- Film & TV
- 16 Jun 22
A strict shoot to thrill policy is in operation as Danny Boyle gets to directorial grips with the Sex Pistols in a new Disney+ bioseries, PISTOL which includes a stunning turn from Game Of Thrones star Maisie Williams. Stuart Clark, who was part of the ‘76 Punk Uprising himself, talks to them and ex-Pistol Steve Jones and recalls a memorable meeting with the band’s controversial manager Malcolm McLaren.
Calling themselves Swankers found a new singer, changed their name to the Sex Pistols and supplied a generation with a soundtrack so seditious they nearly got done for treason.
Told in a way that manages to be both raw and cartoonish - I suspect people are either going to love or hate it - the limited run Disney+ series Pistol is directed with obvious glee by Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle and features a roll call of the hottest young acting talent including Game Of Thrones star Maisie Williams who plays Jordan, a beehived Boadicea that George R.R. Martin didn’t need to make up.
The reason for it being Pistol singular is that the story adheres to the version of events told by guitarist Steve Jones in his 2017 autobiography, Lonely Boy.
Along with the rollicking tales you’d expect – most of Swankers’ gear was robbed by him from venues where Roxy Music and David Bowie were playing – Jones also reveals that he was sexually abused as a kid by his stepfather, Ron.
“One night, Ron’s in bed when he calls me in to see him,” Jones wrote. “He doesn’t generally acknowledge my existence unless absolutely he has to, but when he does address me directly, there’s usually a bit of intimidation going on. So I wasn’t going to say no, even though I’d have had no reason to think anything good would come of it – and it fucking didn’t. Anyway, I’ve not been in the bedroom long before he starts bullying me into jerking him off. I’m only a kid. What do I fucking know? So that’s what I do – fiddle with his cock until he cums.”
It’s a tough read, but an absolutely necessary one if you’re to understand what made Jones and by extension the Sex Pistols tick in the ‘70s.
“A lot worse happened to other kids but, yeah, that’s why I’ve never been able to settle with anyone and why I’ve ended up a sex addict,” Steve told me. “I’m not the only one who’s been a prisoner of that sort of upbringing – and sadly I won’t be the last. People might look at me a different way now, y’know, but so be it. If talking about it helps just one other person, mission accomplished.”
With Disney+ being a very different beast to what it was in Walt’s day, the abuse is addressed head-on in the opening episode, which centres around the cast of miscreants working/skiving/posing/stealing in Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX clothes shop on the King’s Road.
Among them are the aforementioned Jordan and Chrissie Hynde who travelled all the way from Akron, Ohio to be part of the punk party, and notes in her Lonely Boy foreword that Jones was “an Elvis fan. A dandy. The girls had a soft spot for this shy West London thug and he took full advantage. When it all fell apart with the Sex Pistols, he pulled a Lemmy and absconded to LA.”
Whilst confessing that “The Clash were always my band”, Danny Boyle remembers the visceral thrill of hearing the Pistols for the first time when he was at college in Bangor in North Wales courtesy of John Peel.
“I was amazed at just how uncompromising they were,” he says. “It was shocking because there were so many people that needed to be shocked. I tried to convey to the cast how dangerous the Pistols and punk felt in ‘76/’77.
Parliament considered the Treason Act as a way of bringing them to heel. That tells you how much they shook the gates. Rebellion is always expressed through the youth – it was the same with rave culture, wasn’t it? – and the seditionary nature of punk was crucial to so many of us breaking free of the order of things. There was some ugliness in it, but that ignition point had to be profane, uncompromising, unacceptable… It had to really damage what it set out to destroy or otherwise it would have been suffocated pretty much at birth.
“Steve’s book is obviously his version of events, but to me it rings true,” he continues. “I was shocked by Ron and the abuse, but I was also shocked by Steve’s illiteracy. There’s a really powerful bit in episode three where he doesn’t admit to being illiterate but Chrissie realises it – Toby Wallace and Sydney Chandler play the scene beautifully. Despite all of this, Steve ends up in one of the most influential bands of all-time and goes on to have a successful career in LA rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison. He totally overcame the odds.”
