Poly Styrene: I am a Cliche – Daughter of punk icon shares her mum’s mental health journey​​​​​​​

The incredible true story of the first woman of colour to front a successful rock band in the UK is being told by a film featuring her daughter.

By Sophie Mei Lan
Thursday, 28th April 2022, 3:44 pm

Poly Styrene, the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, began to hallucinate after a gig in Doncaster during a mental health breakdown, the film reveals.

The punk rock icon introduced the world to a new sound of rebellion, using her unconventional voice to sing about identity, consumerism, and postmodernism but misogyny, racism, and mental illness plagued Poly’s life - and that of her daughter Celeste Bell.

The film Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché held its Sheffield screening with steel city film-makers Tyke Films alongside Celeste Bell and director Paul Sng in attendance, after winning two British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) for the film which was also nominated for a BAFTA Scotland and Grierson Award.

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Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché

“My mum wasn’t like other mums,” her daughter said. “To say my childhood was unusual would have been an understatement.

“From my early years living in George Harrison’s Hare Krishna mansion to being removed from my mother’s care due to her mental health woes and finding myself in a rough Brixton school; living with my grandmother in the same house my mother had spent her teenage years, life was anything but boring.”

Celeste, who became “the unwitting guardian of her mother’s legacy and her mother’s demons,” worked with Sheffield-based production company Tyke Films to create Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, which has been critically acclaimed worldwide.

Celeste spoke candidly about her mother’s life behind-the-scenes ahead of the screening and Q + A at The Showroom in Sheffield.

Rebecca Mark-Lawson, Celeste Bell and Paul Sng at The Showroom in Sheffield

“I must’ve been about four years old when I realised something wasn’t right. The constant cycle of elation and despair,” she said.

“My mother had bipolar disorder but she was initially misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. This was after the first psychotic episode at the height of the period of fame she had.

“She was at a gig in Doncaster, she had a hallucination. This was quite publicised because she was touring a lot and on TV.

“People were writing about her breakdown in the press, so it was really difficult for her.

British musician and singer Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, 1957 - 2011) of punk rock band X-Ray Spex at the launch of the Anti-Heroin Project, 1986. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“The mental health journey that my mum had was a lifelong struggle and of course that impacted not just my mum’s life but my life as well,” said Celeste, who explores their relationship and her mother’s “many personas” in the film.

She added: “It was really difficult growing up in that environment but it makes you stronger.

“We’re getting a bit better in society talking about mental health but for artists there’s really not much support.

“It’s really hard for young artists and it’s important to look at what care is in place for them.”

Bradford’s Zayn Malik of One Direction fame has spoken about his own mental health battles and needing to take a break back home with his mum after experiencing anxiety and depression.

Celeste added: “There wasn’t any support for when my mum was a teenager in X-Ray Spex and in fact it was the opposite. There was more pressure to keep performing and keep going, when what she really needed was to take a step back and rest.

“I think we have come a certain way but I think it’s really important to show there are plenty of areas in society where there’s not enough support in place.

“Then for children with parents with mental health difficulties there are not many charities or organisations focused on that.

“I hope questions are asked and we look at how we can progress.”

Poly Styrene was an Anglo-Somali punk musician, a key inspiration for the riot grrrl and Afropunk movements in the late 1970s prior to having her daughter.

Poly had a rare prescience but the late punk maverick didn’t just leave behind an immense cultural footprint, she left behind Celeste.

“There was a lot about my mum’s life which was challenging but there is so much which is hopeful and inspirational,” she said

“I think the most inspirational thing is how my mother used those difficulties and challenges, she had a lot of difficulties growing up with bullying and racism and poverty, and how she took all those challenges including those with her mental health and she transformed that into this creativity, this art and this a fantastic legacy.

“I think all of us can benefit from those kinds of stories. I’m always learning from her and the more I am proud of her and what she achieved and how I need to be more resilient and as strong as my mum.

“My mum had an illness so as difficult as she could be - she could be very difficult - I always had to keep in mind she had an illness which she was dealing with.

“It made me independent, which is a strength. I feel that sometimes adversity can be a gift,” said Celeste.

At her funeral people paid tribute to the ‘icon’ known for the song ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours,’ but Celeste explains in the film that she was just focused on the fact that she had lost her mother.

Bereft with her passing and the challenging relationship that she had had with her mother which she was left to unravel, picking up the pieces as her only child.

“It was not until my mother passed away that I was left an extensive archive of her artwork, poems, and images that her late manager had been keeping all these years, that I was finally able to piece together the many different personas my mother adopted during her life.

“Was it because she had left X-Ray Spex after only one album, leaving the band in large part due to a nervous breakdown at the age of 21?

“Was it because she was a woman who refused to be sexualised? Was it because she was a young woman of colour in an industry dominated by older white men?

“Or was it simply because the themes my mother was exploring in Germ Free Adolescents, rampant consumerism, virtual reality, and genetic engineering, were themes which can only be appreciated in today’s world, a world in which much of what she was predicting came to pass?

“Whatever the reasons, I decided I would make sure my mother’s artistic legacy was “given the recognition she deserves.

“This film is a testimony to a woman whose story needs to be told.”

Celeste approached Tyke Films run by producer Rebecca Mark-Lawson whose Yorkshire-based team alongside director Paul Sng made the documentary with Celeste as co-director.

The film has recently achieved huge success, winning Best Documentary and the Raindance Discovery Award at the BIFAs.

It has now played 50 festivals worldwide, was featured in Vogue, LA Times and was a New York Times Critics Pick, as well as being nominated for a Grierson Award and a Scottish BAFTA.

Having sold out its US Release and now to be released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Modern Films this month (May 2022).