When the maverick entrepreneur Tony Wilson breathed life into the Manchester music scene in the late 1970s, Paul Morley was the journalist who chronicled his - and its - rise. Now the story of Wilson, Joy Division, the Hacienda and Factory Records is being shot as a feature film starring Steve Coogan. Can they possibly get it right?
Friday February 23, 2001
As I sit in a Manchester hotel bar a young man walks slowly across the room. He's quite tall and very slim, stooped inside slightly ill-fitting dark clothes that might have been bought at Oxfam, and he wears an expression of distractedsadness. For a stunning moment, I swear that it is Ian Curtis, the Joy Division singer who killed himself 20 years ago. He disappears through a door, vanishes like a ghost.
I'm in Manchester to watch the filming of 24 Hour Party People, a story about the Manchester music scene from the punk of 1976 to the post-acid of 1992, a story about the suicide of Ian Curtis, a story about the artful dodging of Shaun Ryder, a story about a city that changed its face inside a decade, a story about the Hacienda nightclub, and most of all, a story about Tony Wilson, hero, villain, intellectual, slimeball, charlatan, loser, eccentric, drama queen, ultimate northern romantic.
The film features Human Traffic's John Simm, The Royle Family's Ralf Little, Human Remains's Rob Brydon, Snatch's Lenny James, A Room for Romeo Brass's Paddy Considine, and comedians Peter Kay, Keith Allen, John Thompson, and Dave Gorman.
And then there's Steve Coogan as the brilliant, infuriating Tony Wilson, the man who soaks up the sacred Manchester air as if it is a drug that will speed him up and spin him around until he glimpses God, or becomes God, or perhaps just gets to boss God around. Coogan as Wilson! Only in Manchester. It may be a story about art, love, death, ambition, betrayal, vanity, sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and more death, but you've got to laugh.
John Simm is driving in from Manchester airport to begin work on the film. He is, to his sheer delight, playing Bernard Sumner, the Joy Division/New Order guitarist. Simm's cab driver recognises him. He asks him what he's in town for. Simm tells him he's got a part in 24 Hour Party People. "What's that?" asks the cabbie. He will at best know Wilson as the annoying man off the telly, the one with the poncey clothes, not the rock'n'roll games player. You know, Simm explains, it's the story of Factory Records, and the Hacienda, and Tony Wilson. The cab driver cannot believe his ears. "Hang on," he shouts, "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?"
If you live outside the Granada television area, and can't quite place Tony Wilson, imagine TV's silky, sickly smooth John Stapleton, but as well as smiling on the TV, reading autocues and twinkling from the eye, make believe he also runs Fatboy Slim's label. Or think Richard Madeley of Richard and Judy blended with Archer, Attenborough, Hefner, Branson, Don Quixote and Umberto Eco.
Steve Coogan was 10 when he first saw Wilson in the flesh. It was 1975 and Wilson the local TV celebrity was visiting Coogan's house for a birthday party. He seemed so exotic, even though he was just the local equivalent of the weatherman. Coogan worked with Wilson for a while in the late 1980s on a late night Granada show, and got to know him semi-socially. "And I used to do an impression of him," Coogan tells me after a hard day being Wilson. "Easy day, actually, although I probably shouldn't say that. But Tony Wilson has done all the work for me. I just turn up and put on the wig and clothes, and off I go." He does a bit of Wilson for me, and he's as camp and as breathless as the real thing. "It's that sort of foppish, self-conscious thing he has, it's quite effeminate actually, and you can't work out whether he's being incredibly eloquent or just bullshitting, and it's sort of in the middle."
"It's all untrue," Wilson bellows down the phone when I call him about the movie. He takes himself very seriously, and laughs at himself constantly. He's all mixed up and dead sure of himself.
The film sets him midway between local hero who helped drag Manchester into a bright 21st century and an almost psychedelic figure of fun. "It's all made up. Which is good! I always quote Howard Hawks - that between legend and truth always choose the legend. Well, that's what's happening with this film. They've gone for the legend. I tried hard to get them to make the film about the two really great stories, Curtis and Ryder, but I gave up when I realised where Coogan was going to go with it. And that's fine. It's his gig. I'm sort of like the Rovers Return in it, you know, everything in Coronation Street revolves around the pub, and that's me. I'm the pub. And they're going to take the piss out of me. They have to. How else can they make it? But I'm at ease with it. You probably think I'm a fucking idiot for letting them do it, but I'm at ease. Flattered, embarrassed and at ease."