Some of Pistol’s best lines are uttered by Thomas Brodie-Sangster as a spookily accurate Malcolm McLaren.
“My vision for the Sex Pistols,” he says in the opening episode, “is one of dirt, danger and desire. A band of sexy young assassins whose instruments could just as easily be pickaxes or shovels or machine guns. Seditionary sewer rats.”
Boyle never got to meet the Pistols’ Svengali-like manager but reveals that, “One of the Pistol writers, who at the time was working on Coronation Street, was approached by Malcolm to write a film for him. They met a couple of times, but ultimately nothing came of it.”
I was also lucky enough to have encountered Malcolm in 2001 when he told me, “I may have been portrayed – and, indeed, contributed to my portrayal – as an out and out bastard, but I never consciously tried to fuck anyone over. I created the group to compete with the Bay City Rollers and sell bondage-trousers. Along the way, I threw in a couple of good ideas I’d borrowed from the ‘60s and they turned out to be bigger than anything I’d ever imagined. I was legend building and that’s the beauty of the legend – nobody will ever be able to entirely separate fact from fiction.”
After that frank admission, he went on to proffer that, “History takes time to put those who make it into proper perspective. One day the Sex Pistols will be hailed as great British patriots for being the first people since Oliver Cromwell to not only question the validity of the monarchy but seriously threaten its continuance. Prior to 1977, you’d have been stoned in the street for daring to criticise the Royal Family. Now, slagging off Fergie’s arse is a national sport.”
Malcolm was similar to early Pistols champion and Factory Records boss Tony Wilson in that you knew you were being played by them, but nevertheless got sucked in.
“At the start of episode four, we use real archive footage of Tony introducing the Pistols on So It Goes, which I remember seeing in Manchester where the channel it went out on, Granada, was based,” Danny reveals. “We focus in on Jordan’s arm because they had a big row with the unions about the swastika on her armband. It’s probably the only time the Pistols were censored because Malcolm was there and he agreed to it being covered up with white sticky-back plastic. Otherwise the unions weren’t going to allow it to go ahead.”
Interesting Trivia Fact: One of the crew working on the show that night was future Jack Reacher novelist Lee Child. Boyle previously succeeded in sneaking a few verses of ‘God Save The Queen’ into his 2012 Olympics opening ceremony show, which was attended by Her Maj. How did he manage to get that past the organising committee?
“Fortunately, we’d had a big hit with Slumdog Millionaire, which gave me a certain degree of power,” he grins mischievously. “As much as I suspect they didn’t like it, they didn’t want to be portrayed as being censorious and throwing their toys out of the pram.”
My first time seeing Jordan in the flesh was in the London Marquee in 1978 when, as his then manager, she dragged a prostrate Adam Ant onstage at the end of a dog lead with a riding crop and her 6” stiletto spikes being used for giddying up purposes.
“Those were the days, eh?” Adam told me. “We were young, dumb and full of it. It was sexy, violent, dangerous and a bit of a revolution. Punk rock was the last time music had anything to say, really.”
Our first time meeting Jordan, as played quite brilliantly by Maisie Williams, in Pistol is when she’s cycling through her ultra-conservative hometown of Seaford wearing a see-through plastic mac with only knickers, suspenders and stockings underneath. We then get to see the reaction as she joins the other commuters on the 7.45 to London Victoria.
“She was fearless and funny and formidable and had this amazing sense of style, which just happened to coincide with what Vivienne Westwood was doing,” Williams reflects. “Jordan was spiking her hair, experimenting with makeup, and making and adapting clothes, long before she moved up to London and got a job working for Vivienne and Malcolm in SEX.
“I haven’t seen any pictures of Jordan – either then or since – where she doesn’t look absolutely incredible. She set out to be a walking work of art and succeeded in not only that, but also in saying to people, ‘It’s okay to be who you are.’”
