Punk Girls on Film #3 – Kate

“Did she just say “Arse”?….or was it “Nose”?

Kate is the main character in the 1980 film Breaking Glass, and was played by the then unknown singer and actress Hazel O Connor, who also wrote all the songs for the soundtrack. Written by Brian Gibson and executive produced by Dodi Fayed, the story charts the rise and seemingly inevitable fall of an ambitious young band from small beginnings to superstardom. Kate is the instigator, Kate has the ideas, and Kate writes the songs.

From the film’s opening sequence on a swaying tube carriage, where Kate is plastering self promotion stickers on the walls and windows of the train, we are introduced to a new kind of girl protagonist. The whole film is about movement and from very early on, Kate sets out her post punk stall of steely determination. We see her out late at night on a solo fly-posting mission, describing her band’s sound to cockney-boy music promoter Danny (played by Phil Daniels) as “Not Punk, not New Wave…but inspired by Punk”. Kate’s punk inspiration plays out in the music, lyrically riffing around ideas about an encroaching robot led dystopia which Kate warns is just around the corner and to look out for the signs. “On the eighth day machine just got upset, A problem man had not foreseen as yet, time for flight, a blinding light and nothing but a void, forever night”. Kate was serious.

Ultimately it was Danny’s ambition that took Kate’s ideas a step further. Initially she’s horrified to find out that Danny makes his money by buying certain records from certain record shops to get them into the charts. As the film plays out, and Kate gets more and more famous even Danny accuses her of selling out, and forgetting her post-punk values we see Kate agreeing to change the lyrics of some of her songs to make them more ‘radio friendly”. We learn that while this might seem hasty, it’s somehow inevitable if you want to “get on” in the music industry. It all seems sort of quaint and long-winded now, compared to the promotional budgets of today being spent on invisible things such as Facebook likes or Twitter followers. You see, in a way Kate was right, computers would take over the world.
After Breaking Glass, for a while at least, it became difficult to separate Kate (the character) from Hazel as herself. Hazel’s burgeoning career seemed to be following a similar trajectory; an unknown artist who was suddenly famous for singing exactly the same songs as Kate, and looking a lot like Kate because somehow Hazel was Kate… and Kate was Hazel. It was especially obvious when the songs from the film became hits in the outside world. Who were we watching on shows like Top of the Pops? It wasn’t Kate, because she was someone from a film, but it wasn’t really Hazel either because she was singing Kate’s songs, even though she’d written them. Tricky…a Life/Art feedback loop if ever there was one.

Kate, for all her initial punk posturing became the record company’s acceptable face of New Wave. Accused of selling out and stepping away from the people who used to be important to her, ultimately it was Kate who ended up not quite recognising herself. The feminist in me also wants to point out that the film can also be seen as a subliminal message to any other stroppy teenage wannabes along the lines of; Kate, being a girl, couldn’t handle fame or even the “gentle shepherding” of the record company, so went mad. The end. At 16, I watched it with all the gravitas of a documentary, especially enjoying the location shots, if it was set at Camden’s Music Machine, then it was filmed there. Other London venues used as locations were The Hope & Anchor in Islington, and The Rainbow in Finsbury Park.
Kate could be seen as New Wave’s sacrificial lamb being shoved through by the music industry’s giant sausage machine, only to be spat out in tatters the other end, or maybe the bigger story is that of Hazel herself, who really did go from an unknown young artist, to a BAFTA nominated, bona-fide chart topper who still has a successful career today.


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