When Hollywood met Manchester

Jake West on the story behind Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life Of Cliff Twemlow

by Jennie Kermode

Mancunian Man
Mancunian Man Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

Jake West is a man who loves films – not just making his own, but exploring and documenting the work of others. His string of documentaries on filmmakers, actors and the hidden history of British cinema led him, perhaps inevitably, to Cliff Twemlow, a man who devoted his life to trying to build a new rival to Hollywood in Manchester, and who got further than you might expect given shoestring budgets and a dependency on casting his friends. The resulting film, Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life Of Cliff Twemlow is a real delight, packed full of wild anecdotes and never-before-seen footage. It screened as part of last month’s Frightfest and is soon to feature at Fantastic Fest. I was glad to get the opportunity to sit down with Jake and learn more.

“I was making my video nasties documentary where I first kind of began to really know about Cliff Twemlow, because one of the video nasties is GBH, which is Cliff’s first film. That was the first time that I really saw that work. It was less of a horror title, more of a crime thriller type thing, and the chap we interviewed for the video nasties documentary, who spoke about GBH and Cliff, was CP Lee, who had written the book The Lost World Of Cliff Twemlow, with Andy Willis. He was a real enthusiast about Cliff and all of his works.

“It was really interesting to get to know more about Cliff and find out some amazing things about him. I didn't know they had done all these other movies outside of GBH, so it was an interesting journey, but it was actually Severin Films who wanted to do something. They asked me if I wanted to get involved and come on board on it. It seemed like a really interesting project. The more I learned about Cliff, the more exciting it got. It was an interesting journey to find out about this guy who made all these crazy movies in the 1980s on video.”

It seems like the perfect project of him, given his background. He doesn’t have a Manchester connection, however.

“I've got friends who are Mancunians, and they've been always telling me how great Manchester is. So I finally got to find out. I hadn't really spent much time in Manchester before but we went up to interview many of the people who still live in Manchester, so we did a few trips up there. It was interesting to be treading in the places where Cliff shot the films and meeting the people who were actually part of them. As a filmmaker, having started my career doing low budget films, I think Cliff is an inspirational character for any filmmaker because of his unremitting ability to just keep on going against the odds.”

He's a fascinating character generally, but one of the things which intrigued me was the way he would lie about his age – pretending to be older.

“Cliff’s thing about his age is quite fascinating,” he agrees. “It is unusual for somebody to claim they're older than they are. But it seemed to be that he wanted to claim that so that people would say ‘Oh, you look really good,’ right? It's a strange kind of work-around that he employed there. One of his ex wives says he was very vain as well.

“It wasn't just filmmaking for him, it was music, it was writing novels, it was bodybuilding. There are so many different aspects to his personality, which is kind of fascinating. The more you discover, you keep spiralling into the crazy world of Cliff.”

I mention that I was intrigued by the way that a lot of people would say that he was vain, but a lot of people would also say that he was humble, and those two qualities seemed to exist side by side.

Jake nods. “It feels like maybe there's a contradiction, but I think he was humble in the way that he operated. He was very much somebody that managed to win people over and get them enthusiastic about things. One of the comments that Brett Sinclair, who worked with him on numerous films, makes in the film, is he said that he could talk anybody into anything. He seemed to have a great force of personality, being able to win people over, and often that's very helpful when you're making films on a low budget. Often he would go into a park and say ‘We've got permission to shoot in here,’ and they hadn’t, and they would just carry on and film, so he was perhaps a bit of a chancer, but then of course as a filmmaker you write your own luck to some extent.

In terms of his looks, obviously he was into bodybuilding. He was into shaping his body in a way. So he was always down the gym, or if he was recording he’d be doing press-ups in the recording studio. I think his fitness was something that was very important to his image of himself.”

He also worked as a composer, and some of his music is really impressive.

“Yeah, I mean, he wrote over 2,000 pieces of music and a number of those were used as TV themes for things like Crown Court. And he did all the songs in the films as well, which he wrote. So, you know, you've got the hilarious Mancunian Man, which is the theme tune for GBH, and then you've got the song Ibiza for The Ibiza Connection. The lyrics are a bit cheesy. It's very funny. And he created an identity for his films with the music.”

Was it the fact that he was so actively creative himself that won people over, because they could see how committed he was to his work?

