to Hollywood Studios and it’s never clear who has the money, and even less so how to reach them. Employing the same techniques as I did to track down Bertie I listed the ten or eleven British films that were most like the film I wanted to make, went to IMDB.com and looked up the producers and production companies. I cross referenced these with LinkedIn and either tried to make direct contact or find a mutual contact to introduce me. Here’s the list:
20,000 Days on Earth by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
Control by Anton Corbijn
24 Hour Party People by Michael Winterbottom
The Filth & The Fury by Julien Temple
Velvet Goldmine by Todd Haynes
Frank by Lenny Abrahamson
Kill Your Friends by Owen Harris
Amy by Asif Kapadia
Supersonic by Mat Whitecross
Sing Street by John Carney
The Bromley Boys by Steve Kelly (mainly because of the local connection)
From 46 production companies I found 105 named producers and 10 direct or indirect LinkedIn connections, all of whom I approached, scoring 6 meetings and another trip to London in March 2017 to test my luck with the 4 who actually turned up! Of all the meetings I had the most productive was also the most “Hollywood”. It began at 1pm in the restaurant at the exclusive Groucho Club in Soho and ended at 1am doing shots at the bar with Noel Fielding and his manager who drunkenly agreed to take some part in the production though I couldn’t tell you what. By the time I was stumbling through Chinatown back to Charing Cross (only to realise it had long since closed for the night), I had found my production financing partners. We were off!
Without getting bogged down in the details, financing films is a tricky business with a lot of moving parts. It relies on having good material (a script), attached talent (writer, director, stars), reliable production partners and, most importantly of all, tax breaks, grants and other “soft money” to support an essentially unprofitable industry outside of Hollywood. (If you’ve ever wondered why British films are just so darn British it is because they are cultural exports designed to boost tourism and our soft power not to make money). My production partner specialised in raising money for small, independent British films from retired film fans who had paid off their houses, sent their kids to college and now wanted something more interesting to talk about. The problem was I had a book but no script.
As my partners and I developed the “package” (the proposal you use to sell a film), we brainstormed potential writers and settled on one name that could do justice to the depravity in the book; John Niven. Niven is a best selling novelist whose first book became the film Kill Your Friends, about backstabbing and debauchery in the music industry, and who was, at the time, rumoured to be writing the screenplay to Caitlin Moran’s novel How To Build A Girl (which he eventually did in collaboration with her). He’s a big name in British media circles and thus protected by fancy Soho agents and such. However, my production partners were well connected, well respected people and managed to get a meeting with him at the Groucho, which I was never going to miss so once again I made the not entirely unpleasant journey back to London in September 2017, though this time on points because I’d already paid for so many damn flights!
Niven was perfect, his first gig was The Clash, he loved a drink and was up for doing a cheeky deal on the basis that he liked the book and the project, fully understanding it was going to be the most indie of independent films. We paid him an option so we could tout him as an attached writer and issued a press release, we just needed the money to pay him to write the script.
As mentioned at the opening of this epic I’m from Bromley but live in Singapore where I have, on occasion, sat in traffic jams made up entirely of Bentleys. In other words, there is a lot of money here and so I started sniffing around for some and found around S$150,000 / £75,000 from two independent investors, one a bored CEO in Singapore who loved the story of the film and the idea of being a producer, and the other, a British tax-payer in Portugal who was taken by the 50% tax relief he’d get on his investment from HMRC's Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme. The scheme, which was designed to de-risk investment in early stage startups and kickstart Britain’s innovation economy, had been successfully used to fund films on the basis that every film is a startup. However, one company by the name of Ingenious Media had allegedly been exploiting the government’s generosity to help wealthy clients avoid tax and fund huge Hollywood blockbusters that would not benefit British industry one iota. A court case had been brought against them some time in the 00's and rumbled on until March of 2018, when the powers that be quietly decided individual films could no longer qualify for SEIS or the slightly less generous EIS schemes. This plus the general anxiety of an encroaching Brexit meant that two-and-a-half years after I accepted this mission, and a mere two months before I found my investors, our financing plan was set to self destruct. Gallingly, we had to refuse the money and my production partners disbanded because their entire model was built on de-risking film investment through these government schemes.
I still think Berlin Bromley is a great story and would make a great film for an ensemble cast of up and coming British actors. Can you imagine being a 17 year old drama student asked to play the young Billy Idol or Siouxsie Sioux? There’s one great scene wherein Siouxsie and Bertie are in her childhood bedroom in Chislehurst, her showing him how to apply makeup in her vanity mirror. There is a knock on the bedroom door, it’s Siouxsie’s mum asking if her friend would like to stay for tea. “Oh, fuck off mum!”, screams Siouxsie, “But we’re having paté on toast darling”, her mum replies through the closed bedroom door. Not only does this scene perfectly encapsulate the generational conflict at the core punk’s suburban routes, but I desperately wanted the real Siouxsie Sioux to play her own mother in the scene. Wouldn’t that have been perfect?
It is now November 2020, I no longer own the option to the book or John Niven, but I have the package, the treatment and the original finance plan and one day, when I’m not so heartsick over the whole thing, maybe I’ll try again though it may have to be a different story. Despite the time, money and effort I spent trying to bring Bertie’s memoir to life, to make him a hero to others like he was to me, I seem to have lost his faith. Maybe he thought it would be a simpler or more linear process, but I’m glad I tried and I’ve no regrets and you don’t need a film to find his story, buy his book from Amazon and while you read it listen to the soundtrack I compiled featuring every song in the order it appears to get an insight into the mind of a true suburban rebel at the dawn of punk.
Many thanks to Peter Dunphy and Charlotte Arden of Gizmo Films who showed so much faith in the project, invested their money and educated me in the fine art of film financing. I am so sorry we didn’t get to make our film but I hope one day we may get another chance. Also thanks to Mark Blackman and Roxy Holman of Joker’s Pack Productions for their help during the development stage and shooting my interview with Bertie for the trailer above - let’s do it again some time! Thanks to photographer Chris O' Donovan for lending his considerable talent to take our pictures. And finally my heartfelt thanks to Bertie who put his faith in me to make this film, I’m sorry I didn’t pull it off but I will never forget the experience. Thank you all.