Which was a very powerful statement at a time when deviating from the supposed norm, either sartorially or sexually, was a societal no-no. So-called ‘queer bashing’ was widespread and almost legitimised by the police raiding gay bars and venues, as recounted by the Tom Robinson Band in ‘Glad To Be Gay’.
Johnny Rotten was stabbed in the street shortly after the infamous “you dirty fucking rotter!” Bill Grundy TV interview; the Pistols’ equally infamous boat trip down the Thames ended in Malcolm being arrested and having the shit kicked out of him by the boys in blue; a Conservative councillor suggested the band would benefit from being electrocuted; and record shops displaying the Never Mind The Bollocks artwork were raided. And that was just for starters!
Asked whether she knew much about the Sex Pistols beforehand, Williams says, “Honestly? Apart from vaguely knowing the name Johnny Rotten, nothing. My excuse being that I wasn’t born until 1997. I imagined punk as being quite blokey, but in addition to Jordan, Vivienne and Chrissie you had other strong female characters like Soo Catwoman, Siouxsie Sioux and Simone Thomas. They were just as much a driving force as the boys were.”
As Sydney Chandler’s Chrissie notes in Pistol, “This is a vulva-powered revolution.” The equal opportunities nature of punk is underlined in Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story, which Williams read and then re-read.
“It was so evocative,” she says. “I loved all the stuff about the underground gay clubs in Soho the Pistols and their entourage went to before punk had its own places. Jordan and the gang would walk in and instantly be the centre of attention because of how they looked.”
Pistol isn’t the first time she’s worn Westwood with Vivienne supplying the impeccably tailored tartan suit that Maisie sported at the premiere of the BBC’s The Green Planet last year.
“Oh, I loved that!” she enthuses. “I went to one of Vivienne’s shows, but didn’t pluck up the courage to talk to her. Fashion is a fiercely competitive industry, which she’s been at the top for almost fifty years. I’d love to sit down and have a bottle of wine with her.”
Was Maisie a part of any youth cult herself growing up? I can imagine her being a goth…
“No, I was an emo kid who desperately wanted to be Avril Lavigne,” she laughs. “At the time I thought I was being quite rebellious, but when I compare myself to Jordan… well, there is no comparison!”
I’m guessing that a major part of Maisie wanting to be in Pistol was the chance to work with Danny Boyle.
“You’re guessing right!” she shoots back. “Danny has a very clear vision of what he wants, but at the same time really involves you in the creative process. Every day on set with him felt like a masterclass.”
In Lonely Boy, Steve Jones paints a surprisingly tender picture of Sid Vicious who for all of his anti-social behaviour craved love and a surrogate family to be part of.
“If only we’d called him Sid Kind he’d have been out running soup kitchens, and helping old ladies across the road,” Jones rues. “He was a character, Sid, and I think he could’ve been a star, I really do. He had that X-factor, but it was all just too much, too soon for him. The bird didn’t help, but you can’t blame it all on her. When I first met him he was shooting up speed and what not. He was destined to go that way, Nancy or no Nancy.”
Interestingly, Danny Boyle talks of taking “a fresh look” at Nancy Spungen, the self-professed American groupie who introduced Sid to heroin and in all probability was stabbed to death by him.
“I was shocked, Stuart, when I found out that she was only twenty when she died,” he says. “Nancy has been vilified by virtually all of us – including myself – in that lazy way you do. Yes, she was clearly a factor in Sid’s demise but clearly wasn’t the ‘older woman’ leading him astray that she’s been made out to be. Emma Appleton (from The Witcher) plays her in a way that without misrepresenting her brings Nancy’s humanity out a bit.”
Sid is played by London actor Louis Partridge who Danny credits with being “just extraordinary” in the role.
“Louis had the most amazing 18th birthday because that’s when we shot all the sex and drug scenes that Disney+ banned him from doing while they still considered him to be a minor,” he concludes with a grin.
“I was delighted how invested all these talented young actors became in it because for me the Sex Pistols story is timeless.”
• This highly anticipated 6 part limited original series Pistol is streaming exclusively on Disney+ now.