Credit_ Fabrizio Rainone

“An amazing woman and way ahead of her time” – Sheffield-based producer Rebecca Mark-Lawson on Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche

Image: Fabrizio Rainone

X-Ray Spex were a big deal in the late Seventies. If you mention their name to people who were around at the time, some of them might sing you a quick chorus of their biggest hit, ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’, but more likely they’ll mention Poly Styrene, the band’s iconic lead singer. She was unusual not just in her appearance, but also because women just didn’t front punk bands in those days. Sheffield-based film company Tyke Films recently produced an award-winning documentary on the artist’s life entitled Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, and we couldn’t think of anyone better than our resident documentary addict and punk survivor Mark Perkins to chat to them about it. So, Mark popped to the leafy suburb of Nether Edge, where producer Rebecca Mark-Lawson was working on their latest project. 

I must admit, besides knowing that Poly Styrene was the lead singer with X-Ray Spex, and perhaps suspecting that it wasn’t her real name, I didn’t know much about her until I saw this film. It turns out she was born Marianne Elliott, grew up in Brixton, and after seeing the Sex Pistols perform in Hastings, decided to form a band. Could you fill in a few more details for our readers?
She was an amazing woman and way ahead of her time. She still has a band of die-hard fans, who supported the film with crowdfunding, but she’s pretty much unknown outside the music she made in the late seventies. I didn’t know much about her until I started making this film. There have been exhibitions around her life, and there’s also a book, written by her daughter, Celeste Bell, which forms the basis for the film. She was a very talented and creative woman, and we worked with Celeste to tell her mother’s story.

Is that how the project started, with the book?
Yes. Celeste was working with Zoe Howe, the co-writer of the film, who has a great deal of experience writing with music and bands. Director Paul Sng asked Zoe if she had any ideas for a project, and she mentioned working with Celeste on her book. They all met up and it sprang from there. The film and the book were supposed to come out at the same time, but it took a long time to make the film and to raise the finance, so the book came out first.

Did it stem from Celeste going through her mother’s archives – because I know from the film that that was something she was initially reluctant to do?
Yes, absolutely. That’s what triggered the book. We used that as a story structure. After her mother died in 2011, Celeste couldn’t come to terms with it at all. They had had quite a difficult relationship and they’d only just got back together. She wasn’t able to go through the things her mother had left behind for quite some time, but eventually she committed to it. It was then that she realised how interesting her mum was in terms of her writing. She had very forward-thinking views on a wide range of issues, all of which are still relevant today. She wrote about politics, green issues, feminism, identity and race. All these were reflected in her lyrics and other things she wrote. Celeste decided that it was a story that needed to be told.

It must have been very hard for her to survive, let alone succeed, in music in the late seventies.
If you were a bi-racial, working-class woman, you were not represented in the charts at all – and nowhere else were you celebrated either. It was very easy to slip between the cracks when no one was hearing your voice. It’s only recently that anyone has championed female and black voices. She felt she never really fitted into the world she lived in. The film tells the story of her life up until her death, tragically young, in 2011.

“She felt she never really fitted into the world she lived in.” Image: Falcon Stuart

I imagine she was pigeon-holed as being the lead singer of X-Ray Spex, and people weren’t interested in anything else.
Yes, it’s such a shame, as her work after she left the group is really interesting. Her first solo album is brilliant, but the music press destroyed it. They weren’t accepting of anything that didn’t echo her music with X-Ray Spex. Nowadays she would have been able to self-publish her music and get it out there, but in those days you needed the record company to champion your voice and your work. The punk movement really was dominated by white male performers and writers, so she had a hard time being taken seriously. It was a similar situation with the music press at that time. Looking back, I never really understood why she was called a punk. I think she just jumped on the back of that movement to get heard.

What else can you tell us about Tyke Films?
Tyke Films has been going since 2015. We do documentary, drama, film, TV and we’re also working on a VR project at the moment, Tell-Tale Rooms, which we’re showing at this year’s Sheffield DocFest. although it’s still a work in progress. Mainly we try to focus on people’s lives by telling true stories in documentaries and filming dramas based on people’s experiences. We’ve also got a film, Irene’s Ghost, which is on Sky at the moment and doing really well.

Can you tell us what are Tyke Films up to now?
Well, we’re filming right now, outside Cafe #9 in Nether Edge actually, but it’s all a bit secret at the moment. Hopefully, we can announce more soon.

A special screening for Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche followed by special Q+A takes place at Showroom Cinema on Wed 20th April. Tickets and more info available here

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