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Pistol TV Series Review
Pistol Poster
FX / Hulu / Disney+ 6 part TV series
Director: Danny Boyle
Written by: Craig Pearce

‘The following is inspired by actual events.’ So begins each episode.

The dust has settled, everyone has watched it and formed their own opinions. It’s been important for me to take time out to allow my own thoughts and feelings to coalesce. The project itself has been so divisive, driving wedges between the band that may prove impossible to bridge. My intention is to leave all of that baggage to one side, and give my own, honest, personal opinion of the series itself. Not one driven by emotion. For that to happen, I’ve had to allow some time to pass.

I’ll begin with my conclusion. ‘Pistol’ was not made for me. I know too much. It has been made to entertain the consumers of modern streamed media output. It’s Disney, Bambi for the 21st Century. There lies the danger. Vast publicity, lavish red carpet premieres, alongside band and record company endorsements have legitimised the story as portrayed in ‘Pistol’. Although the series is based on ‘Lonely Boy’ Steve’s autobiography, it’s only in a very loose sense, in fact the opening disclaimer could equally say ‘The following is inspired by Lonely Boy’. I think this is a fundamental issue here. Take episode 3, ‘Bodies’. This tale takes up just one paragraph in Steve’s book, but clearly Craig Pearce, sensing a dramatic goldmine, plucked it out and turned it into a 54 minute drama.

One thing you have to learn quickly is to ignore the stuff that jars. There’s plenty of it: it’s a production rife with historical inaccuracies from start to finish. I won’t list them all as it would be a screenplay in its own right; Anachronisms in the UK.  If it’s a truthful time line you are after, you are watching the wrong show. Ah, the truth, that is a construct jettisoned willy nilly throughout ‘Pistol’ in favour of the drama. I understand this, but felt at times I was watching a version of the Sex Pistols from an alternative reality.

Episode one ‘The Cloak of Invisibility’ sets the scene, and it starts promisingly enough, although I have to ask, why oh why do so many films set in mid-70s Britain show uncollected bin bags piled up in the streets? This didn’t happen until 1979. Moving beyond my personal irritants, the opening episode is focused on Steve and it’s a commendable dramatisation with some solid, convincing acting by Toby Wallace as Steve. This is in spite of Steve’s hair being too long, and what’s Paul got on his head? Wig? Shredded mullet? It’s odd that despite a lot of painstaking accuracy in clothing, sets and so on, such odd visual choices have been made.

Back to the drama. Thievery, abuse by his step-father, and his love of music make the transition from Steve’s book to the TV screen. The Chrissie Hynde thread woven throughout the narrative is a fantasy, but the performance of Sydney Chandler as Chrissie is exceptional, and a real highlight. The character grounded the story and underpinned the surrounding chaos. Yes it was made up, but enjoyable in dramatic and performance terms.

The juxtaposition of Steve’s home life with that of his best mate Paul was powerful - the moment when Steve can’t say the word ‘love’ being particularly poignant. Paul Cook, played by Jacob Slater, is - wig apart - well served by the script but the same can’t be said for Glen Matlock. No sooner has the character been introduced then out come the cliches and myths, made worse by the wet delivery by Christian Lees. Glen loves The Beatles, is a ‘ponce’, thinks he’s better than everyone else and has a shit sense of fashion. Poor Glen even uses a Beatles term ‘toppermost of the poppermost’, and just in case you weren’t aware of its origin, he tells you. It’s laid on with a trowel. Worst of all, Johnny Rotten is angling to kick him out of the Pistols on the eve of their first gig. And was Steve really given the job of sacking Glen, perhaps he just left? This trashing smacks of lazy scriptwriting, singling out the obvious misfit/fall guy to create some tension. The Sex Pistols story doesn’t need tension to be manufactured, it’s full of it.
Paul (Jacob Slater) , Johnny (Anson Boon), Steve (Toby Wallace), Glen (Christian Lees)

While episode one drew from ‘Lonely Boy’, from episode two, ‘Rotten’, the narrative drifts into another retelling of the Sex Pistols story. The first four instalments do, however, keep Steve at the epicentre, with part 4 ‘Pretty Vaaaycunt’ cleverly exploring his relationship with his stepfather via the Grundy show.

It was a brave decision to have the actors actually performing the Pistols music themselves, as a bona fide band. This worked. It gave the live gigs an authentic feel. A stark contrast to the daft sequence of Thomas Brodie-Sangster miming to McLaren’s rendition of ‘You Need Hands’.

As subsequent episodes pass, Danny Boyle gets onto the stuff that really floats his boat - the Sex Pistols and a sizeable chunk of squalor; Sid and Nancy, drugs, needles, sleaze, sex, violence. Danny goes into overdrive with all his ‘Trainspotting’ favourites. With this, the series takes on a darker tone. The latter third of ‘Pistol’ is, for all intents and purposes, a remake of ‘Sid and Nancy’, with episode 5 imaginatively titled ‘Nancy and Sid’. It’s intriguing to note how both productions chose to fictionalise the Pistols River Thames boat gig, making it into a drama around the pair. The scenes of Nancy running along the river bank following on from her ‘kidnapping’ suggests the producer’s interest in Steve is waning in favour of Sid, played by a smiley, non-threatening, Louis Partridge (pictured).

