‘Pistol’: the cast and crew pick apart punk’s “exhilarating” TV comeback

45 years after their heyday, Rotten, Jones, Cook, Matlock and (of course) Vicious are about to be all up in your grill again. We met those responsible for making it happen

Danny Boyle, he insists, has been making punk films for almost 30 years. “I didn’t put safety pins through my nose or anything like that,” he says, as fired up and hot-blooded as any 100 Club mosher while he recalls the great rock ’n’ roll rekindle of 1976, “but the philosophy I really believed in. It affected my life and it’s affected my work. It set the tone for my whole career and I realised in doing this that, although it’s obvious that Trainspotting is a kind of punk-ish film, lots of the other stuff is as well. There’s an energy in [my films] that I believe in as a life force, whether it’s expressed in anger or joy.”

Blowing away his last music project Yesterday as resoundingly as the Sex Pistols obliterated prog rock, Boyle’s frenzied and confrontational Pistols bio-series is a bike-chain to the eyeballs that cuts to the core of his creative mindset. Given the scope of a six-part series (“The truth is, at the moment, it’s way more practical to get a thing made as a TV series,” he explains, “the streamers have the money”) and surrounded by young actors giving their all to the project – be it Anson Boon dropping to eight stone to deliver an uncanny, award-worthy Johnny Rotten, Toby Wallace learning guitar to play Steve Jones or Sydney Chandler purring out an utterly convincing Chrissie Hynde – Boyle himself gave in to the untamed energy of the era that had defined him.

“With this series, we’ve tried to make sense of the chaos”
– Danny Boyle

“What we tried to achieve was to make sense of chaos without losing the sense of chaos,” he says, still enthused about the series’ visceral gig scenes at the end of a day’s promo in a swanky London hotel. “That was Vivienne Westwood‘s philosophy. It’s only if you burn it down that new growth will happen, otherwise it’s just a photocopy of what’s gone before. I cherish that and I wanted to observe that in the making of the series. So it was pretty chaotic, the way we made it.

“I think if I’d been less experienced, they probably would have sent the troops in to say: ‘This is just too crazy. What’s going on here? Nobody knows what’s happening’. But it empowered the actors. If they had any questions like ‘Is there gonna be a close up of this?’ I would say ‘I don’t know, just play the song’. When they could [play well enough], then every time they play, we’re going to play the whole song. We’re not going to interrupt it for fucking technicalities like camera or sound, going ‘oh, there’s a problem’. They fucking play the whole song. So that empowers them. They feel like they’re playing it live for an audience and they matter. The cameras get what they can.”

What they got was a riveting – and surprisingly human and emotional – dramatisation of the punk explosion that brings a grainy era of inky outrage and art-shock fashion to vivid life. Meanwhile, the Pistols soap opera rolled on in court and press, as dramatic and bilious as the on-screen action. The band successfully sued John Lydon for refusing to give permission for Pistols music to appear in the series. In “financial ruin” as a result, Lydon bit back in the press, calling his ex-bandmates “dead wood” and the series (which he hasn’t seen) “a middle-class fantasy”. What did the Pistol gunslingers make of it all? We went and asked them.

CREDIT: Disney

The director

Danny Boyle

Pistols drummer Paul Cook tells me that you used to be a bit of a punk yourself…

“It depends what you mean by a punk… There’s a lack of deference in the way I behave with everybody, which I expect in the way that people behave with me too. That’s one of the moulds that [the Pistols] broke. Britain was a deferential country. It was fucking horrible – full of stupid people telling a lot of other people how to live. They broke that through violence and horror, spitting, whatever… I don’t think anybody went back to the way things were before then.”

The series is based on Steve Jones’s book Lonely Boy – was it important for you to get Steve’s story at the centre of Pistol?

“It was really important to start with it because I couldn’t see a way into the Pistols… the edifice is so intimidating and hostile, principally because of John but also because of all of them falling out with each other. But then the book is like a little secret passageway in. He’s the guy who started it all, it’s his band.”

