You’d be forgiven for thinking that, when Cliff Twemlow found himself on location in Zimbabwe as fight arranger for the feature film Tuxedo Warrior in 1981, he might have scaled the heights of his ambitions. A Hulme-born nightclub bouncer-cum-singer and bodybuilder, Twemlow’s creative streak ran to him writing books and songs, and Tuxedo Warrior was (very loosely) based on his own memoir about working in Manchester clubs.
But Twemlow returned from Africa enthused by his experience of film-making, wondering to himself ‘why don’t I have a go at that?’.
The full story of how Twemlow got to that point, and what happened next, is told in Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life of Cliff Twemlow, a thoroughly entertaining new documentary by director Jake West. West’s own entrée into the world of Cliff came more than ten years ago when he was making a pair of documentaries about the phenomenon of video nasties, including the 1983 movie GBH depicting violent crime in Manchester clubland, starring and written by Twemlow.
“We did Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, volumes one and two,” West says. “On volume two, we covered what were called the Section 3 video nasties [those not liable for prosecution as ‘obscene’, but which could be still seized as ‘less obscene’]. GBH is one of the titles that fell foul of the Video Recordings Act and got branded a video nasty so, for that, we interviewed CP Lee and I met him for the first time.”
Venerable cultural historian CP Lee left us in 2020, but not before he’d made a mighty contribution to the reappraisal of Twemlow’s work and career. In tandem with Andy Willis, he wrote The Lost World of Cliff Twemlow, the first and so far only book on the subject. “I hadn’t read the book at that point,” West says. “When we spoke with with with CP about GBH, that’s the only film I knew that Cliff had done. When CP was telling us that Cliff had done all these other films and sharing some of the amusing production anecdotes, I thought ‘okay, this guy sounds like an amazing character’.”
Indeed, tales of Twemlow’s film-making exploits are legion and often gobsmacking. Taking advantage of newly available technology amid the VHS boom, most of his movies were shot – cheaply, and in some respects amateurishly – on video, rather than on film, When he wasn’t making movies in the clubs where he worked, Twemlow was jetting off to film a pseudo-Bond adventure in Grenada during an actual military coup, starring in a Satanic horror film in which he drove a Sale van hire vehicle, or fending off security at Jodrell Bank while covertly filming scenes for a sci-fi film before going on to use an out-of-hours Manchester Laser Quest as the location for the climactic shoot-out.
Telling Twemlow’s story
Around three years ago, US-based boutique Blu-ray company Severin Films approached West to ask if he’d be interested in telling Twemlow’s story.
“Severin wanted to put out a collection of some of Cliff’s films and wanted a documentary to go along with it, something that would be a primer for Cliff. So we started working on that and it kind of snowballed, got bigger and bigger, better and better. Cliff has got such a great story, and the documentary’s ended up being a bit more epic than anyone expected.”
The finished film, which runs for just over two action-packed hours (painstakingly trimmed down from a four-hour-plus rough cut), has outstripped its origins as a box set bonus documentary. It’s already been shown at various international festival screenings, making its world premiere at FrightFest in London this August on the IMAX screen at the Empire Leicester Square. “The fact that, 40 years on, Cliff’s work was shown in the West End on one of the biggest, best cinema screens in the entire world – he would have found that amusing, I think,” West says.
So far, audiences have been receiving the film with great acclaim. Plans are afoot for Mancunian Man to reach the widest audience possible but, for now, it’s set to make its Manchester debut at a special screening at CULTPLEX on November 12, with a panel of guests to be chaired by Andy Willis, one of the lynchpins of the documentary.
So, exactly what is it about Twemlow that inspires this slow-burning fascination?
“The thing with Cliff is that there was a surprising depth and variety to the things that he did in his life,” West reflects. “From being a working-class kid who got evacuated during the war and got bullied, he became a bodybuilder to make sure that people didn’t give him any shit. He became a bit of a tough guy in his local area and started working in clubs. He was into music, and that spiralled into him writing thousands of songs for the De Wolfe music library. Even the way he did that wasn’t a normal process. It was this ‘dum de dum de da’ technique, whereby he would hum his ideas into a reel-to-reel cassette recorder and then get other people to actually orchestrate and write the music. Everything that Cliff did seemed to have some kind of strange twist to it.”
Even the story of Twemlow’s music-making career is full of curious, hilarious nuggets. As well as penning the big, brassy theme to GBH himself, library music tracks he wrote were used in everything from zombie classic Dawn of the Dead to 70s afternoon TV staple Crown Court. In 1973, Twemlow had the chutzpah to write a single for Shirley Bassey-alike singer Selena Jones entitled Live and Let Die and release it just as the Bond film of the same name was due to hit cinemas – only for Cubby Broccoli to hit it with an injunction.
Such setbacks never seemed to stop him for long, though.
“Cliff was just was sort of unstoppable. Once he wanted to do something he just got on with it and did it. He had no training in film-making or production, but that’s what makes the films so amusing and endearing in many ways. They’re not fully-mounted professional productions, but there’s something fascinating about these films which are a time-print of Manchester in the 80s and 90s. They capture a flavour of the place and the local characters. They give you an insight into somebody who was incredibly determined. Everything Cliff did had kind of a sort of boom-or-bust, famine-and-feast feel to it. I think that’s what makes him such an engaging subject for this documentary, and it’s also why, when people watch it, they really warm to him. You can’t help but like him, because of his irrepressible nature.”
As for his films themselves, though, do they actually stand up today? He may have had a cheap and cheerful ‘me and my mates’ approach to the business, but it doesn’t seem right to compare him to, say, Ed Wood, the so-called ‘worst director of all time’. Whatever their merits, Twemlow’s films are completely unpretentious.
“He’s not really like Ed Wood, because Ed Wood was working in Los Angeles and shooting on film,” West says. “It was easy to laugh at Ed Wood because he was consciously making B-movies and doing things on the cheap. Well, actually there is that side to Cliff, who was often all about cutting corners in productions. But one thing that everybody who worked with Cliff says about him is that he had an amazing sense of humour. I do get the feeling that he never took things too seriously. And I completely agree, his films are completely unpretentious. There’s something very raw about them in some ways.”
Mancunian Man weaves together interview clips with many of the key figures involved, even some, such as CP Lee and Twemlow’s regular co-star Brett Sinclair, who are no longer with us, thanks to footage shot for a unfinished earlier Twemlow documentary by director Steven Crompton. One figure who doesn’t get to speak to camera, though, is Twemlow himself. who died in 1993, aged just 53.
“He’s in the film all the way through, because obviously he’s in every single film that they made, and we’ve found every bit of archive that we could of him. So we’ve managed to fill in Cliff as much as possible, but the one thing that that he never seemed to do, which is strange, is that he never did a proper, long video interview at the time. Nobody, or nobody that we’ve managed to find, ever sat down and did an on-camera video interview with Cliff. Which is a shame, but that again maybe adds to his mystery. I suppose hearing people’s stories about Cliff builds him up into this sort of mythical character, and in some ways maybe he would have preferred that.
“The other person that I would loved to have been around to see the documentary, because he really did get the ball rolling, is CP Lee. He was so enthusiastic about Cliff that he managed to infect you with his own enthusiasm. You kind of get the feeling that’s probably what Cliff was like as well. I think Cliff has possessed us all slightly to get his story told. Yeah, I’ve been Twemlowed.”
All photos courtesy of Severin Films
The Manchester premiere of Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life of Cliff Twemlow will take place at CULTPLEX in Manchester on November 12, 2023. Tickets are available here: