Northern Soul

“He was a recklessly generous soul.” Frank Cottrell-Boyce on Tony Wilson and the 20-year anniversary of 24 Hour Party People

April 16, 2022 Arts, Cinema Comments Off on “He was a recklessly generous soul.” Frank Cottrell-Boyce on Tony Wilson and the 20-year anniversary of 24 Hour Party People

“This is Manchester, we do things differently here.”

In recent times, this quote has been adopted as Manchester’s unofficial motto. Credited to the late broadcaster / Factory label boss / Haçienda head honcho / cultural catalyst / glorious wind-up merchant Tony Wilson, it’s now cited in so many different Manchester-centric situations that you can hardly move for it. Try doing a search for it online and see for yourself. Just lately, this writer can attest to seeing it on graffiti, posters and fridge magnets. On a mini-lightbox in the window of a local charity shop. On the bottom of a permission slip for a school swimming gala. Quoted in a major local newspaper as an ‘old saying’.

Except, here’s the thing. Tony Wilson never actually said it.

It’s an entirely fictitious line from the script of the Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People, which was released 20 years ago this month. As such it’s the invention of the film’s Bootle-born screenwriter, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, whose other credits include The Claim, Millions and The Railway Man. But it’s so perfectly Wilson-esque that it’s become part of the legend. Here, Northern Soul talks to Cottrell-Boyce about the writing of the film – and that line.

Northern Soul: It’s been 20 years since the release of 24 Hour Party People. Looking back, is there anything about the film that you’d change if you could?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: I wrote a lot more of Tony’s news reports than made it into the movie. But probably I’m the only person in the world who would find his thoughts on the Saddleworth Whit Friday Brass Band concert more interesting than the Haçienda.

I do think we should have paid more attention to [Factory co-founder] Alan Erasmus’s character just as a matter of honour. He’s a great man. 

Tony was very game about the film. He was a recklessly generous soul. But I know there were things in there that he didn’t like and I do feel sad about that. I hate the thought of him being hurt by it, even a little bit.

NS: How gruelling a task was it to get the script right, to balance all those different stories, varying accounts, truth and myth?

FCB: It was like juggling soot. Everything kept changing. Partly because the actual shooting of the film was such an event in itself that it became a distortion field. The last night of the Haçienda in the film, that was a proper party and there really were problems on the door. The script had to keep up. It also somehow became my job to keep people depicted in the film – such as Bez and Shaun – happy, but also away from the set. Tony was as recklessly generous as always.

NS: So, about the enduring impact of that line: ‘This is Manchester, we do things differently here.’ Just for the record, Tony Wilson never actually said it and you made it up for the film, correct? There are various theories on this, including the idea that Wilson said it in an interview with Iggy Pop, but that doesn’t bear out.

FCB: No, it’s not from Tony. It came about because there was a lot of talk about three act structure etc, something I’ve never understood. I got a note about “making the ends of acts really land”. I thought if I just stuck a line in saying “This is Act Two” then that would make it look like I knew what I was doing.

The speech begins “Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives …” I can’t see Tony really quoting Scott Fitzgerald. Too low-brow. He was forever quoting Adorno and Walter Benjamin. The same goes for all the talk about Yeats. Tony said afterwards, “so you’ve written a self-portrait and named it after me”.

NS: When you wrote the line, did it strike you as anything special in any way? Even a sense of ‘oh yeah, it’s pretty good, that’? Would you say it’s your favourite line in the film – and if not, what is?

FCB: My favourite line in the film is at the very beginning when he talks about Icarus and says it doesn’t matter if you don’t get it “but you should probably read more”. I think it’s really funny but that speech – the tendency to explain, to lecture, then to apologise for doing so, then to double down on it – I think I really caught Tony in that speech. I’ve only seen the film once since it came out and that was for a charity event. I found it difficult to watch because he’s dead.

No, the Manchester line never really struck me. I was being cheeky really. Didn’t think it would make the final cut.

NS: When did you first become aware that the line had taken on a life of its own?

FCB: My daughter went to Manchester Uni. She’d never seen the film. She quoted it at me and I said “I WROTE THAT!”

NS: Do people sometimes miss the ‘print the legend’ aspect of 24HPP? Even beyond that specific line, it’s often taken on board as gospel truth where Manchester music is concerned, even though the film says outright that it isn’t.

FCB: Oh God. Music fans are the most pedantic people in the world, aren’t they? I’ve just done a series about the Stephen Lawrence enquiry [Stephen, broadcast by ITV last August]. A hugely important subject, literally about life and death. Obviously I had to cut a few corners to get the story told, though my co-writer was very, very strict about detail. No one criticised us. Everyone understood. But my God, get the guest list for that Pistols Lower Free Trade Hall gig wrong and you are The Great Satan.

NS: The story goes that you attended Tony Wilson’s wake and saw lots of quotes posted up around the venue that were actually from your script rather than his real life.

FCB: Yes, I think I pointed this out to Oliver [Wilson, Tony’s son] or maybe to Alan [Erasmus] and they said “Oh yes, but after the film came out he started saying them because he was Tony and he hated to disappoint people.” 

NS: Does it feel fitting that the ‘This is Manchester…’ line has had an afterlife, what with 24HPP’s message of ‘print the legend’ / ‘This never actually happened’? And how does it feel to be the Scouser who coined Manchester’s unofficial motto?

FCB: I feel truly, truly chuffed about that. I really do. I think partly because I know absolutely how much Tony would have relished that. And I’m aware of just how many times he would have explained it to me.

By Andy Murray, Film Editor

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