‘I want Johnny Rotten to attack it!’ Danny Boyle on his shocking Sex Pistols saga

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<span>Photograph: Miya Mizuno/FX</span>
Photograph: Miya Mizuno/FX

Danny Boyle is sitting in his kitchen sounding faintly surprised that his latest project has been made at all. “It’s so not the story that everybody wants to be told,” he says, “but it is the story that should be told.” Pistol, a six-part miniseries, certainly isn’t the first drama about the Sex Pistols. There was Alex Cox’s 1986 movie Sid and Nancy, as well as The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle – a game attempt by the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren to claim the whole thing was a brilliantly orchestrated money-making scheme. But Boyle’s is by far the most ambitious.

It is based on Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, Steve Jones’s fantastic, occasionally harrowing autobiography, which takes readers from the guitarist’s horrendous childhood (he was sexually abused by his stepfather) to that infamous, expletive-filled appearance the band made on ITV’s Today show. It then covers the notoriety that followed, including the band’s messy collapse during a US tour and the horrific aftermath, which culminated in bassist Sid Vicious dying of a heroin overdose while on bail, charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

The series features a high-profile young cast: Maisie Williams, best known as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, plays Jordan, the fearsome sales assistant in McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique Sex; while Louis Partridge, star of Netflix’s hugely successful Enola Holmes, is Sid Vicious. There are some striking performances: Anson Boon doesn’t look much like Johnny Rotten, but he’s got his voice and mannerisms eerily accurate; likewise Thomas Brodie-Sangster as McLaren. Moreover, it’s funded – and here’s an image for anyone who can remember the furore the Sex Pistols once caused – by Disney.

Its making was controversial and demanding, too. There was Covid, of course, and a court case brought by furious frontman John Lydon, AKA Johnny Rotten, to prevent the band’s music being used. Then there were the specific challenges of working with a cast largely too young to remember the 1990s, let alone the 1970s. “None of them knew what a Trimphone was,” says Boyle, speaking by Zoom. “They couldn’t work out how to put the receiver back on the cradle.”

Eighteen-year-old Partridge tells me he wasn’t entirely sure who Vicious was before he went for the part: had he been fully aware, he might not have auditioned with his mum reading the part of Nancy. “I went as Sid Vicious to a dress-up day at school once,” he says. “But I went as what I thought he looked like – so I put my hair in a mohican. I’d heard about him, just the hearsay and infamy. Other than that, I knew nothing.”

But it wasn’t so much the problems the production encountered that makes its completion seem miraculous. Boyle seems more surprised that Pistol got commissioned in the first place, particularly by a Disney-owned channel, namely FX. For one thing, he says, the saga is a complex one that doesn’t lend itself to straightforward storytelling: all its major characters are deeply flawed and there’s no obvious hero. Nor – with its swastikas and senseless violence, its ambiguous songs about abortion and concentration camps, its sex-addicted, kleptomaniac guitarist and its bassist who may or may not have stabbed his partner to death – isn’t one that sits easily in the latterday moral climate.

“You just have to wind your way through,” says Boyle, “and hope your actors make them feel believable. And therefore you’ll empathise, because of what they’re going through and because they make themselves understandable. One of the advantages of streaming is that it’s willing to take on board that kind of complexity – and look for the attachment of the audience not through quite such easy tropes: the lovable one, the hero moment where he’s not quite as bad as you thought he was.”

It’s obvious Boyle is personally invested in the Sex Pistols’ story. He was 20 in 1976, more of a Clash fan than a Pistols devotee, though he genuinely believes the latter band altered the landscape of British life. “The biggest thing I remember is that your life was ‘timed’. You realised you became your father – that was partly to do with class, but it was true in different ways in all classes. It was very clear you were going to inherit something, whether you liked it or not.

“And what the Sex Pistols introduced, by their profanity and disrespect and vileness, was a break point that said: ‘No – you can do whatever the fuck you want with your life. If you want to waste it, waste it. Be vacant, be futile, be fucking hopeless, disgust everyone. But it’s yours – you do what you want with it.’ In retrospect, you realise that’s what made the difference – people never went back to that sense of stepping into your father’s shoes and following him into the factory.”

