Punk And The Pistols
Director, Paul Tickell, relives the trials and tribulations of getting the definative Punk film made, Arena: Punk and the Pistols. Featuring, eventually, interviews from all the key players who form the Origin of the Species.
Twenty years on it’s strange to read some of this correspondence with its pleading wheedling tone. But along with unrelenting doggedness that’s what it took to obtain interviews from the major actors in the international drama of punk rock. Originating out of the suburbs of London and a tiny shop on the King’s Rd, it went around the world - several times. With a Pussy Riot here and a fashion show there, the phenomenon is still being acted out and its legacy fought over.
Over two decades ago BBC Arena entered the fray by taking its inspiration from what is still the best and most comprehensive book about punk, Jon Savage’s ENGLAND’S DREAMING. Part of its argument was that first and foremost there were the Sex Pistols and then came the rest – bands who, however great their attributes, were mere camp followers in the whole mad, bad and dangerous punk parade. ‘God save the Sex Pistols’, as the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs intoned after singer Johnny Rotten had split for Jamaica and the band hit the buffers, the reverberations adding to the Pistols’ mythology.
The Arena documentary would have been nothing without the participation of the Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren and his partner in fashion-crime Vivienne Westwood. But it was hard getting the different parties to agree to be in the same film after they’d fought each other in court like cats and dogs - like warring gods if you consider the psychic battle conducted in the minds of McLaren and the now former Rotten, John Lydon. Riding the storm of these dark energies was the main reason that the film took four years to make. Research and shooting began in summer 1991 but transmission was not until late summer 1995.
Originally the Arena had been an independent commission, Wall to Wall for the BBC, but it had to be brought in-house. Independents like Wall to Wall are not structured to deal with the vagaries and whims of feuding punks and their managers, whereas the BBC at that point in time could accommodate a stop-go production policy. Over those four years I would be employed for a few weeks here, a couple of months there – mainly in the cutting-room but also finally filming John Lydon in LA.
I think that he rather enjoyed our courtship. We met several times before he agreed to his interview – most uproariously when he put away 18 bottles of super-strength Duvel lager in Fred’s in Soho. I kept pace - just. On another occasion it was about a few streets away in the Moscow. My last memory before the Great Blurring was of an intense discussion in the gents between myself, Lydon and a waiter. About what I do not know. I left them to it.
Like the cajoling fax and letter correspondence and like all the telephone calls in those pre-computer days, the drinking had to be done: by any means necessary to get the prize – an interview with Lydon for a film for which he knew McLaren the enemy would be in too.
It was all worth it. The other feature length documentaries about punk are one-sided: THE GREAT ROCK AND ROLL SWINDLE is very much from McLaren’s point of view, THE FILTH AND THE FURY Lydon’s. PUNK AND THE PISTOLS has its own axes to grind – like deriding the Clash’s faux macho stance - but it does show the differing sides to the Sex Pistols story and leaves it to the audience to decide.
The film has had an afterlife at film festivals in its uncensored form. At the instigation of Michael Jackson, Controller of BBC2 who four years previously as Head of Music and Arts had actually commissioned the film , cuts were made just before transmission. One of these related to the very first Sex Pistols t-shirt: a naked boy smoking. By the 1990s this image – never prosecuted in the 1970s like some of the other Sex and Seditionaries t-shirts - was regarded as paedophilia, important piece of documentation or not.
Although the film has never been repeated, gobbets of it are routinely served up in other documentaries about punk. It’s annoying that some of these use extracts to promote the very mythologies which the film explodes. Appropriately outlaw as it sounds on his CV, McLaren never ever managed the New York Dolls but that didn’t stop his TV obituarists from repeating the myth while cannibalising those parts of the film which say the opposite.
The Arena used a lot of archive which, familiar now, had never been seen before, such as the Pistols at the lesser Trade Hall in Manchester. Tracking down and clarifying ownership of this footage was almost as arduous as nailing Lydon. Individual Buzzcocks plus their management past and present had to be consulted and their signatures secured along with that of a long-lost cameraman in Australia. Singer Howard Devoto seemed to enjoy the micro-drama of it all like he was in some conspiracy thriller – THE DEVOTO CODE.
I’ve talked about the pains but there were also the pleasures. It was a privilege to have been able to interview the likes of McLaren and Siouxsie Banshee in depth. It was also a pleasure to work with cameraman Luke Cardiff and editors Roy Deverell and Emma Matthews. Sadly some of those who made it all possible have died - like Nigel Finch, who wanting to complete his own projects as his health declined, handed on the editor-in-chief baton to Anthony Wall – seamlessly. It was like they were they were different people in the same entity: Mr Arena.
What gives me most pleasure is that although PUNK AND THE PISTOLS trots through the whole band saga, it’s really an Origin of the Species, about where punk came from and how like some strange hybrid from the dark womb of Bromley, the underground fashion scene and the margins of the music business in London, it emerged into the national and then the global media spotlight. ‘I wanna see some history’, as the Pistols sang.
Arena: Punk and the Pistols, first (and only) transmission 20th August 1995, BBC Two.