Poly Styrene documentary: Celeste Bell on her mother’s incredible, complex legacy

Jochan Embley
·8-min read
<p></p> (Fabrizio Rainone)
(Fabrizio Rainone)

In September 2008, a packed-out crowd at the Roundhouse witnessed the return of groundbreaking punk band X-Ray Spex, joined by their founder and inimitable force of a frontwoman, Poly Styrene, to play through their one and only album, 1978’s Germfree Adolescents.

Celeste Bell, Poly’s daughter, was the support act that night with her band Debutant Disco. “That was basically my first ever gig,” Bell remembers now, “and it was in front of, like, 3,000 people, so that was really overwhelming and exciting.”

But that wasn’t the only reason Bell was anxious on the night. She had seen how nervous her mother was in the lead-up to the show and how, heavily medicated to keep her bipolar disorder in check, Poly was worried “she would f*** it all up because she wouldn’t be able to handle it,” Bell says. “And so the fact that she managed to get through it, and it was a roaring success — that was just amazing to see, and be like, ‘Oh, it was all worth it’.”

Part of the fervour that engulfed the north London venue that night was surely down to the improbability of such a thing ever happening. When the 21-year-old Poly Styrene — real name Marianne Elliott — left X-Ray Spex after three short but seismic years in 1979, it was amid a swirl of critical praise, but also public scrutiny, industry pressure and unspooling mental illness.

As Bell says in a new, extraordinary documentary about her mother’s life and work, “it took an incredible amount of strength for my mum to walk away from X-Ray Spex,” a band at “the height of their success”. But as Bell adds: “Poly Styrene had to die so that Marianne Elliott could survive.”

How she got to that point, and the various rebirths that followed, is all unpacked in the film, narrated by Bell, who co-directed it alongside Paul Sng. The project began in earnest for Bell in 2016 — five years after her mother’s death from cancer at the age of 53 — when she began to delve through the extensive archives that were left behind, unearthing everything from Poly’s handwritten lyrics, to all her various artworks and graphic designs.

Poly StyrenePR handout
Poly StyrenePR handout

The film rightly holds Poly up as an icon — an Anglo-Somali, working-class individualist from Brixton who was intent on blazing her own trail — but never shies away from the darkness in her life, whether that was the misogyny and racism she regularly faced, or the up-and-down relationship she had with her daughter, which veered from strong maternal love to neglect and anger.

“I was always determined to be really open, warts and all,” Bell says. “But at the same time, what’s really important for me, more than anything else, is giving my mother the respect she deserves, and making a film she would be happy with.”

For Bell, that means exploring the X-Ray Spex era in all its explosive influence, but also making sure viewers realise those few years were just one part of her existence. For one, she wants people to know just how gifted an artist her mother was. She “absorbed” culture, Bell says, and aside from her incredibly astute lyrics, which tore chunks out of consumerism and societal expectations, she was an avid writer of everything from poems to short stories, all of which she managed having left school at 15. Bell also wanted to make clear how important spirituality was in her mother’s life, and devotes time in the film to the period they both spent living in a secluded mansion as devotees of the Hare Krishna movement in the Eighties.

“She often said to me that she really felt people didn’t take her seriously,” Bell says. “They patronised her and treated her like she was stupid.” We see multiple clips of male interviewers asking overly intimate, prying questions, or responding to her thoughtful answers with outright disregard.

“That’s what she was coming up against,” Bell says. “People had very fixed ideas already, not just on what she was about, but what female pop stars were about.” The fact she spoke with a thick south London accent didn’t help either. “People would make all sorts of assumptions about someone who was young from Brixton with that accent. She was just constantly underestimated.”

We hear about how the press picked apart the way she looked, from teeth braces to the shape of her body, and how the punk scene she found herself a part of — supposedly a bastion of the counterculture — was in fact “very conservative in terms of what was acceptable,” Bell says. In one piece of footage, we see Poly surrounded by a huddle of male fans trying forcefully to kiss her on the lips, something that would justifiably be considered assault today.

“They were really tough, those punk gigs,” Bell says. “I think the first couple, my mum enjoyed, but very quickly she was over it.” Bell tells of one gig in Paris where Poly’s decision to play some acoustic songs was met with “an onslaught of spit and horrible language”.

“She was so fed up after that. It was one of those defining moments where she was just like, ‘F*** this, f*** them’.”

The punk bands themselves were hardly any better. Attending a Sex Pistols gig as a teenager was a formative moment for Poly, but as the film explains, when she came to associate with the group, she was met with disdain; on one occasion, Sid Vicious locked her in a cupboard for an hour.

That mistreatment led to one of Poly’s most enduring public statements. She went up to the bathroom in John Lydon’s house and shaved all her hair off. As Bell explains, it was a multi-layered act. In one sense, it was a way to demand the attention of her peers. In another, it was a rejection of the sex symbol status that had been thrust upon her. But, Bell says, “the darkest side of it is that she was going through some serious mental health issues. It was a real cry for help.”

Celeste BellPR handout
Celeste BellPR handout

When Poly was first admitted to the Maudsley Hospital in south London, after experiencing a bout of erratic behaviour and what seemed like hallucinations, she was wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia. The depictions of her treatment in the film are damning; she was told by some doctors that she was “out of her depth” and that she’d “never work again”.

“My mum did get the tail end of some of the worst aspects of mental health treatment,” Bell says. “For example, she actually did have electric shock therapy, and it was very experimental in terms of drugs.” One private doctor, upon learning that Poly was a vegetarian, prescribed a diet of rare-cooked meat as a cure. “Obviously it didn’t make any difference,” says Bell. “It was some real quack kind of stuff that she came across.”

Bell’s own feelings towards her mother being taken into mental health institutions is mixed. “There were many times when all I wanted was my mum to be sectioned,” she says. “That’s what I wanted, that’s what the family wanted, because there was no alternative. She had to be in hospital.

“But, on the other hand, I have to think from her perspective; she was being kept against her will in an institution,” Bell adds. “The fact that people with mental health issues [who are sectioned] basically don’t have the same rights as others in society is something we really need to talk about. We don’t talk about that.”

Viewers of the documentary who have also seen the recent film Framing Britney Spears will be struck forcefully by the parallels with a woman who, under the pressures of her fame, not only shaved her hair like Poly did, but also lost her agency, this time thanks to a conservatorship, supposedly enacted for her own good. And of course, Poly’s story is also proof that the intrusive, sexualised treatment of young women in music shown in some of Britney’s early interviews is nothing new.

Bell can speak openly about her mother’s struggles thanks in part to the therapy she had as a child, and the film goes on to show that, before her mother’s death, their bond was stronger than ever. The footage from that gig at the Roundhouse where Bell gets up on stage with her mother to sing the chorus to one of X-Ray Spex’s most famous songs, Oh Bondage! Up Yours!, is powerfully moving.

What sticks in Bell’s memory, from that night and from other times in her life, is just how deep an impact her mother had to those with whom she came into contact.

“Anyone who met my mum, they were just really touched by that,” Bell says. “Even if it was very brief, they often felt like their lives had been changed by that one encounter. That’s how incredible she was.”

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché is out on March 5