Thirty-nine-year-old director Michael Winterbottom told writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce that he was thinking of making a film about Factory Records. Frank told Winterbottom that if he got anyone else to write it, he would kill him. He's a Liverpudlian, but he appreciated what set Manchester apart: the sheer madness and self-belief that seemed to be passed from the Sex Pistols to an audience of about 50 Mancunians the night they played the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976.
"At first you think it's the story of Ian Curtis, a rock'n'roll suicide, or that of Shaun Ryder, classic rock'n'roll excess, but actually, it's more than that; there are loads of other stories to tell about Manchester during that time. And the best way to tell them is through Wilson, because somehow he was always at the middle of it all. And if you grew up in the north-west during the 1970s, then Wilson was an absolutely riveting character. Because he read the news, and he did stupid local news stories with ducks and sheep, but he also presented a punk rock programme and had a really hip record label. He was like your uncle, but he was totally rock'n'roll. And all this mad stuff happened because of him, and in spite of him. And whereas artists seem to have a skin missing, entrepreneurs like Wilson seem to have this extra skin. You can never seem to upset Wilson. He knows people think he's a wanker, but it doesn't bother him. I sent him a copy of the script, which is affectionate but also has a go, and I thought he'd send out a hit man to kill me. But he rang me up, and said, love, it's fabulous, do you fancy a drink?"
Coogan, as intensely serious as only an off- duty comedian can be, worries away at who and what Wilson might be, an impossible task, because as soon as you think you've pinned him down, he's changed shape, he's changed his mind. "It's like he's not sure if he's Melvyn Bragg or Malcolm McLaren, and in a way he's more interesting than either of them, and the fact he's never achieved as much as those two is also interesting. Joy Division could have been U2, Hacienda could have become Cream or the Ministry of Sound, but somehow the wild energy that went into setting everything up caused its collapse, and nothing ever went corporate or boring. It's like Wilson would rather have disaster than obviousness. As long as it causes a reaction."
The film's producer Andrew Eaton explains how hard it was to raise money for the film; and how hard it was to get all the proud, uncompromising characters involved to agree to their lives being stretched and shredded into this substitute reality. "It was hard to get backers to appreciate why anyone would be interested in these characters. They didn't think anyone would know who they were. But it doesn't matter whether you know who these characters are or not. It's such a great story. You couldn't make up stuff that was funnier, or sadder. And everyone who we've featured is willing for it to work. Because as funny, or as sad, as it is, it's a celebration of a great movement, and the people who made it happen."
We're talking in a nightclub in Manchester that's doubling for the working man's club in Hulme that Wilson and co used in 1977 to launch their Factory night. Coogan as Wilson is persuading Peter Kay as the club owner to let them use his venue. I catch my first sight of Coogan camped out in a 1970s Wilson wig, and my mind boggles in sympathy, respect, and the kind of love you can feel around Wilson that sometimes bleeds over into less than love. (When you hate Wilson you think you're being too harsh: when you love him you wonder if you've been conned.) Later on, the opening night of the Factory club will be recreated, with frail ambient guitarist Vinni Reilly and Joy Division. I can't wait. Joy Division are the greatest rock group I have ever seen on stage. I was there at the opening of the Factory club 23 years ago, and I'm here to see what kind of mess, or what kind of strangeness, there will be in trying to mock up such a past. A past that had it's own particular mess and strangeness.
When people hear that Coogan is playing Wilson, there's a gasp. But in a way it's not Coogan playing Wilson. It's Alan Partridge. There was always a bit of Wilson, the pedantic, pushy, self-centred Wilson, in Partridge.
"Tony Wilson is like a leftwing, avant-garde Alan Partridge, although Partridge is a much bigger idiot and isn't trying to push the frontiers of anything. And I like Wilson for many of the same reasons I liked Alan Partridge. Wilson is very flawed, but very human, and there is something brave and amateurish about what he does."
"Yes," sweet-talks Wilson, his speech gathering pace as he talks down his mobile phone. I have caught him searching Manchester bookshops for a photograph for a Joy Division album sleeve. I imagine him marching - no, swanning - around the streets of his beloved Manchester as he talks to me. Coat flaring out behind him, him and his shadow larger than real or film life. "Yes, it's the past and it's fun and it's entertaining.... but it's all over. Who gives a fuck about the past? The film seems very irrelevant to me. I'm interested in now, the future, in moving on . . . I'm about to sign the best rock'n'roll band in the world, I'm setting up an internet company, I'm doing a new Factory with a new name..." He begins to talk even faster, as if he's running away from a past and a self that this film celebrates, and satirises, and fixes in time, The film may be his monument, until they build a statue in Albert Square. A sad, stupid, lovely tribute that proves he was right all along - he knows what he's talking about - and yet wrong - he didn't have a clue what he was doing. I ask him if he feels the film is sort of like a lifetime award and means that, as far as his adventures are concerned, it's all over bar the nostalgia. "Absolutely not," he snaps heatedly, "no, no, no..." There might be a note of panic in his voice, there might not be. Who can ever tell with Wilson ?
