Factory or fiction?

Tony Wilson, Manchester's Mr Music, on the film of his life: 'I think I should at least be a twat, instead of being demoted to prat. Who wants to be a prat?'

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘I was flattered, bemused, anxious. But mostly I was thinking, “Who the fuck’s gonna play me?”.’

It isn’t every day you hear that somebody is making a sweeping, epic feature film of your life – and for Tony Wilson (formerly Anthony H Wilson (‘I just did that to annoy people’) but now back to being plain old Tony, founder of Factory Records, cultural commentator and self-confessed ‘pretentious git’) the news came as a bit of a shock. ‘I was saying, “What, like Boogie Nights with me as the Burt Reynolds character?”. And they were going, “Yeah, like Boogie Nights with you as the Burt Reynolds character”.’

The film, 24-Hour Party People, opens in UK cinemas on 5 April 2002. Directed by Michael Winterbottom and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (the team behind Welcome to Sarajevo and The Claim (1)), the movie takes a drug-fuelled trip through the Manchester music scene from the ‘dawn of punk in 1976 to the death of acid in 1992’, and stars just about every northern celebrity under the age of 35: Ralf Little of BBC1’s The Royle Family, hairy comedian Dave Gorman, John Simm of BBC2’s The Lakes. And who’s playing Wilson? Steve Coogan – comedian, actor, Mancunian, ah-ha.

There are currently posters promoting the film in all the UK’s major cities, showing Coogan as Wilson with the word ‘Prat’ running across his image. Does Wilson mind being called a prat on a national scale? ‘Yes I do mind’, he says. ‘Because it should say “twat”.’ Twat? ‘Yeah, twat. That’s what we originally agreed on, and it fits in better with the film and how they’ve depicted me in it. But London Underground went all coy, and we’ve also had problems with Woolworths and other two-bit shops, who think twat is too risqué – so they’ve gone for prat instead. If I’m going to be ridiculed on train stations and in shops throughout Britain, I think I should at least be a twat, instead of being demoted to prat. Who wants to be a prat?’

So why has the film made Wilson its big story? No offence, but when you have a crop of Mancunian rock legends to pick from, why put Tony Wilson centre stage? What about Ian Curtis, the jerky, robotic (and dead) frontman of Wilson’s first big signing Joy Division? Or Shaun Ryder, the womanising, cocaine-snorting lead singer of Wilson’s other big find, the Happy Mondays? Or even Bernard Sumner of New Order, who might not be as interesting as Curtis or Ryder but who is at least a rock star (of sorts)? Instead, the film puts the record company boss in the frame and lets the other stuff happen around him.

And as a Manchester cab driver said to actor John Simm: ‘You’re telling me they’re making a fucking movie about that wanker Tony Wilson, and he’s the main part? Oh he’s going to fucking love that, isn’t he?’ (2)

‘I did think about all that’, says Wilson: ‘Why me? There are two great stories to be told: the story of Ian Curtis and the story of Shaun Ryder, and I wanted the movie to be about that. But the production guys said to me, “In order to stick all these different characters and stories together, do you think we could use the idea of a local independent record label as the central hub?”. And I said, “Yeah, you could”. Then they said, “And would you mind if we called the boss of the record label Anthony Wilson?”. And then I twigged. I’m in there as the person who ties the two periods – punk and acid – together.’

In this sense, the film couldn’t have been about anybody else. As presenter of So It Goes (Granada TV’s answer to Top of the Pops) in 1976, Wilson was one of the first to ‘bring punk to the masses’, showcasing bands like ‘the Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Iggy and all that shit’. As founder of Factory Records in the late 1970s, he got post-punk off to a good start with the dark, fatal tones of Joy Division. And as his club the Hacienda took off in the 1980s, Wilson was a driving force behind acid’s ‘second summer of love’, as epitomised by the Happy Mondays. Between 1976 and 1992, punk burnt out, Ian Curtis committed suicide and the Happy Mondays collapsed in spectacular style – but Wilson was the one constant throughout.

‘I suppose that’s true, but it still feels a bit weird, being the subject of a film and all’, says Wilson. ‘The way I see it, the more they tell the story of punk and acid, and the less they tell the story of me, the better the movie will be.’

So how well does the film tell the story of punk and acid? It seems like a tall order: to capture not just one ‘youth revolution’, but two; to cover everything from the anti-hippies of punk to the prototype hippies of acid – not forgetting all that electronic stuff in between. And rock biopics and biographies are notorious for getting it wrong, at least in some people’s eyes (think Johnny Rotten denouncing the film Sid and Nancy as ‘a load of bollocks’, or everybody else denouncing Albert Goldman’s studies of Elvis and John Lennon as lies, lies, lies). So has 24-Hour Party People got it right?

‘Oh no, it’s completely untrue’, says Wilson, with surprising aplomb. ‘It’s all lies. I never screwed two prostitutes in the back of a van, but that’s in there. Somebody else didn’t screw somebody else in that particular place, but that’s in there. There are drugs where there weren’t drugs and sex where there wasn’t sex – there are lots of untruths. But hey, what do you want? There’s that line about the choice between truth and legend – always pick the legend. And that’s what they’ve done.’

Wilson has a point. Who wants to know the truth about rock stars? There are more than enough TV exposés and ‘shockographies’ telling us that our pop heroes weren’t as great as we thought they were – and ITV’s Popstars and Pop Idol showed that the ‘reality’ behind the rise to fame gets a bit boring after a while. But did Wilson ever feel obliged to correct any of the untruths?