SidThe Pistols US tour gives more oxygen to explore Sid and his outrageous antics. Steve is kept in mind via some drug exchanges between him and Sid (crucially scoring smack from Sid in San Francisco). There’s no mention of this in Steve’s book which by this stage in the narrative has been discarded as a source for the material.

There are strong scenes peppered throughout the latter instalments, and praise must go to a well realised and expertly acted scene between Steve and Johnny
in San Francisco discussing the future of the Pistols, with Steve torn between his loyalty to Malcolm and John urging him to get rid of him so they can carry on with the band.

However, by and large, by the time part 6, ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ arrives we are in full cartoon mode. ‘I’m going to blow up the Pistols’, announces Malcolm. ‘I have to destroy them!’ I half expected to see the ‘Friggin’ In The Riggin’’ cartoon sequence kick in at this point. There was a cartoon element to the Pistols, it was crazy and mad-cap, but these dramatic proclamations seem at odds with a serious drama - at times the words uttered by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood (played by Talulah Riley) are too improbable to be credible. It makes you wonder if Danny Boyle was unsure how to pitch the series.

As a further illustration, this being Disney, the final episode ends with a tender reconciliation between Johnny and Steve as they reminisce about the good times. To facilitate this short ‘feel good’ ending, Johnny has made a visit to the ‘My Way’ set in Paris. Quite something for a quick chat. There’s also the scene in episode 3 explaining away the Destroy T-shirt design - best protect the Disney brand. Consequence free, excessive violence is still fine though - Donald Duck has always embraced that.

Before concluding my thoughts, there’s a couple of characters to discuss. First off, Johnny Rotten as played by Anson Boon. This was the most difficult role of all, and he does a brilliant job. Avoiding parody and mimicry, Anson inhabits the character with his own personality and is at times mesmerising and unsettling. I wasn’t sure during the jukebox audition sequence; it took a few scenes to adjust to his portrayal, but he deserves praise for being brave enough to go all in with the character and giving us a well rounded, intelligent Johnny Rotten, emerging as the only one to see through all the nonsense. A unique one-off, not quite our Johnny, but laudable.

Secondly, Malcolm McLaren as realised by Thomas Brodie-Sangster. A lot of mannerisms are spot on and you can see the amount of preparation that has gone into the portrayal, but it still had a touch of the Mike Yarwood’s about it, a hint of exaggeration. Perhaps that’s because he looks too young, younger than Steve. His performance in court ‘representing’ Steve was akin to The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

This leads into another area of concern. The script plucked much of the McLaren dialogue from ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ and the ‘South Bank Show’ McLaren interview from the mid-80s. Nice quotes, but uttered after the fact by a McLaren talking himself up as a master puppeteer. I was surprised as it perpetuates many of the lies of the ‘Swindle’ which have been played down over the past 40 years. When the ‘Swindle’ film was released in 1980 we all knew it was tongue in check, it was presented as such. ‘Pistol’ is a different beast entirely and therefore cements the myths and falsehoods.

To conclude. I’ve read the press reviews, and apart from a couple of dissenters, the overwhelming response has been positive. There’s a riveting story, some outstanding performances, including from the more minor cast. An incredible attention to detail has gone into the sets, the clothing, and the overall recreation of the 1970s - there’s no doubting the filmic quality. Disney and Danny Boyle virtually guarantee artistic and financial success. This is what worries me.

Artistic license is part and parcel of a good drama based on true events - take ‘The Crown’ for instance - but in ‘Pistol’ it felt endemic. It wasn’t Steve’s book adapted into a film, now that would have been good. It was Steve’s book being used as a gateway into the Sex Pistols. A gate opening into an alternative reality where a different incarnation of the Sex Pistols and their story exists.

Should this matter? I think it does. When we’ve all passed on, Disney/FX/Boyle’s ‘Pistol’ will, without doubt, become known as THE story of the band. In the same way the escapades of the POWs at Stalag Luft III will forever be seen through the lens of ‘The Great Escape’. People may even come to view ‘Pistol’ just as fondly. Perhaps a Disneyland ‘Pistol’ thrill ride is just around the corner? I’m sorry - the Sex Pistols mean too much. ‘Pistol’ just wasn’t for me.

‘The following is inspired by actual events.’ At least the disclaimer is accurate. Oh, and Steve, get yer hair cut.

Review by Phil Singleton

©Phil Singleton / 2022
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God Save The Sex Pistols  ©Phil Singleton / 2022

God Save the Sex Pistols

God Save The Sex Pistols ©Phil Singleton /