“I guess so,” he says. “I mean, I think it was the fact that he managed to just get people. He was working with a lot of local friends. The people in his films were local martial artists and doormen and models and just people that he liked. And he just said ‘Well, we're going to do this crazy thing,’ like, ‘Tomorrow, we're off to Ibiza.’

“Everywhere they went, there seemed to be some sort of chaos that comforted them. But in some ways, I think, because Cliff wasn't a trained filmmaker, and the people he was working with didn't really know what they were doing, they were finding their way. Part of the documentary is cataloguing some of the incredible stories of the things that went wrong during the filming. I think that brings a real sense of humour to it. And Cliff had this amazing laugh. The people who worked with him said he was always laughing. He seemed to thrive on that kind of energy.”

And his awareness that straight to VHS would become a thing, before other people had realised it, was also impressive.

“Yeah, he was ahead of the curve on that. He seemed to be good at picking up on a trend, and he could see that how video was blossoming in the early Eighties. Everyone was having video recorders of their own. Shooting a film on 35 mil was very expensive in those days, but the fact he thought, ‘Well, why don't I just shoot it on video,’ because there was video technology and he knew the director, David Kent Watson, who was a cameraman and worked at Granada as a sound guy. He had equipment. He was doing wedding videos and things like that. So Cliff thought ‘Well, there's a way of doing this.’

“Obviously, the quality of the films is, well, they were shot on video in the Eighties and they really are artefacts of their time in every way, yet he worked out how to do a feature on a low budget without spending loads of money. I think that he was definitely ahead of his time. I mean, nowadays, people can make a film on their phone, but back then it was so much harder to make a film, because the equipment was a lot scarcer, and certainly getting to shoot the film and then edit it, was more having access to those things. Cliff surrounded himself by people who owned the equipment and things like that. He wasn't technical as a person, but he surrounded himself by people that could do that. I mean, particularly David Kent Watson, who was his Swiss Army knife director/cameraman/editor.”

I tell him that I liked Cliff’s effort to make Jaws-inspired thriller The Pike. Does he know what happened to the pike?

“The Pike is one of those absolutely fascinating, hilarious stories. Are you talking about the actual pike? There were two. There was the robotic one with all the actual electronics, and then there was just a long sculpted one which could be towed along by boats. Apparently the robotic pike and ended up in a museum in Japan. I haven't been able to verify that, but that's what that's what on the internet, so somewhere the Japanese can go and look at the actual pike. And it probably still doesn't work properly.”

I ask how much of the material from the films which we see in his documentary was actually released, and how he got hold of the rest of it, and he reveals that Severin Films is in the process of trying to put together a Cliff Twemlow collection, which sounds like something which fans of his documentary will be unable to resist.

“We've found some really interesting things. We've actually found a couple of different edits of GBH, one which was actually called The Mancunian or Mancunian Man. It's got different titles. When you watch the documentary, you can see some of the films were abandoned, and they never quite got finished, or there were arguments and then the masters went missing. There's complete versions of them but they're where they were when he abandoned them. Mostly because he wanted to start doing a new project. Cliff seemed to only be happy when he was filming. He didn't seem to be that bothered about getting the finished release, which was perhaps one of his flaws. He wasn’t perhaps the best business person, but he certainly was prolific in terms of making stuff.”

There’s a fair bit of behind the scenes footage as well, which must have been difficult because people weren't filming on their phones when they were making films back then.

“We were lucky to get access to some of that,” he agrees. “One of the actors, Ginette Grey, she had a rushes tape for one of the films that they did. So we have some behind the scenes rushes of him, then we have some of the archive stuff from TV, like of The Pike. For some reason, he didn't seem to do many filmed interviews, which is a shame, obviously, because he's no longer alive. But because he's in all the films and a lot of people have never seen any of that footage, he's always in the film, even though we couldn't have an interview with him.

“We used every little bit of archive, behind the scenes footage we could possibly find, including some home wedding videos and stuff like that. So there's some really lovely little personal things in there as well, which are a nice reminder of Cliff and the different aspects of his life.”

Finding people who worked on Cliff’s films was easier, he explains.

“A lot of the people that worked on his films all knew each other. They're all friends. So from that perspective, once we got in touch with Brian Sterling Vete, he knew all of the network of friends. Some of the people are now a bit older, a few people that are no longer alive. It was a bit of a search, in some cases. For instance, Brett Sinclair died about 10 years ago, and he was one of the main actors in quite a lot of his films, but we managed to find his partner and his daughter, who was in in one of the films as a little girl, and so we interviewed them.

