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Don't let the truth get in the way of the legend

THE first gig comedian Steve Coogan went to was an early performance by 80s favourites Human League.

Wilson coogan

THE first gig comedian Steve Coogan went to was an early performance by 80s favourites Human League.

He's awkward about admitting this but now he's making up for his embarrassing musical past by starring in a film about a bunch of bands that had tons more credibility.

In 24 Hour Party People, we finally get to see Coogan playing it straight as Manchester's very own music mogulcumtelevision presenter Tony Wilson.

Through Wilson's eyes, the film tells the complex but entertaining legend of Manchester's music scene from 1976 to 1992.

That period saw the highly influential bands Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays, who were all signed to Wilson's Factory Records, put Manchester, or Madchester, as it became known in the early 1990s, on the musical map.

Wilson also owned the infamous Hacienda club, which provided a focal point for the city's burgeoning music scene.

But it all came to a messy end with the club's closure and the demise of Factory Records in 1992.

Even though he knows Wilson, Coogan didn't balk at the idea of playing a real person.

Instead, the Manchester-born star looked forward to being part of a film about a subject close to his heart.

"When I heard Michael Winterbottom (the director) was doing the film, I decided I'd do it if the script was good, as I wanted to make a film with him," he says.

"And I presented a TV show with Tony Wilson about 12 years ago when I was a young comic so I was familiar enough with him not to worry about playing him.

"I used to do an impression of him in my act as I knew him as a local figure, but it wasn't that I desperately wanted to play Tony Wilson, it's just I didn't want anyone else to play him. Anyone else might have cocked it up.

"I've got a respect for him. Sometimes he appears to be ridiculous but he's also a genuine pioneer.

"He was a visionary of sorts and I wanted to get that across too."

Throughout his time as Manchester's unlikely music mogul, Wilson held on to his day job as a presenter and news reader for Granada. Coogan feels this sums up his complicated nature. "I used to watch the local news and see Tony Wilson and think 'He runs Factory Records'," he remembers.

"Most of the old grannies who used to watch him had no idea about his other life. That's what makes him interesting.

"He's not just this underground maverick, he's also this smiley television presenter.

"There's a moment in the film at Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis's funeral where this old lady leans over the coffin to him and says 'I've seen you on television, you're always very well dressed'.

"That encapsulates him." As he grew up in Manchester and stayed there to study at university, Coogan, 36, has his own memories of the period.

Although he was too young to get caught up in the punk explosion and too old to get down to acid house, his older brother Martin was in many Manchester bands, including onehitwonders the Mock Turtles, so Coogan kept in touch with the city's music scene.

"In 1978, I was 14 or so years old and I remember being very aware of Factory Records and Joy Division," he says.

"But I was a student in Manchester in the mid-80s so I used to go to the Hacienda a lot.

"It was quite peculiar when we built a full size replica of the club. It was strange to revisit it as an actor playing a part."

When he talks about his days clubbing in Manchester, the usually confident Coogan goes a bit coy.

"I was slightly embarrassing as I used to crimp my hair and wear eyeliner," he grimaces.

"I wasn't a new romantic, more of an old neurotic. I used to gel my hair back as well. I thought I was Phil Oakey."

These admissions of illicit fun belie Coogan's religious past. Brought up by Catholic parents, had a mortgage.

"It was the kind of music that cool people were into at school.

"My timing was bad though. When I was in the full flush of youth it was in the early 80s when music was a bit rubbish.

"When the next wave of good music came along in the late 80s with Madchester and club culture, I already he was an altar boy until he was 16, briefly training younger boys to do the job. He says his interest in music and clubbing were a natural progression.

"We're the worst kind," he smiles. "A lot of creative people are from a structured religious upbringing. It fosters creativity because we want to escape from it all, probably.

"I guess it's something to kick against." For a long time, Coogan has been in control of the projects he works on from TV projects such as the soon to be returning Alan Partridge to his recent film debut in the comedy The Parole Officer.

Although his production company Baby Cow co-produced 24 Hour Party People, Coogan says he felt comfortable handing over the reigns to someone else.

" Michael let me and my partner Henry Normal get involved in the creative process at script level," he says.

"But not being in control was quite liberating because I didn't have to worry."

Much is made by the makers of 24 Hour Party People about it being a retelling of the myth of Madchester, not a truthful account of events. A lot of the film was improvised as Winterbottom prompted the actors to stray from the script.

Even Tony Wilson has encouraged this by writing the novelisation of the film rather than his own version of events.

"He said the way we told things was funnier," explains Coogan. "There's an inherent problem in trying to do any biopic.

"If you try and say this is how it was, you're almost bound to make a hash of it because people will say 'It wasn't like that'.

"Everyone's got a different story but the film is only one perspective.

"Tony Wilson quoted director John Ford and said that it's better to report the legend than the truth. It also meant that we had artistic licence. We're trying to entertain as well as tell a story."


David Holmes
Chief News Reporter
David Norbury
Mike Fuller
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