The hidden history of UK punks

These rare films are a time capsule of the attitude, music and fashions that besieged Britain as punk took over.

Kings Road punks - Captain Zip image 2 (1978) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Anarchy in the UK

It can’t be a coincidence that punk exploded on to the streets of London like an incendiary device as the sun scorched down in the summer of ’76, one of the hottest and driest since records began. Forty years on, the ferocious fashions, subversive sounds and angry ideas of those days remain as expressive, exciting and important as ever.

The first punk films

From the get-go, punk inspired a deluge of unique, quirky films. There’s no better place to kick off our journey than with The Punk Kebab Documentary starring a young Shane MacGowan, an in-your-face punk primer exploring an alternative take on the history of kebabs.

The Punk Kebab Documentary by BFIBritish Film Institute

1977: The Punk Kebab Documentary

Starring The Nipple Erectors and The Maniacs and born in the year of punk, this is a documentary about kebabs with an anarchic approach.

Look out for footage of a young Shane MacGowan at the very dawn of his career, in the short-lived punk band The Nipple Erectors (later known as the Nips).

Editor Carl Haber has since had an established career and founded the Rome International Film School. (extract – 1 min 17 sec)

Death is Their Destiny (1978) by BFIBritish Film Institute

The Captain Zip Video Trip

One of the key chroniclers of the punk scene was Phil Munnoch, also known as Captain Zip. Armed with his trusty Super 8 camera, he could be found on the King’s Road, Chelsea (centre of punk operations), getting it all down on film for posterity, as you can see in Death Is Their Destiny, a fantastic film of London punk life as it happened in 1978. Several of his films are on BFI Player.

Death is Their Destiny (1978) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1978: Death Is Their Destiny

This fascinating amateur film of punks on the streets of London in 1978 captures the outfits and irreverent attitudes of the time. Famous faces glimpsed in the full film include Slits singer Ari Up and punk's fashion-designer-in-chief Vivienne Westwood.

The soundtrack to this film - which includes a voice-over from Captain Zip (Phil Munnoch) as well as music of the time, and the voices of Rat, Mouse and Fliss - was added later, in 1991. In this extract the footage is accompanied by X-Ray Spex’s potent anthem ‘Identity’.(extract – 1 min 2 sec)

Kings Road punks - Captain Zip image 1 (1978) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Punk and fashion

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s legendary shop at 430 Kings Road led the way in shaping fashion durning the punk era.

1978: Don’t Dream It – See It

In this 1978 film from Captain Zip, watch out for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it glimpse of punk icon Jordan outside Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s shop at 430 Kings Road, where she worked. (extract – 2 min 57 sec)

Julien Temple and the punk movie

Director Julien Temple was mates with the Sex Pistols and made their first film, Sex Pistols Number One (1977), as well as the later mockumentary feature that was built around them, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. In Punk Can Take It, he turns his unconventional camera eye on another of the fierce first wave of British punk bands, the UK Subs. Spoofing the style of British wartime propaganda films of the 1940s, this stylish music short includes a selection of dynamite live tracks. In 2000 Temple returned to punk, directing The Filth and the Fury, another documentary about the Sex Pistols.

Punk Can Take It (1979) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1979: Punk Can Take It

Punk Can Take It, featuring eccentric Tenpole Tudor frontman Edward Tudor-Pole, celebrates the achievements of the 'heroes by night' of the British punk movement in the face of 'the apathy of a stagnant England'. Using some great live footage, it berates the Establishment's unending attempts to crush or co-opt the true punk spirit.

Punk Can Take It is narrated by veteran BBC radio commentator John Snagge, who'd delivered national news reports describing the D-Day Landings in 1944. Lured out of retirement for Temple's film, he does an excellent job, lending a distinguished air of gravitas to this punchy promo. (extract – 1 min 43 sec)

Punk and the Troubles

Meanwhile, in Belfast, a vibrant anti-sectarian punk music scene had developed around the legendary Good Vibrations independent record label and shop, founded by Terri Hooley, and the influential live music venue The Harp Bar. Shellshock Rock, an exciting, eclectic music documentary, is crammed full of switched-on kids rejecting outmoded ideas and coming together united by great music. The young, brilliant bands on offer include The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Victim and The Outcasts. The full film is available to watch for free on BFI Player.

Knights Electric (1980) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Punks vs The New Romantics

Great Yarmouth wasn’t immune to punk’s allure, as a group of rowdy youngsters take an excursion for some splendid fictional fun beside the seaside but find themselves up against some silent, sharply dressed new romantics in the weird and wonderful Knights Electric. In the early 1980s Punk music faced stiff competition in the charts from pop, electronica and ska music.

Knights Electric (1980) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1980: Knights Electric

Four rowdy punk teenage boys try it on with four girls they fancy one neon-lit evening at a Great Yarmouth seaside funfair. Meanwhile, the sharply-dressed Knights Electric watch and wait. Exuberantly performed and strikingly shot, this pop music short boasts a superb soundtrack, with great tracks by Madness, John Foxx, The Pretenders, Blondie, the Ruts and Martha and the Muffins. (extract – 1 min 37 sec)

The Destructors (1983) by BFIBritish Film Institute

The last days of punk?

Some might say that by the time the documentary about punk group The Destructors was made the glory days of the movement were well and truly over, but try telling that to their still-devoted followers in 1983.

The Destructors (1983) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1983: The Destructors

Punk rebellion and anarchy with Peterborough-based punk band The Destructors, six years after their formation. Born in the crucible of punk's genesis in 1977, the band are just beginning to make a name for themselves in the early 1980s. (extract – 1 min 32 sec)

Credits: Story

The BFI National Archive holds a magnificent collection of film and television, from the birth of cinema to today.

Explore the Punk on Film collection on BFI Player to see many more beautifully preserved films.

Curator (BFI National Archive):
Vic Pratt

Additional text:
Alex Davidson

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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