The Sex Pistols are no strangers to having their story told on screen. As early as 1986 – eight years after the band’s messy demise – Sid and Nancy saw director Alex Cox cast Gary Oldman as the titular bassist (and give Courtney Love a minor, debut role). Band cohort Julien Temple, gave us documentaries (2000’s The Filth and the Fury) and mockumentaries (1979’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle), while the band’s much mythologised 1976 appearance at Manchester’s Lesser Trade Free Hall lights the touch-paper for the wider story told by Michael Winterbottom in his excellent 2002 movie, 24 Hour Party People.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, singer John Lydon – a man who could start an argument with his own shadow – doesn’t like many of these films. He once described Sid and Nancy as “particularly loathsome”, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle as “as a pile of rubbish”, and Danny Boyle’s upcoming TV biopic Pistol “the most disrespectful shit I’ve ever had to endure”.
This week, NME saw the first two episodes of Pistol. It’s extremely unlikely Lydon has even seen it, but if he had, he would find that Boyle’s miniseries is an excellent encapsulation of an extraordinary period in British music. Not only that, but it’s easily the best dramatic adaptation of the band to date. Anson Boon (1917, Blackbird) as Lydon is extraordinary, while the relatively unknown Toby Wallace as guitarist Steve Jones (whose 2016 biography Lonely Boy provides the series source material) is a star elect.
Never mind the backlash… here’s five things we learned about Pistol from its cast and creator.
It depicts a decaying Britain in the ‘70s
Episode one splices archive footage of dirty slums, mass unemployment and far right rallies with the band’s dramatised formation. Director Boyle is empathetic that the socioeconomic mess Britain found itself in as the ‘80s approached meant that punk – and the Pistols – had to happen.
“One of the things that we did when we started was talk about how incredibly dull Britain was,” he says. “There are so many opportunities now. So much in the world, and there was just so little then. You felt like you were young and then you were old, and there was nothing in between. The Pistols changed that, especially for working-class people. You didn’t just follow your dad into the factory anymore. The Pistols ignited something.”
Pistol finally gives Steve Jones his dues…
Without Lydon’s anarchic howl, the Sex Pistols would be a footnote in the punk story at best. And yet without Steve Jones – the most exciting guitarist of the age – they’d just be a ginger man shouting. Pistol centres its story on Jones – sexual abuse survivor, felon, thug, dreamer, rock star, the very man who got the Pistols project off the ground – whose story has often been crowded out by others.
“I got to meet and hang out with Steve quite a bit,” says Toby Wallace, who plays Jones, “so it wasn’t just the book I had as a reference point. At the heart of him and at the heart of our story is this traumatic experience that he had gone through that birthed the anger that birthed the Pistols. A lot of people can relate to that, especially working class people. The Sex Pistols made music that was a raw representation of a class that was underserved and underrepresented.”
…as do the women of punk too
In Pistol many of the women prominent in the punk scene have their story told too. These include Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler) and Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley).
“These women were iconic women in their own right,” says Emma Appleton, who plays the late Nancy Spungen. “They weren’t just the girlfriend of Sid Vicious or the paramour of Malcolm McLaren. They weren’t an accessory to these men in the story. They had their own stories and their own success. It was an honour to harness their power.”
Maybe – just maybe – John Lydon will like it!
Boyle is keen to point out the “genius” of the Sex Pistols singer and reveals that he’d previously met him when plotting the soundtrack to his forever acclaimed 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The music of both the Sex Pistols and Lydon’s subsequent project Public Image Ltd appeared in said production.
“He’s a wonderful guy,” he says, “I hope if he does watch the series then he’ll realise how much we love his work. He’s a very special figure in culture. There’s a lot of Oscar Wilde to him, or [legendary Irish poet] Brendan Behan, who I think he’d rather be compared to. I wouldn’t be here without the Sex Pistols. I am absolutely aware of that. Punk changed my life.”
It proves the punk spirit lives on
The Pistols and punk inspired many subsequent generations of creatives that followed. They did this by daring to be original. Both Boyle and the cast hope that Pistol is a reminder that anything is possible if you have the courage to try.
“This is the story of the underdog,” says Anson Boon, who plays Lydon. “I think that will always be a story worth telling and it will never not be relevant.”
“Telling their story taught me the impact of bravery,” adds Christian Lees, appearing in Pistol as the band’s original bassist Glen Matlock. “These kids took on the order of things, the establishment.”
Jacob Slater, who plays drummer Paul Cook, thinks the series will be an inspiration. “I hope kids today can watch it and say to themselves, ‘maybe I should really use my own mind’. To dare to be themselves. That’s what the Sex Pistols mean to me.”
‘Pistol’ premieres on Disney+ on May 31