Keith Allen tells Winterbottom that if he's not in the film, he's going to kill him.
Rob Brydon, punked up for the day, hasn't got a clue what's going on. "I missed the Sex Pistols," he admits, "I was dancing to Shakin' Stevens in 1977. It was all disco and cheesecloth for me." He represents all those people who know very little about the rise and farce of Factory Records, who know nothing about the extreme mood music of Joy Division, or the artistic vision of the label, or their belief in the rights of the artists, or their magnificent failure. He doesn't know anything about the Hacienda club, opened as a gift for Manchester people using money made by Joy Division and New Order, because Wilson and his collaborators were committed to giving something back to the city they loved. He knows nothing about the shootings and stabbings that shut the club down. He ended up in the film because he's close to Coogan.
He's playing a local journalist, and I am pleased to put on the record that Brydon - known for playing perverts, misfits and nutters, often with a vicious streak - is not playing a character based on me. A writer played by Simon Pegg, from the TV series Spaced, is reluctantly dragged by Wilson to see the dead body of Ian Curtis lying in his coffin, and somewhere in that scene is a small part of my messy, strange past turned into film. The script tells it all wrong, yet sort of right, and I suppose the whole film will wrongly translate the near reality of what happened with an underlying rightness that will be as real or unreal as anything.
Brydon plays a niggly character always trying, and always failing, to wrong-step Wilson. "I'm sure there will be people like you saying this is wrong, that's wrong, that wouldn't have happened then. But most people like me aren't an expert on any of this. For me, it's just a great story, like some twisted love letter to Tony Wilson, and I saw the recreation of the Sex Pistols concert the other day, and they looked great to me. They were the Sex Pistols as far as I was concerned. I don't know any better, like most people. The thing about these kind of biopics, they can be terrible, but in the end it's not about the period detail, it's about getting the spirit across."
I tell him that the Sex Pistols T-shirt he's wearing at a 1978 concert wouldn't have actually appeared in Manchester for about another seven and a half months. He gives me a right Welsh look that shrivels me to Manchester drizzle, and I shut up. "I hate these fucking punk clothes... what is the point of wearing clothes that make you look less attractive?"
He all but gobs on me.
Just to piss people off, the man known as Tony Wilson to a generation or three of north-west people changed his name. He became Anthony Wilson. And then, to wind people up even more, Anthony H Wilson. "I never liked Tony. I was always Anthony to my mum, at university. I just wanted to be Anthony again."
Anthony H Wilson is entering his office in Manchester when he sees a terrible sight. He sees himself 23 years ago. "There I was," laughs Coogan, "in full Wilson make up, in the long coat, with the scarf he always wears, and there he was, the 2001 version, with the 2001 version of the coat, and the scarf." Wilson took one look at Coogan, and scampered.... Coogan shouted after him: "It's 1977 again, Tony!" You feel that if they had touched, like the Patrick Troughton Dr Who touching the Tom Baker Dr Who, the universe would have imploded. Right now there are two Wilsons with all the ego and appetite that involves time travelling across the city of their dreams. Scary.
Mostly, Wilson tries to stay away from wherever they're filming. Worried, perhaps, that it will be too inaccurate. Or too accurate.
I interview Joy Division for the first time in 20 years. I once thought by the time I interviewed Joy Division for the Guardian in 2001 they would be bigger than Led Zeppelin. Instead, because of an enforced change in style and pace, they became New Order, and changed music history on the loud quiet, influencing the 1980s change from punk to rave.
Sean Harris has perhaps the most difficult job of all the actors in the film. He's playing Ian Curtis, representing physically and mentally the sharp tragedy that is at the heart of this broad comedy. I interview the film's Joy Division. They're like a tribute band: Joyless Division. Ralf Little - born in 1980, the year Curtis died - is freaked how little he resembles the man he's playing, Peter Hook. I bet he wishes they were still as faceless back in the days they hid behind the bleakly glamorous Peter Saville art work.
Little races around the set in a state of extreme panic. "Paddy's great at Rob, John's got Barney, you should see Martin Hannett, but me - I have no fucking idea what I'm doing." John Simm seems as compact, wiped out and wry as his target, Barney. The film's Hooky and Barney banter like the real-life couple and tell me that Harris is extraordinary as Curtis. He's apparently unbelievable at doing the possessed Curtis dance, where the quietest of men would suddenly explode into compressed derangement. Shyness transported into a kind of flight. I can't wait to see it.