Marc Morris, who I run Nucleus Films with, he's a great researcher and archivist. And we managed to track down a filmmaker, a guy called Steven Crompton. He’s English but he's based out in America now. He had started a documentary on Cliff about 15 years ago, but in typical Cliff legacy, he never did anything with it. But he had footage of some of the people who were who were no longer alive or didn't want to be interviewed. So we managed to get a great interview that he did with Brett Sinclair. We were thinking ‘Well, we're never going to get these people,” so then finding this amazing resource was wonderful. So thank you, Steven Crompton.”

One of the things that surprising in the documentary is the discovery that Cliff actually worked with quite a few people who were then big names.

“There was the aborted projects with Joan Collins,” Jake notes, referring to The Pike. “I think he probably only met her for a day. But then you had Oliver Tobias, who is in Firestar, his sci-fi, Alien rip off. And also in that film, there's the other chap who was in the Rocky Horror Show, Charles Gray. So yeah, I mean, Cliff was always trying to attract people into his films, but in many of these films, it's just his friends. People like John Saint Ryan, who then went on to make his own films and he now lives out in LA. He was Sean Connery’s stunt double on Medicine Man and things like that, because he's got the same kind of look and build as Connery.

“It's an interesting, eclectic bunch of characters who come from different backgrounds. You know, people like Ginette Gray, who started off as a as a model and was up for being a Bond girl, but never got selected in the end. She was one of these great presences in the films as well. Cliff seemed to pick interesting people – maybe not always the best actors – but he tried to make his productions better by getting people like Oliver Tobias in them. I think that was a smart move. And he was beginning to perhaps understand how to sell his films better by that point. But that was towards the end. Although, I suppose if The Pike had actually happened, then that might have changed the whole trajectory of his career. Unfortunately, we'll never know on that one.”

The documentary developed its story as he was making it, he says.

“My metaphor is a documentary film is sculpture, and narrative film is a blueprint. So every time you do an interview with somebody, it changes the perspective of what the narrative is. It's really a continuous shaping of the material. So you're sculpting the edit, and trying to find the story, find the themes. And with Cliff, what emerged was this theme of boom and bust. There’d be the excitement of doing something and then maybe failing, and then starting again, and Cliff had this sort of cycle in his life.

“I think that with the documentary we see some of the struggles and some of the sad things that happen to him as well. Hopefully it gives it a bit more depth that way. But certainly, when you're making a documentary, it's really the interviews, the archive the footage – you're not quite sure what the story is because you're still researching it yourself. Every time you talk to somebody, you're finding something more about them, or about what happened.

“It's interesting when, you know, like with Eve Island, they got stuck in a pretty dicey situation. Having different people's recollections of that was really fascinating, to piece it together as a kind of patchwork later on.”

Eve Island is one of those subjects which we don’t want to talk too much about because it would spoil some terrific surprises, so we move on, and i ask him which of Cliff’s films, finished or unfinished, he personally likes best.

“I wish that he had finished The Pike,” he says. “But I really like GBH. It’s great because it's full of all of that youthful exuberance, like the energy of ‘We can do anything. We don't really know what we're doing, but we're having a lot of fun doing it.’ And I think that comes over in the film. I also like Eye Of Satan, the one with the black panther. It doesn't really make any sense, but you can see with individual sequences that he was really trying to do something a bit more, and it's kind of interesting.

“Eve Island, his sort of James Bond film attempt, there's some bits which are really cool. And there's other bits where you can see they're really hampered by having no money. Cliff was always trying to take something on which was bigger than he could do, but he didn't seem to be daunted by that. So I think if you like films, and you can accept that this is a low budget film, and it's far from perfect, you can get a lot of enjoyment out of that. But if you're critical – you know, for some people, they wouldn't see this as a proper film – it doesn't compete with a James Bond film. You've got to be warm enough in your heart to accept the low budget and then you can go along with the fun.

“I think that a lot of people might have heard of GBH because of the video nasties, but beyond that, they don't really know much about him. And what's interesting about Cliff, it's almost like this strange pocket universe of British film history that not a lot of people have ever heard about. It's an obscure part of British film history that happened over a ten year period where Cliff was perhaps the most prolific filmmaker in the UK, which is hilarious because obviously, nobody knew that.”

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