Sid & Nancy (& Winston): Friday Night Film Club #6

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Sid and Nancy 30th anniversary

Sid and Nancy (1986) Director: Alex Cox

I like Alex Cox. The guy comes across as an engaging character and I always enjoyed his thought-provoking introductions on Moviedrome, a cult cinema series that introduced me to many obscure delights. How we could do with something similar on our TV screens today.

Alex Cox the director, though, isn’t someone I follow that closely. Repo Man was hugely popular with independent movie fans but it never quite lived up to the hype for me albeit it did display some real potential.

Rock biopics are a notoriously difficult type of film to pull off with the chances of pleasing avid fans of the act depicted and performing at the box office slim at best. When it was announced that Cox would be making Sid and Nancy, I reckoned he was as good a choice as any director to helm the project and his efforts would at least be intriguing.

Critics tend to rate Cox’s film highly. The New Statesman‘s Ryan Gilbey recently speculated on the possibility of Sid and Nancy being the ‘finest British film of the 1980s’. On the other hand Gary Oldman, who played Sid, admitted in an online interview that if he comes across the film while he’s channel surfing: ‘I wanna just throw the television out the window.’


Sid and Nancy opens with a dazed Sid Vicious arrested in NYC. A sad and pathetic figure, strung out on smack and shocked by the murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

We’re almost immediately transported back to happier times and Sid’s entry into The Sex Pistols. This is a cartoonish portrayal of punk. Life for Sid and his mate Johnny Rotten consists of drinking cans of lager in the streets, belching, spray painting a dominatrix pal’s living room walls and commenting on how boring everything is. If you had scant knowledge of punk and came across this then you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss about The Sex Pistols was all about.

Oldman immediately convinces as the man born John Simon Ritchie but Drew Schofield completely fails to impress as Johnny. Ditto David Hayman in the role of Malcolm McLaren. It’s not long before inaccuracies begin to pile up too.

In his book Popcorn, Gary Mulholland lists many of these, even going as far as to include Nancy’s first meeting with Sid and Johnny, where she states: ‘I have all your L.Ps back home’. This being a time when they hadn’t released any albums. I liked the line myself, feeling it was typical patter from a junkie/groupie hoping to ingratiate herself. A moment later she mixes Johnny up with Sid. Such is life. If you’ve got a habit.

Chloe Webb does excel as Nancy Spungen, an instantly irritating wreck who whinges and whines throughout. Believe me, it’s not hard to see how she earned her Nauseating Nancy nickname.

Sid would have had to search long and hard to find a more toxic partner. A doomed coupling from the moment they got together.

Sid and Nancy still

There’s plenty of self-pity and self-mutilation but very little in the way of self-analysis. In Nancy’s case, the solution to just about every problem is to throw a hissy-fit, attempting to get her own way by guilt-tripping into submission anyone who won’t give her money or drugs.

Along the way, though, we’re shown more and more moments of tenderness between the pair and the scene set in the squalor of a New York alley with the couple kissing and garbage raining down around them in a slow-motion wide shot is truly memorable. I know because it’s been over thirty years since I watched the film and it has remained with me ever since – and I should mention here that I watched Sid and Nancy on a ‘Vintage Classics’ 30th anniversary edition blu-ray. A fact that makes me feel very, very old.

Sid and Nancy kissing

After the monotonous Johnny and Sid double act, there are plenty of comedic moments. At one point Sid is so spaced out he doesn’t know if it’s New Year or New York. He has an unexpected encounter with a plate-glass window. The recreation of the My Way video undoubtedly works too – the one moment where the real Sid Vicious got to shine. His way.

There’s also near constant heroin abuse, Sid taking a nasty beating and Sid dishing out some domestic violence against Nancy although Sid as a snotty-nosed mess on the subway line clinging desperately to Nancy managed to make the man oddly sympathetic. Momentarily anyway.

Then one of the strangest and most disturbing love stories in cinema history cops out with some sentimental surrealism as its ending. A flight of fancy too far that Cox himself later regretted.

Malcolm McLaren wasn’t a fan and Johnny Rotten dismissed the movie completely, going as far to claim that it glamourised drugs. I doubt myself a single person was persuaded to try out smack as a result of seeing it.

If you don’t mind a stream of anachronisms and dubious decisions like having Sid wear a hammer and sickle T-shirt rather than the swastika one that really was a part of his wardrobe, then you might well enjoy Sid and Nancy.

The re-created Sex Pistols music is pretty impressive. Probably because Glen Matlock played on it and even in his early days as a cinematographer, Roger Deakins already oozed talent. Sid, for example, looking out of the Chelsea Hotel on to bustling New York streets looks and sounds extraordinary.

The verdict?

A deeply flawed though generally compelling take on punk’s most high-profile couple.