To what degree did you take creative licence with the story?

“Take Glen Matlock. Glen was onboard, helped us, but when he saw it he was really pissed off because Glen left the band whereas Steve says he sacked him. Now you can’t do both of those stories. They’re both true, I’m not accusing either of them of being liars. You have to try and follow one that you think tells a greater truth, that hopefully feels sincere and you believe it for a moment. You’re back in the ‘70s without the help of a DeLorean…”

What did you make of John Lydon’s reaction?

“It’s absolutely what you’d expect. If everybody was patting each other on the back, you would think ‘I don’t believe a word of this’. Contrariness is built-in, discord. It’s part of the particular genius of the group and especially of John. He just will not accept anything and I love him for that.”

Have you met him?

“I’ve met him and I liked him very much. I love his music, always have, through Public Image Ltd. as well. I didn’t say [as the media reported this week] I want him to attack us, he will attack us, that’s just a given. It’s part of the responsibility of doing the show.”

How do you feel about the band fighting as a result of the series?

“Well, I think they were anyway, they’ve been like that throughout. You just wish them all well, and I also hope that it’s sufficiently truthful enough. I don’t mean true in the exact sense, but that there’s an essence there that makes you believe they created gold out of nothing.”

CREDIT: Disney

The anti-hero

Anson Boon, plays Johnny Rotten

What did you make of John Lydon as a rock ‘n’ roll character?

“I’ve become such a fan of him. He’s just so unique. When you think that he was 18 years old, four years younger than me now, when he wrote anthems like ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ and ‘God Save The Queen’, it’s impossible not to be blown away by it.”

You lost weight, extended your vocal range and even ate John’s diet to get into the role – was it one of those parts that you just had to live?

“A little bit. I underwent every reasonable thing that you would do to do this character justice. John was really thin back in the day and I wanted to get that correct. It was kind of impossible to avoid [living the role] because we had a very chaotic shoot. We were doing a lot of six-day weeks… and I’d be at work for 14 hours a day most days. So it was literally go home, sleep, get up and be Johnny Rotten again and it felt like I was living it. I just spent so long with him in my head and in my body that I’d inhabited it a little bit. I think it’s gone now.”

What’s it like being Johnny Rotten to that degree?

“Exhilarating. What you see is what you get when you spend time with him in your head.”

How’d you find filming the gig scenes?

“That was the highlight of the job for me. To be stood on stage at the 100 Club where I knew John had stood 45 years before was amazing. We knew that there were about eight cameras looking at us but all I could see was my bandmates, the bright lights and the first two rows of the audience. I was wearing a full bondage suit which is so restrictive and makes you move completely differently. Then there’s the wig, the teeth, extensive makeup. I didn’t feel like me anymore.”

Were there any injuries?

“There were many injuries. Johnny Rotten would do many things but one thing he never did was stand still. The first thing we ever shot was the [1976 TV debut] on So It Goes. John, halfway through, does a huge drop down to his knees. As I did it, I smashed my coccyx into the drum kit and got a hairline fracture. I also smashed my face into the microphone and knocked my bottom tooth out.”

Despite his reaction to the series, John comes out best of any of the characters…

“That was certainly always my aim. He has said in the press now that he’s going to watch it which I’m over the moon about because I’ve left him so many tiny little detailed clues in my performance that I hope he will recognise that only an actor who really did their research on him, and really admired him, would have put it into a performance.”

Maisie Williams
Maisie Williams as Pamela Rooke. CREDIT: Disney

The scene queen

Maisie Williams, plays punk icon Pamela Rooke AKA Jordan

Jordan was the epitome of punk but an enigmatic figure – how did you find out more about her?

“I read her book Defying Gravity and I was lucky enough to get to spend time with her. She has such a visceral retelling of some of the most iconic moments from the punk movement. With Jordan, there’s no faking confidence or hiding ego. It really forces you to be very real. I found that liberating.”

