Madchester? You couldn't make it up

The rows, the angry clubbers... No one said filming '24 Hour Party People' would be easy, says Skye Sherwin
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The Independent Culture

'We didn't give a shit about the actors, and we didn't give a shit about the filming, we were just getting on with having a good night. In fact, I was avoiding the cameras because I didn't want to be in the film." So says one club scene extra from the upcoming "Madchester" flick 24 Hour Party People. For the first movie to dare chronicle what many consider to be a precious musical legacy of the 20th century, this feedback's par for the course. In the Eighties, Manchester rose from grim industrial backwater to pulsating global epicentre of band and club culture. The city's natives, previously ignored in a London-focused Britain, became emissaries of a cultural revolution.

With these roots at stake, whoever chose to tell the story was in for a rough ride. The movie's inception was not, however, from the streets where it all began, but in the protean imagination of London-based director Michael Winterbottom. He's no stranger to conflict having shot Welcome to Sarajevo in the aftermath of the Bosnian-Serbian war. Yet Winterbottom's decision to take on the legacy of Madchester – with the infamous Factory Records as the focus – is proving his most controversial to date.

"Most people in Manchester were assuming we were going to do some cheap number," he says. But Winterbottom was raised just outside the city and Factory Records (which signed New Order and Happy Mondays, among others) had an obvious appeal for the director who grew up on punk and New Wave. Inevitably, there have been grumblings in the community about how the period has been immortalised – Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder is reportedly "narked" over the title which makes reference to the band's debut album Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) – but Winterbottom's essentially comic take on the myths and music of the time might just smooth more feathers than it's ruffled.

Which certainly wasn't the case during filming. "It's completely different to films where people come together for six weeks and disappear," Winterbottom says, referring to the fact that most of the actors were portraying real people, some of whom were far from happy about having their lives depicted on screen. The decision to make Factory boss Tony Wilson (played by comedian Steve Coogan) the centre of attention has also become a point of contention. Wilson, whose name has become all but synonymous with the word "twat" (even the poster campaign makes use of everyone's favourite Wilson insult), can also lay claim to introducing a generation to the Sex Pistols, Joy Division and the world-famous Hacienda nightclub. And the former Granada TV presenter was more than happy to play consultant on the film, feeding the script with wild (and no doubt tallish) tales of Madchester life.

But not everyone who was approached wanted to perpetuate the Tony Wilson myth. Morrissey was famously knocked back by the Factory boss on the grounds that he was "too bookish", and having given Winterbottom permission to use his songs, Morrissey changed his mind at the last minute, forcing them to ditch large sections of the film.

There have been protracted arguments with Wilson's first wife, Lindsey, who has issues with her role in the film's story. But as Winterbottom says, "You can't just create a load of fictional characters. Tony Wilson's married to someone; even if you change her name in the film, he's still essentially married to that person." Though Lindsey's portrayal is far from unflattering, it's easy to guess which might be the sensitive hot spots. At one point the Lindsey character has sex with a friend in a club toilet, in retaliation for her husband getting a blow job off a prostitute in the back of a van (though Wilson denies this ever happened). Winterbottom gets round the gossipy incident with a touch of post-modern distance and has the toilet cleaner, played by the Buzzcocks' Howard Devoto, turn to the camera and say, "I definitely don't remember this happening!"`

Further obstacles came in the form of Peter Saville, whose record sleeves for Factory marked a new era in album design. Naturally, Winterbottom wanted to include his work in the film, but Saville was reluctant. Winterbottom chuckles as he recalls midnight meetings between Saville and Wilson ("it's how they always meet, apparently") with Wilson relaying messages from the designer to Winterbottom: "Pete Saville thinks you shouldn't use his real artwork in the movie," Wilson apparently told him. "Because you're getting actors to play the people, you should do some copies of his artwork to play his artwork." Winterbottom remembers his baffled response: "It was like 'Hmm. Aha. I can't believe it. Does he really think that?'"

Arguably the most loaded, yet crucial piece of the Factory puzzle, is the unexplained suicide in 1980 of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. How to handle this in a light-hearted film? "We tried to show the effect on Wilson and the band," says Winterbottom, "not to explain why somebody does something, when you don't know the answers."

The other major event the film had to tackle was recreating the Hacienda. With no proper send-off for the city's kingpin before it was closed in 1997, Winterbottom and Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam contrived to make amends with the party to end all parties, building a mock-up of the club in a Manchester warehouse. So successful was the recreation, filming was at times forced to play second fiddle to the party.

"It was very much in the spirit of Factory," the director says wryly. With four hours to kick-off, the fire brigade had attempted to close them down, and the absence of proper security meant drugs were free-flowing among the extras. By and large, film crew and clubbers left each other to their own devices. But when Steve Coogan's farewell speech had to be filmed, the crowd, deprived of tunes, weren't impressed. One extra recalls: "Of course, what with it being Manchester and everyone [being] stubborn as fuck, loads of people just started going 'Aha! I'm Alan Partridge!'"

Many takes later, Winterbottom had the shots he was after and the party resumed. For Haslam, reliving the end of an era "gave me a feeling that you probably only get a few times in your life – it was so intense."

Whether Mancunians will feel the same way, only time will tell. But if they give it a hostile reception, Winterbottom can always fall back on the film's motto (reiterated by Wilson and Haslam): "If we have a choice between truth and myth, we're gonna go for myth."

'24 Hour Party People' (18) opens nationwide on Friday