Me, Madchester and Frank - How I was edited out of fictional history
A Manchester journalist considers the facts behind Frank and 24 Hour Party People
Sometimes I feel like Zelig, the eponymous Woody Allen character who appears repeatedly, tangential to landmark historical events. I have also been a minor character; a player in a story subsequently turned into a film. And it's weird.
Fact becomes fiction, and fiction becomes fact. The film Fargo opens by claiming ‘This is a true story,’ when it’s anything but. Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 Elizabeth took severe liberties with accepted history; misleading perhaps but more entertaining than dry, verified records.
It’s not so grand, but I appear in Michael Winterbottom's accurately shambolic depiction of the chaos that was Factory Records. Well – I say appear. During those crazy days of Madchester, I wrote for the NME. In one scene, contemporary music journalists are lectured by Tony Wilson (as played by Steve Coogan). The extras cast as writers are men, and to rub salt in the wound, they are played by male music journalists of my acquaintance.
Does my editing-out matter? Well, it does to me. Madchester was a time of corrosive, putrid, knuckle-dragging misogyny, and the fact that some music journalists around at the time were women is important. I would have enjoyed the opportunity to interrupt with: ‘I was there, too.’
Otherwise, the characterisations are pin-point accurate. Paddy Considine's Rob Gretton especially is uncanny (it's like being in the same room as the man himself) and the nature of truth where it conflicts with personal recollection is addressed directly. Howard Devoto (the real one) is permitted to interrupt and state '... this never happened' when his character has an on-screen affair with Wilson' wife. So far, so postmodern.
The device of introducing real life protagonists to support or correct real life incidents is used to great effect in Warren Beatty's neglected, majestic 'Reds.' This story of American communist John Reed and his relationship with Diane Keaton's Louise Bryant is set during the Russian revolution, and it's amazing to see surviving members of The Industrial Workers of The World (aka The Wobblies) comment as events unfold.
McCarthyite prejudice had distorted the tale, and Beatty was diligently and humanely reclaiming the USA's socialist backstory. But the Wobbly commentators were elderly by then. What if their own recollection was faded and flawed?
Truth is fluid and memory deceptive. If everyone claiming to have attended the Sex Pistols' first gig at the 100 Club, or England's 1966 Wembley World Cup victory really was ‘there,’ both venues would require the space defying capacity of the Tardis (which we could then use to travel back in time and check that all films everywhere are accurate).
Memory is an unreliable record. For example, people held up at gunpoint often provide accurate, detailed descriptions of the gun directed at them, but not of the person brandishing the weapon.
Unless the events debated are life-threatening, discussed in a court of law, or downright defamatory, for example, I don’t suppose truth is vital. Remember though that Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey – real life hero in the source story of ‘Bridge On The River Kwai’ – did not collaborate with the Japanese, and found his depiction on screen extremely distressing.
Another, less pivotal real-life story is currently relevant to me. Jon Ronson's script for the film 'Frank' seems to tell the tragic story of Frank Sidebottom, the man from Timperley who wore the cardboard head. I interviewed Chris Sievey (the man who was Frank) for the NME.
Sievey answered the phone, and I began the interview. Slightly flummoxed, he said: ‘Oh – you want to talk to Frank. I’ll go and get him.’ I called back later and ‘Frank’ (ie Sievey now wearing that papier mache head) responded in his singular Frank voice. This really happened. I promise. I was there.
Sievey struck me as someone standing on the edge of the abyss marked ‘madness,’ floundering helplessly and about to fall. I also recall the genuine adulation he (or rather Frank) invited, and I remember the humour. What I don't remember is Jon Ronson being constantly central to events, as his character is in the film.
Remember though that Ronson’s script presents the story of a troubled musician co-incidentally called Frank who also wears a cardboard head. It’s a different version of events; another way of looking at the past – a moment in history as remembered then depicted as one individual's fictionalised truth.
Finally, let’s return to a certain rainy city. The errors and omissions of 24 Hour Party People matter to me, because in a world of relentless, boorish sexism, life for female music writers was challenging enough and being completely edited out of the story is the final indignity. Now when I get my hands on that Michael Winterbottom...