Did she give you any advice?

“She said: ‘How do you feel about shaving off your eyebrows?’ I was keen to do it but then we decided that actually it would make more sense for them to be bleached.”

Was it difficult keeping the look intact all day?

“In one of the club scenes I stupidly started dancing with my drink above my head and all of the fake alcohol was raining down on the beehive. I ended up with a very chic-looking blonde bob by the end of the evening. But the thing about Jordan is, no matter how big the night was, she always looks immaculate. Even up on stage with her shirt ripped off, she always had the most impeccable beehive and eye makeup.”

It’s sad that she won’t get to see it… [Jordan died in April, aged 66]

“She was desperate to. She did get to come on set and watch us film. And she did get to piece together a lot of the sets and costumes and hair and makeup. So many of the decisions are from Jordan so I think that’s special and poetic in a sad way.”

Did you find yourself getting caught up in the gig scene chaos?

“Absolutely. We had a lot of fun. Danny really wound us up and let us go. He would get up on stage at the beginning of the day and give us a big speech about chaos and fury. And then the scenes that we shot are the product of that.”

What did you learn about punk?

“I’d always seen it as a political movement, which it definitely was. But I’d never quite linked it to the history of the art from that time, whether it be fashion, art or music. I now see how it connects and has influenced many of the things that I’ve grown up with. It’s such an important show for teenagers today to be able to see and experience. We’ve tried to capture how monumental this movement really was.”

Steve Jones
Steve Jones during the band’s ill-fated 1978 US tour. CREDIT: Getty

The inspiration

Steve Jones, Sex Pistols founder member and author of Lonely Boy: Tales From A Sex Pistol

What was the plan for the series?

“We wanted to do a movie. We put the feelers out there, and the first bite we got was this company called Whip in Los Angeles. A screenwriter called Craig Pearce came to LA and we got along really good, corresponded a lot. Then we went looking for a director. This was still talking about a movie. There really weren’t any bites, then Danny Boyle just grabbed it by the balls. I couldn’t believe it to be honest with you. We were trying to get someone good but I didn’t think we’d get him.”

What was his pitch?

“He said that I’m like the engine of the Sex Pistols and he liked that perspective of it, from my angle of it.”

How was he to work with?

“I didn’t spend much time with him to be honest with you. Every now and again I would chime in with a couple of ideas. I spent some time with Toby Wallace, the guy who plays me. He came to LA and we hung out for a while. I gave him some guitar lessons, I showed him how to stand and whatnot. He picked it up pretty quickly… I said ‘just look as good-looking as you can. I know it’s impossible but try your hardest’.”

What do you make of the people playing the band?

“I think they’re great. Obviously not everyone looks identical to the original but it’s not a documentary. I was a bit nervous, thinking: ‘Oh fuck, what is this gonna be like, Carry On Up The Fucking Pistols? But it’s not.”

Does it capture the chaos?

“Yeah, I think it does. It’s very heartfelt as well, it’s not just a joke… I think it shows that on the outside it all seemed like a laugh but on the inside I was this fucking confused young man. A lot of people forget, from the beginning to the end we were all young, and I can’t speak for everyone else but I had no idea how to conduct myself, how to live. 19, 20, 21-years-old, you don’t know shit.”

Especially when the world blows up around you and you’re an anti-hero overnight…

“After [the Pistols’ infamous 1976 appearance on] The Grundy Show, it all started slowly imploding. That was the beginning of the end. Prior to Grundy it was a lot of fun and there was a thing happening… people weren’t just copying each other but trying to be original, even though it was under the same umbrella. That was a brilliant time. After Grundy it became the leather jacket brigade, which is fine, nothing wrong with that, it just got to be a bit of a noise.”

‘Pistol’ is available to stream on Disney+ from May 31

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