Harris slumps next to me in an exhausted Ian Curtis pose he's copied from a particularly dramatic Anton Corbijn photograph. The resemblance to Curtis seems to be on the right side of right and wrong. He appears to be in character, although the character of the tortured artist Ian actually wasn't, at least not in public. He mumbles: "I feel very obligated to doing this well...there's a lot of pressure...I met his daughter the other day. She's an extra on the film. She's about 20 now. She came up to me and said, 'You're playing my dad.' I just apologised. It was the first thing that came into my head. She just stared at me. I just stared at her. What can I do? I ain't going to get it right. I'll get it as right as I can."
I can't shut Wilson up. Who can? "I had a drink with the two actors playing two of my best friends who are now dead, Rob Gretton and Martin Hannett, and that was shocking. They're so much like them. Very, very disturbing. I was extraordinarily moved and confused."
Characters from real-life Manchester played by actors in film-life Manchester get a chance to appear in small roles. Wilson himself will appear in the film as a Granada TV studio director. Shaun Ryder plays his own father. Howard Devoto, the man who could be said to have started it all by arranging for the Sex Pistols to play at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, appears in the film as a toilet cleaner. There is so much and so little that can be read into that.
While I wait for the film Joy Division to mime to the real Joy Division, Howard is filming his cameo. He's blissfully unaware that the actor playing him, Martin Hancock, is best known for the role of Spider in Coronation Street. Howard doesn't watch Coronation Street.
Howard's cameo finds a way for today's Devoto to question whether an episode attributed to yesterday's Devoto - sex in the Factory club toilets with Wilson's wife Lindsey - actually happened. The thing about this film is that everyone involved in the Manchester past being trapped and caricatured remembers things differently, and the film is just another version. Sometimes it changes things to how perhaps they should have been rather than how they were. "Martin pogos when he's performing as me. I never pogoed. Perhaps I should have done." Devoto adds his own detail, wearing bright yellow rubber gloves with the words love and hate written across them. Now that is very wrong, and yet, somehow, quite right.
Hancock cannot believe that he is playing Devoto. He unpeels a huge Spidery grin. "We were both just smirking at each other. I was smirking because I was working on the Howard Devoto smirk and he was smirking because he could see that I was working on the Howard Devoto smirk. We just had a massive smirk at each other."
In the end, I never get to see the four actors play at being Joy Division. Time runs out. I do see a pretty right Vinni Reilly play delicate electric guitar as a sound rippling from the gods to the gutter, and note Sean Harris doing what Ian Curtis used to do, sit at the front of the stage and let the loveliness of Vinni's music rinse away whatever ugliness or sadness Ian felt was darkening his world. He sits exactly like Ian used to sit, and amongst a lot of cartoon spooky things that had happened during my day on set, revisiting a past as rightly and wrongly far-fetched as this recreation, this sight is the most authentically eerie.
I decide it's a good thing that I don't see Sean try to capture Ian's incandescent dance. It's absolutely vital to the making of the film that Sean doesn't look like a twit performing as Curtis, and not important at all. Coogan's three Wilson wigs will make the thing look like Confession of a Pop Svengali and ruin everything, or just add to the general anarchic gaiety.
In the directing distance, way out of my set-visiting range, Michael Winterbottom, with the deep trust of his excellent cast, juggles a real Manchester and an unreal Manchester, a real art versus commerce battle, and an unreal one. He's making it all up as he goes along in true Factory spirit, basing everything on a vague plan wrapped around an impossible dream. I'm told the original idea was a Mancunian Boogie Nights, and now the aim is a sort of rock'n'roll Natural Born Killers. It's up to Winterbottom to make sure that the film is more more Oliver Stone than Carry On, or at least a kind of Stoned Carry On. "The worst thing that this film can be," says Coogan, "is dull."
It is a chance to tell a modern story about modern Britain in a modern way, something that is absurdly rare.
Anthony H Wilson leaves a message on my answer machine. He's been fretting at the idea that the film will signify the end of his journey. He's keen to explain that, as always, he's actually only just beginning. "There's the things I'm doing now that just make the movie irrelevant to me... big development projects in Liverpool, lots of things in Manchester to do with moving the city on... I just want to get it over that just because they make a movie about your life, it doesn't mean that it's all over. Life does go on. OK, God bless, bye, love."
On the way to the station the next morning a solitary figure in grey passes right by me, a million miles away. He's apparently concentrating on something beyond comprehension. For a moment I swear it's Ian Curtis. Walking once more the streets of the city Wilson built, a city that made and destroyed him. Looking for home.