Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life Of Cliff Twemlow


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mancunian Man
"There are so many great stories surrounding Cliff that it’s clear director Jake West was spoilt for choice." | Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

For over a century now, the English speaking film business has centred on Hollywood. Though it’s no longer the most prolific producer of films overall (that credit belongs to the Hindi-language industry in Mumbai), such is the power concentrated in the Los Angeles industry, and in its handful of big studios, that other industries have struggled to compete. Where they have been successful, it has usually been by building up a few strong brands: London with its mixture of heritage films and gritty dramas, Dublin with its dark comedies and innovative horror films. So what about Manchester? This documentary tells the story of a legendary figure who was determined to challenge the biggest blockbuster hits, to make any kind of film he wanted and to do it in spectacular style: Cliff Twemlow, Mancunian man.

Think you’ve never heard of him? The chances are that you’re familiar with at least one of his works, the gangland thriller GBH, which gained notoriety as one of the original Video Nasties. In fact the only really horrific thing about it is the quality of the acting, but Cliff was not the sort of man to be deterred by a bit of negative publicity which he knew would translate into increased sales. By the time he made GBH he had already lived a colourful life – it was based in part on his time as a nightclub bouncer – and had published an autobiography, Tuxedo Warrior, which was turned into a film in the US. An unhappy childhood as a war evacuee had taught him that he needed to look after himself, so he had learned to box, and had gone on to become a bodybuilder, cutting a fashionable figure for the era. He had a real talent for composing theme tunes and made a fair bit of money as a result, but he ploughed it all into filmmaking in an effort to turn Manchester into the new centre of the cinematic world.

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There are so many great stories surrounding Cliff that it’s clear director Jake West was spoilt for choice. On the one hand he was a man of mystery, using multiple aliases and lying about when he was born – actually claiming to be older because he liked it when people told him that he looked good for his age. On the other, he desperately wanted to be famous, and to live the luxury lifestyle which he saw on the silver screen. The documentary explores his films and his life in parallel, in roughly linear fashion, looking at how each one influenced the other.

Despite the tremendous level of productivity which Cliff got out of his team, few of his films were actually completed, let alone released, so much of the material here has never been seen before. There are snippets from The Pike, which followed in the wake of Jaws and would have starred Joan Collins but sadly sank when it ran into mechanical problems. We see scenes from and go behind the scenes of spy thriller Target Eve Island, on which the starving crew having to resort to knocking coconuts out of trees was the least of the things that went wrong. There are glimpses of Fiona Fullerton in The Ibiza Connection, where production coincided with Wham! filming their video for Club Tropicana, and there’s material from Moon Stalker, about the rumoured Beast of Exmoor, which one crew member describes as “basically An American Werewolf in...Eccles.”

It was Cliff’s anticipation of the emergence of a direct-to-VHS market which enabled all this, and which reveals the true genius of a man too easily written off on account of his rather slapdash production techniques. With a number of enthusiastic participants who all speak about him with affection, in spite of various divorces and arrests and close brushes with death, the documentary celebrates the filmmaking family which he created and the glamour and fun which he brought into people’s lives. It tracks his pivotal partnership with David Kent Watson, one of few people involved in the enterprise who started out with any real knowledge of filmmaking, and his ability to persuade surprisingly big names to appear in his films, such as Charles Grey in space adventure Firestar: First Contact.

With car chases, nudity, punching and explosions, Cliff’s films pack in all the things which, as a former cinema projectionist, he knew audiences loved. They’re not exactly Hollywood calibre, but often they’re a lot more fun. Furthermore, they capture the can-do spirit of a city which responded to poverty and neglect with creativity and a determination to do things its own way. The tragedy is that Cliff doesn’t seem to have known, in life, just how much he was loved, but West’s film, which screened as part of Frightfest 2023, puts him back in the spotlight where he belongs.

Reviewed on: 28 Aug 2023
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Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life Of Cliff Twemlow packshot
Polymath Twemlow was a nightclub bouncer, novelist, composer, singer, screenwriter, producer and actor, who for a decade was the most prolific indie filmmaker in the UK! Witness how this 20th century Renaissance man created his own innovative micro-film industry in Manchester.

Director: Jake West

Starring: Barry Twemlow, Oliver Tobias, Ginette Gray, John Saint Ryan

Year: 2023

Runtime: 124 minutes

Country: UK

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