Getting into films
I grew up in Wells, the small Somerset town where we filmed Hot Fuzz. My teenage obsession became getting into see films underage. I’d go to the Regal cinema, stick in lots of hair gel, and do an unconvincing low voice: “One for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” age 13, or “One for Goodfellas,” age 16.
We didn’t have a VCR, so I’d stay up to 3am to watch horror films like Halloween or Piranha on HTV [local ITV], or go round to Philip Cottle or Marcus Carter’s – friends of my older brother, Oscar, who did have VCRs – to watch Carrie or A Nightmare on Elm Street in the afternoon with the curtains drawn. Nick Frost’s character in Hot Fuzz does a name check: “Marcus Carter’s big brother said he’d fingered her up the duck pond.”Philip’s dad was my old primary school teacher. He’d be appalled that we were watching 18 certificates in his living room while he was at work. I got a Saturday job in Gateway – the Somerfield from Hot Fuzz – and saved up to rent a VCR from Radio Rentals.
After passing my driving test, I would drive in my rusty old Vauxhall Chevette to the Watershed in Bristol to watch arty films like Delicatessen, Barton Fink, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and drink black coffee to pretend I was a cineaste and not a spotty 17-year-old.
My parents’ record collection stopped in the 70s. As comprehensive school teachers with two young boys, I guess they had enough on their plate. I’d watch Top of the Pops but wasn’t drawn to 80s and 90s pop, so would retreat into 70s Bowie, Roxy Music, T Rex, Queen, and a little Sparks, of course. I wanted to continue my parents’ record collection without them.
I wasn’t cool enough to listen to John Peel or buy NME, so the indie chart on ITV’s The Chart Show filled me with bafflement. I have a vivid memory, aged 13, of hearing Birthday by the Sugarcubes and feeling faintly terrified. My brother’s friend Julian Thorne worked at Gateway and would copy Bowie albums like Lodger and Low on to C90s and add Monkey Gone to Heaven or Debaser by Pixies to try and wean me on to modern music. When I heard There’s a Ghost in My House by the Fall, I was repelled, yet hypnotised. Eventually I bought 458489 A-Sides – a Fall compilation from 1990 – and fell in love. Mark E Smith’s grumpy stylings were my gateway into indie.
Rejection by Viz
My brother and I were obsessed with comics. WH Smith on Wells High Street would only stock one copy per comic, so, age 14 or 15, I’d queue outside at 8am to buy the new Spider-Man or Hulk before anybody else.
We both loved Viz and submitted our own cartoons. Mine – Dr Poo – was at the juvenile level of a 14-year-old, and I got a flat rejection letter. My brother’s – Mr Squirrel Does Funny Coloured Shit – was much better, but he chickened out sending it in. I planned to steal it and send it on his behalf, but he hid or burned it. The next year, we went to a comic convention in London. Simon Donald from Viz was doing a talk. I asked: “What’s your criteria for judging readers’ submissions?” He said: “Whether it’s funny or not.” Ha.
My brother and I got a secondhand Super 8 camera as a double birthday/Christmas present. It had a vari-speed function, so we’d film us throwing our Action Men and Rom Space Knights out of the window in slow motion.
Jonathan Ross’s The Incredibly Strange Film Show on Channel 4 had a feature on Sam Raimi, who made Super 8 shorts before he made The Evil Dead. I had a lightbulb realisation: “I’m going to be a film director.” I’ve since told Jonathan Ross: “I wouldn’t have become a film director if it wasn’t for you.” He said: “You make me feel fucking old.”
We made a Die Hard spoof called Rolf Harris Saves the World, because my friend Graham Lowe could do a good Phil Cool doing Rolf, and sent it to Rolf’s Cartoon Club on CITV. Months later, Rolf Harris was on Nicky Campbell on Radio 1. Back then, you could ring up Radio 1 and speak to the DJ. I got through and asked: “Has Rolf watched Rolf Harris Saves the World?” And Rolf Harris – who back then was merely notorious for being very critical – went: “A lot of it was out of focus.”
Going Live! triumph
Going Live!, the kids’ TV show, had a competition: make a film about one of its favourite charities. I made a stop-motion animated short based on a report I’d seen on Film 91 with Barry Norman about the lack of disabled cinema access ramps. My entry won and, age 16, I was invited on to Going Live!. I’m wearing a black blazer and sweatshirt, desperately trying to look like a beatnik film director. I may as well have been wearing a beret and shades, and holding an espresso. Years later, I reminded Philip Schofield that he stashed his cigarettes behind Gordon the Gopher. He said: “Sounds like me!”
I won an actual video camera and was really off to the races. I made a superhero movie, a cop movie and a spaghetti western and charged admission in the assembly hall after school, until the manager from Wells Film Centre complained to the BBFC that I was stealing his business. I think their showing of Aladdin did OK in the end though.
There wasn’t much to do of a Friday night, age 16, other than go to the one pub in Wells – you know who you are! – that might serve us. The first five minutes of The World’s End is a very close approximation to my late teen years. Normally I’d set the VCR, but I couldn’t wait to watch Vic Reeves Big Night Out on Saturday morning. Watching on a portable TV alone in my bedroom on a Friday night gave me a real ownership. This was my show and Vic and Bob were speaking directly to me. At school, you knew who else was a fan from the catchphrases – “You wouldn’t let it lie”, “What’s on the end of your stick, Vic?”, “Ooh, I’ve fallen”.
We could wear our own clothes in sixth form, so I fashioned an approximation of Vic and Bob’s attire from the charity shop and was suddenly wearing suits, ties and waistcoats. I’ve met them since, but never found the words to tell them how Big Night Out made me feel. So, I’d just like to say on record, in the Guardian: Vic and Bob, you changed my life.
Last Night in Soho is released on 29 October, and The Sparks Brothers is out now