‘There were some things that were a bit too much’, he says. ‘So there was one scene of Shaun Ryder in a backroom shooting up. I was like, Hello, no way, absolutely not. Shaun never ever shot up. He did chase the dragon. Everywhere. Including in the back of my car on the way to do fucking Juke Box Jury one mid-afternoon driving along Shaftesbury Avenue in London. But he only chased the dragon; he never shot up.’

Wilson even asked the producers to take out some of the ‘mounds of cocaine’ – not because it might be a bad influence on younger viewers, but in the interests of historical specificity. ‘In the original draft, everybody was doing lines of coke all the time. So I had to point out that if cocaine arrived at all in Manchester it wasn’t until the 1990s – it wasn’t really part of our lives, except for the odd occasion in New York where it’s obligatory. Also, like us or loathe us, we did inadvertently achieve lots of things, and much as one can enjoy drugs you can’t achieve a lot when you’re up to your eyeballs in coke. So I asked them to take some of the white stuff out.’

But forget the film’s sex, drugs and more drugs storylines. There was one part of the script that Wilson took offence to, something that was ‘really horrible, really offensive, which I found very difficult’ – ‘the way they overdid me as a cultured, educated, pretentious git’:

‘On every other page they had my character saying, “I went to Cambridge, you know”. I thought, hold on a fucking minute, I know they’re playing me as a pretentious git and I know everybody thinks I’m a pretentious git, but that’s going a bit too fucking far. Okay, when I’ve got my back against the wall, when I’m defending one of my bands, I do sometimes say, “Listen sunshine, I studied English at Cambridge, I’m a trained art critic, it’s the only fucking thing I know, and I’m telling you this is the greatest fucking band in the world”. But the script had me saying it every minute, so I rang up the producers and complained. But that bit actually stays in. Some things stay, some things go. I can be precious – but it’s their film.’

And it didn’t take Wilson long to realise that the film wouldn’t get very far if he flinched at his character’s every flaw: ‘The only way they could make sense of it all is by taking the piss out of me, and that’s fine. They say it’s affectionate, but I’m not sure it is. Who knows?’

The film might have more sex, drugs and pretension than existed in reality, but Wilson prefers this untruthful version of the truth. ‘There are lots of wrong facts, but that’s great. Because as soon as something’s wrong then no one is taking it as a documentary, or a rockumentary or whatever the fuck they call those things, and no one can be upset.’

And the important thing is that the film ‘captures a moment’: ‘There’s one scene with Jon the Postman [played by Dave Gorman], a Manchester character who used to jump on stage and sing Louie Louie after punk gigs, and the camera pans around the back of him and you see all these kids leaping up and down and fucking hanging and banging and beer flying out of their cans, and I thought, “Fuck, this is exactly how it was in 1976 and 1977”. And if they have captured in the Hacienda scenes the feeling of acid house, which apparently they have, then they will have caught a glimpse of two youth revolutions. Fuck the truth – it’s those moments that really count.’

This untruthful version of the truth does sound better than those films that try to tell the ‘reality, man’. But isn’t this just nostalgia? Isn’t this an attempt to make ourselves feel better about now by looking back to a time when there was some decent music in the charts? In today’s nostalgia-ridden society, punk is positively ancient history, and even acid in the early 1990s is ready for a trip down memory lane (remember BBC2’s I Love the 1980s and I Love the 1990s nostalgia-fests? What’s next – ‘I Love Last Week’?). And my generation of twentysomethings is as guilty of nostalgia as the rest of them – I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard mates say, ‘We had real music in my day, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays…’.

But Wilson denies that the film is ‘about the fucking past. It’s about the fucking future, man. The point is, we’re about to have another youth revolution, it’s right on our doorsteps, it will be along any minute now. So to have a film showing those other two moments, punk and acid, is not retrogressive, but might help point today’s kids to the future’.

Hold on. Another youth revolution on our doorsteps? This is where you have to understand Wilson’s ’13-year-cycle theory’ – his belief that there will be a youth revolution every 13 years. So there was The Beatles in 1963, punk in 1976, acid in 1989 – meaning that our next youth revolution will be this year, 2002.

I venture that there isn’t much evidence of a brimming youthful revolution – and Wilson agrees that today’s pop music is ‘total bollocks’. (Coldplay? ‘Utter middle-class shite.’ Craig David? ‘If I hear any UK garage or Craig David again I will fucking throw up.’ Robbie Williams? ‘They’re the dead generation, all of them.’) ‘But this is the calm before the storm’, he says.

‘It’s always like that before a youth revolution. The charts in 1974 and 1975 just before punk were full of shite, as they were in 1986 and 1987 just before acid. I know; I’ve watched Top of the Pops in those periods and I’ve been afraid, very afraid. But the youth revolution comes along and strips all that shit away – and I’m telling you it happens every 13 years. This isn’t even a theory, it’s a fucking fact of life. 2002 will be the year.’

Let’s hope Wilson is right – otherwise we’ll have the ‘dead generations’ stalking the charts for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, all you fortysomething ex-punks, thirtysomething New Order fans and twentysomething ex-acid freaks – the chance to relive your youth, at a cinema near you.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Why I don’t ‘Love the 1980s’, by Brendan O’Neill

Murdering the dancefloor, by Neil Davenport

See A Claim on Hardy’s legacy, by Sandy Starr

(2) Shooting the past, Guardian, 23 February 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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