Cliff Twemlow may not be a name familiar to even ardent cineastes. If anyone is familiar with him, it may be more as a mythic figure. A proud Mancunian, Twemlow was a bodybuilder and nightclub bouncer in the northwest of England in the 1960s who due to his impressive physique, caught the eye of Granada Television, where he got work as an extra in such series as Coronation Street and The Caesars. There, he met one David Kent-Watson, a soundman and cameraman at the studios. Realising that Cliff had a musical ear, Watson encouraged Twemlow, and under the name Peter Reno, became a prolific composer of stock music, his track ‘I’m A Man’ being used in Dawn of the Dead (1979) and his track Distant Hills becoming the end theme to long-running ITV daytime drama Crown Court. While this was happening, Cliff was still bouncing, and wrote a semi-autobiographical pulp novel called The Tuxedo Warrior. Both this and his horror novel The Pike (about a killer fish in the Lake District) got picked up for film adaptation. But both had difficult fates. The Pike was due for adaptation with Joan Collins and Colditz actor Jack Hedley as the leads, but when the animatronic pike prop failed to work on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, the backers pulled out.
While Tuxedo Warrior did get made (starring Hedley’s For Your Eyes Only costar John Wyman as Cliff), the location was changed from Manchester to colonial Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. After being flown to Zimbabwe to consult and take part in a small role, Cliff decided to make his own film. Realising the video market had potential for original productions, Twemlow (actor/producer/writer) and Kent-Watson (his director) made GBH (1982). A rough, ready shot-on-video crime film with Euston Films-style violence in the heart of Manchester clubland and a Twemlow-penned score that unashamedly rips off the theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the film, like the cinematic equivalent of a flat-roofed murder pub on a rough estate, was a surprise hit on VHS, but then got caught up in the video nasties scandal, which ultimately led to the previously uncensored to be UK/Irish video market to be put under various censorship boards.
Twemlow’s later films (if they got finished at all) ended up limited to foreign releases and showings on obscure satellite TV channels. However, until his death in 1993 (at 56 not 60, as he claimed), he made several films and began others. These range from a rather well made werewolf picture (Moonstalker (1988) – the only one of Twemlow’s own productions shot on film) to Firestar: First Contact (1991) – an Alien knockoff shot in a Manchester Lazer Quest starring former mams’ favourite Oliver Tobias and a slumming Charles Gray (yet another Bond connection). Kent-Watson then made his own video-film without Twemlow, Into the Darkness (1986), a shoddy slasher shot in Malta, starring Donald Pleasence, in full alimony-money mode and Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Ronald Lacey, which unlike many of Twemlow’s films, did see the light of day. Frustratingly, the most fascinating of Twemlow’s productions were left on the shelf. Target -Eve Island (1983), a sub-Bond spy thriller (with a grim twist ending reminiscent of The Wild Geese (1978)) was shot in Grenada at the exact moment the American invasion happened, thus Twemlow and Kent-Watson managed to get priceless footage of tanks, helicopters and US troops, adding immeasurably to the production value of their tatty little picture.
Twemlow’s films (or what there is out there that got released) are fascinating. Quite unique, they are basically Working Men’s Club Cinema, like the cinematic equivalent of the work of John Shuttleworth. The casts of his films initially comprise of various figures on the fringes of the Northern showbiz scene. There’s models (Brett Hutchinson – brother of Coronation Street star/Loose Woman Sherrie Hewson, Ginette Gray), local martial artists (Steve Powell), club comics (Maxton G. Beesley Sr, father of British TV regular/Glitter star Max, and Jerry Harris, one of the lesser stalwarts of Granada’s seminal The Comedians series). The MVP of these films is John St. Ryan, a brawny, moustachioed actor who later moved to the US, appearing in various straight to video series as well as TV series like Babylon 5, Buffy, the Heath Ledger Celtic drama Roar, and one of the various Irish eps of Murder, She Wrote. However, St. Ryan is probably best remembered for playing Charlie, Bet Lynch’s trucker boyfriend in mid-90s Coronation Street.
It’s these constant connections to Granada TV that fascinate. Granada was often called the Hollywood of the North, using their connections to mount lavish productions like Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown and several HBO docudramas. It seems Twemlow was desperate for the Hollywood of the North to extend beyond Granada, and to other parts of Manchester. This is the story of a man’s doomed dream to create a micro budget film industry in the Northwest. Here is a man who realised that the straight to video film industry was a viable market about five or six years before the rest of the market caught on.
So, what of the documentary?
Well, it’s excellent. It charts Twemlow’s life from a young working class lad in post-war Eccles, desperate to get higher status to his days working as a bouncer for Peter Stringfellow. It shows a man who, despite the success of G.B.H on video, had more misses than hits, and yet when kicked down, never gave up. He was a dreamer who made it his life to achieve his dreams. He wanted to be an action star, a Charles Bronson in the back streets of Manchester, using anything he could to make his movies. This included car sponsorship deals with local dealerships – so we have Cliff playing a great white hunter who drives a Fiat Panda 4×4 that he insists is a ‘jeep’ or a Satanist whose vehicle is a van from Sale Van Hire, with ‘Sale Self-Drive’ on the bonnet.
Everyone interviewed clearly has very fond memories of Cliff, that he was very clearly a lovely bloke. And his films unusually don’t feel like egosploitation vanity films. You often get the sense Cliff is only in these films cos he couldn’t find anyone else. So it is sad, when his story unravels to him dying of steroids (having become obsessed with wining a Grandad Universe competition despite being 4 years too young, that he didn’t even place in). There are things that the film merely hints at that could have been covered, despite the length of the thing (at times it feels too long). For example, a trade poster reveals that Twemlow’s publicist was the notorious Max Clifford. Later on, Cliff’s GBH 2 / The Blind Side of God projects star Twemlow as a vengeful vigilante out to rid the world of ‘the paedophile’ (which Twem seems to think is a plural). GBH 2 features a coverup involving prominent figures and child abuse. Post-Yewtree, with the Clifford connection, and Twemlow being something of a Zelig figure in Manchester, one wonders – was he using his project to warn us?
All in all, this is a wonderful, hilarious and moving documentary of a one-man filmmaker.