Cox never again experienced the critical acclaim and interest that his two first features generated. His next feature, Spaghetti Western pastiche Straight to Hell, with a cast that included Joe Strummer, The Pogues, Courtney Love and Elvis Costello, proved a disappointment. Since then I’ve only seen one of his movies Repo Chick (where he was reunited with Chloe Webb). This was borderline unwatchable.

Oldman quickly became associated with what The Face dubbed the Britpack, a group of actors including Tim Roth and Miranda Richardson whose stars were on the rise in the mid-’80s. Interestingly Roth had declined the chance to play Rotten in Cox’s film. If he had accepted I’d guess the film would have been much improved.

Oldman’s next role was as another English rebel who also died young, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears.

Nominated for an Oscar for 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he finally scooped the big gong earlier this month for his turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. From a junky punk bassist to Britain’s wartime leader in just over thirty years.

No one will ever be able to claim he’s not versatile.

A Merry Punk Rock Christmas: Anarchy in Ivanhoe’s


I’ve just had a quick look to see what’s on offer on British TV over the Christmas holidays and highlights would appear to be few and far between. One programme though, does stand out in the schedules.

On BBC4 on Boxing Day at 10 PM, there’s a new documentary that really does look highly promising. Never Mind The Baubles: Xmas ’77 With The Sex Pistols is directed by Julien Temple of The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury fame and, according to advance publicity, will be ‘looking back to Christmas 1977 with an irreverent portrait of the times, featuring unseen footage of the Sex Pistols’.

Never Mnd the Bans

Johnny Rotten remembers the day fondly and the matinee show, a benefit for the children of local striking fire-fighters, might just be the most unexpected concert any band ever agreed to take part in.

For the previous thirteen months, a moral panic fuelled by the tabloid press, had surrounded the Pistols but that day the band and their Glitterbest management threw a party, filling the venue with sweets, fruit and a giant cake with Sex Pistols written in pink icing piped over it. They gave away Sex Pistols themed pressies to the kids and there was a talent competition – won by a girl who read out a poem by the distinctly un-punky Pam Ayres, while the young lad judged best pogoer was rewarded with a skateboard, coloured Day-Glo pink and yellow just like the sleeve of Never Mind The Bollocks.

Sid Vicious apparently even danced with some kids to Daddy Cool by Boney M as well as to one of the year’s biggest hits by Baccara. Yes sir, Sid could boogie.

The children all seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves, as of course did the punks and a number of firemen who showed up for the evening performance. Maybe it’s no coincidence that to this day, fans of the local football team, Huddersfield Town, will still on occasion chant out this little ditty to the tune of Anarchy in the UK:

I am a Hudders fan / And I am a Yorkshire man / Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it / I wanna destroy Bradford and Leeds / Cos I wanna be HTFC.

I don’t think I was even aware of what was happening that afternoon in the north of England – due to the threat of last minute bans from local councils and to cut down on the chances of troublemakers organising themselves and turning up in the hope of dishing out some aggro to the band or their fans, details of each of the shows that December were kept a well guarded secret for as long as was possible.

Some had more luck than me – or probably just better connections – and a couple of months or so ago, before the announcement of the documentary, I got talking to one young Glaswegian who’d managed to find out about the gig and land a ticket: Radio Clyde DJ and journalist Billy Sloan, who agreed to talk about the evening show at Ivanhoe’s.

Ivanhoe's Xmas 1977 (2)

How did you find out about the show and manage to get your hands on a ticket?

Stuart Bell, who was the plugger at Virgin, phoned me up and told me about the Ivanhoe’s show and mentioned that he could get a ticket for me if I was interested in trooping down, which I definitely was. He was as good as his word.

Were you a big Sex Pistols fan?

Huge fan. I’d noticed the name reading Sounds one time and thought – what a great name for a group. I bought Anarchy in the UK when it first came out with the plain black sleeve and thought it was brilliant. I took it to a party one time where I was in charge of the music. Everybody seemed to love it too but when somebody asked who it was and I revealed it was the Pistols then strangely enough some people’s reactions seemed to instantly change. I bought God Save the Queen the moment that came out as well though not the A&M version which is worth a fortune nowadays.

Yeah, not so long ago a copy of that went up for sale for around ten grand!

I also got an early copy of Never Mind the Bollocks album with the 7 inch single of Submission but due to all the bans in cities like Glasgow, the first chance I really had to see them live was in Huddersfield that Christmas.

And did you see them when they got back together?

Yeah, I saw them in 1996 at the SECC when Stiff Little Fingers supported them and very good they were too although when I saw them again in Glasgow in Hall 3 of the SECC in 2007 they were even better. Absolute dynamite and they made songs like No Feelings and God Save The Queen sound amazingly fresh.

Sex Pistols Glasgow 1996

I didn’t see them myself back in the 1970s and just felt that I didn’t want to see the reformed version in case they were a big disappointment.

You need a slap then! Seriously you should have gone. Musically they were again superb.