Boyle’s enthusiasm was evidently infectious. Partridge has become something of an expert on Vicious, after a crash course that involved “reading books, watching documentaries, speaking to former Sex Pistols and people who were around”. He also had to learn bass – Boyle insisted the actors perform their material live – but would then have to “rough up” what he’d been taught to match Vicious’s famous level of semi-competence on the instrument.

Emma Appleton, who plays Spungen, also became fascinated by a character she knew almost nothing about. Spungen is regularly painted as the one unequivocal villain in the Pistols story: a heroin-addicted American groupie whose impact on Vicious and the band was so ruinous McLaren attempted to have her kidnapped and forcibly returned to the US, and whose murder McLaren and Westwood memorialised in a T-shirt.

But Spungen, says Appleton, was mentally ill at “a time when people didn’t understand mental illness like we do now”, and deserves a more nuanced understanding. “I’ve always got a love for people I believe are misunderstood. It’s easy for there always to be a villain. But why are they the way that they are? wWhy do they behave the way that they do?, How can we have a more empathetic angle? She was a kid. I wanted to do her justice.”

Not all the subjects of Pistol are overjoyed at its existence. Lydon first lost that court case to prevent the band’s music being used, then blasted the finished product (or rather a 42-second trailer) as “a middle-class fantasy … a fairytale, which bears little resemblance to the truth”. Calling his former bandmates “dead wood”, he added: “None of these fucks would have a career but for me.”

For his part, the director remains unstinting in his praise for a man who has taken to calling him “Boyle on the bum”. He says: “Oh, he’s the genius. I mean, obviously, you can’t make a series about him because he’s unmanageable. Everyone knows that. So to get this book from Steve is like a side door in. It allows you to look at the whole group. But you have to acknowledge there’s a genius in there and it’s Rotten. He’s the person that changed everything, a key cultural figure in our landscape. I love Lydon for what he does and I don’t want him to like it – I want him to attack it. I think that’s his absolute right. Why would you change the habit of a lifetime?”

The OG … (from left) Johnny Lydon, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones and Paul Cook.
‘Disgust everyone!’ … (from left) Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones and Paul Cook.
Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns

Boyle “doesn’t know” if the story has relevance today. “I’m too old for that, really,” he says. “It’s certainly not the reason why we did it.” Yet the saga does have a modern resonance. We’ve heard a lot about cancel culture in recent years, but few pop stars in history were subjected to quite such a concerted attempt at cancellation as the Sex Pistols: banned from TV and radio, unable to play live unless under a pseudonym, with members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union at EMI striking rather than handle their records. And then there were the sales figures allegedly fiddled to prevent them getting to No 1, with a blank space displayed in the singles charts where God Save the Queen should have been.

The story also seems to touch on the very modern-sounding topic of confected outrage and its consequences, as well as celebrities having to contend with high levels of public scrutiny. “PUNISH THE PUNKS!” ran a Sunday Mirror headline in 1977, a week before Johnny Rotten was attacked by a machete-wielding gang outside a London pub. “I can’t see how [the scrutiny] wouldn’t have touched them,” says Appleton. “It undoubtedly would have – it’s life-changing. And now it’s on a scale people wouldn’t have been able to comprehend back then.”

Boyle is refreshingly frank about what may be the limits of Pistol’s appeal. After all, he says, it’s a very British story, rooted in the grimy minutiae of mid-1970s London and its music scene. “FX have been brilliant, but I don’t know how much it resonates in America. No matter how skilfully we manipulate the story, I don’t see how it will automatically appeal to a huge demographic. I’ve no idea how they’ll get it to appeal to people. I can’t figure that out at all.”

Then he smiles, as if possessed by one of the lessons he learned from the Sex Pistols. “I just know you make things like this for yourself, which sounds terribly selfish, but it’s obvious. You can’t really do it any other way.”

Pistol is on Disney+ from 31 May

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