Sex Pistols SECC 18 Nov  2007

So when you informed your family that you were going to spend your Christmas day travelling down to Yorkshire to see Britain’s most notorious band how did they take it?

Because of the nature of the shows I only found out maybe five days beforehand that I would definitely be going, so when I brought up the fact that I couldn’t make the Christmas meal my mum initially thought I must be having to work and was looking all sympathetic. But when I told her I was away to a concert she went absolutely ballistic!

Not a big Sex Pistols fan herself?

Let’s just say she wasn’t too enthusiastic about the fact that at the one time of the year when all the family were supposed to get together for a big sit down meal I wouldn’t be there. And watching Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious instead!

And how did you make your way down to Huddersfield?

In a car with my pal and Stuart Bell and a pal of his. You could go ten miles without overtaking another car and when we stopped off at a Little Chef for something to eat there wasn’t anybody else there.

Different era I suppose, just about everything would shut back then on Christmas Day.

There was no sign of any staff around either when we walked into the place. They were all out the back and surprised to be interrupted when we gave them a shout.

And what like was the venue?

Ivanhoe’s was a nightclub with a medieval theme. There were swords and shields and even maybe lances on the walls, and long wooden benches. But for that night the stage had a backdrop with ‘Sex Pistols’ spray painted in red across it.

Were you at both shows or just the one at night?

No, we arrived down in Yorkshire at around half four or five and the matinee show for the children had just finished. There were still kids there milling around, wearing Never Mind the Bollocks T-shirts and Sex Pistols badges. At the end of that show Johnny Rotten had dipped his face into a massive cream cake and there was a bit of a food fight with the kids. The Pistols had really entered into the spirit of things and the youngsters loved it.

And what was the audience reaction at the second show?

They went totally nuts. I think some of the crowd including ourselves maybe realised this wasn’t going to have the longevity of, say, the Rolling Stones and it could end at any time so best to savour it while you could. They played the whole album and Belsen Was a Gas and maybe a couple of cover versions like Stepping Stone. Really thrilling stuff. In fact, it’s hard to stress just how good they were. Definitely one of the greatest shows of my life! And don’t ever listen to anyone who says they couldn’t play live, they were magnificent. The guitar break on EMI, Steve Jones played it note for note.

What about Sid?

Well, he was never gonna give Jack Bruce or Paul McCartney a run for their money but he certainly didn’t detract from the sound.

Did you meet the band and if so, how did you find them?

Met the four of them backstage and Nancy Spungen too, who didn’t know if it was Christmas, New Year or Pancake Tuesday. Johnny Rotten was wearing a Chinese style straw hat and a Never Mind the Rich Kids – Here’s the Sex Pistols T-shirt as a dig at Glen Matlock (whose new band The Rich Kids had just played Ivanhoe’s a few days earlier). The guy was in great form as were Steve Jones and Paul Cook. They were all happy to sign albums and posters but not Sid Vicious, who to me fuck off when I asked him to sign something. After the show we were invited by Johnny to join them at a party back in London, they were heading straight there in a coach. Sadly we had to say no and drove home to Glasgow, returning at about three or four in the morning.

Never Mind the Bans Final

Have you still got your souvenirs from the day?

I’ve still got my ticket – there were two versions, one that stated the venue and another, mine, that just said Sex Pistols Live at ????? Still have my double sided Never Mind the Bans poster too, which is going for crazy money on eBay. I’ve also got a photo with me behind Johnny Rotten. I’m looking forward to seeing this Never Mind the Baubles documentary to see if I maybe pop up somewhere in the background there too.

And finally, Malcolm McLaren wasn’t there that day, was he?

No. I’m not sure what he was up to.

It’s just, one of my favourite memories of your show was when Malcolm paid a visit to Radio Clyde and told listeners to wake up anybody in their homes that was asleep so they could hear him talk – this was around the time of Buffalo Gals. Fascinating stuff with the man giving his spiel about managing the Sex Pistols and coming out with some wonderful tales like meeting Afrika Bambaataa on the streets of New York.

Yeah, that was a memorable night. I was called into my boss’s office the very next morning and warned that he was never going to be allowed on the show again after letting out a swear word or two live on air. I did manage to interview him again a couple of times later for the Daily Record though. Always tremendously entertaining to meet and talk to.

Thanks for taking the time to talk, Billy. Enjoy the documentary.

And as a taster for Never Mind The Baubles, here’s a short documentary that features snippets of the footage that Temple shot that day and includes interviews with some the children (now adults) who attended the matinee concert and party.

Billy’s show is on Radio Clyde 2 every Sunday night from 7-10 PM and features a mix of new music and classics like Bowie, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground and, every now and again, some Sex Pistols. Live sessions are also a big part of the show and this year Billy has featured some top quality turns from acts like Franz Ferdinand, Lloyd Cole, James King and The Lonewolves and The Jazzateers.