I am delighted to be able to present an interview with Actor/Playwright Brian Gorman, who has written a new play ‘New Dawn Fades’ about the iconic post-punk Manchester band Joy Division. The play will be featured as part of the Manchester Fringe Festival which will be premièred at the Lass O’Gowrie on July 15th (for 3 consecutive days). He takes us on a journey through his career, the inspiration and research methods, his love affair with Manchester and what we can expect from the play.
Sometimes to fully understand people and how they arrive at their creative destination you have to rewind to their childhood. In his own words Brian tell us about his own childhood. “I was born in Wigan in 1964, the poorest family on a poor council estate. A grumpy dad meant we were discouraged from listening to any of that 'modern rubbish', so my only experience of the music of the time was when we accidentally caught the last minutes of Top Of The Pops before watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. My earliest memory is seeing David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' at No.1.
I was a very shy kid who loved TV, film, and comics. My dream job was to draw comics, but I never thought it was possible. I left school, and did 6 years in a rubbish job in a greengrocers and fishmongers doing all the awful stuff like slicing up rotten melons on hot days, being attacked by wasps swarming around the fruit, and being electrocuted several times due to very dodgy wiring in a shop that was literally crumbling away. Oh, and did I mention having to chase the rats from the storeroom?”
MEL: How did you get into the creative arts and playwriting?
BRIAN: In 1986 at the age of 22 I'd had enough! I answered an ad in the local paper for people to join an amateur drama group, and my life changed forever. I was given a tiny role in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Starveling the tailor). I was terrified performing, but met so many great people. Two years later it was leading roles in Pinter, Shakespeare, Coward, Orton, etc. I was still pretty shy and couldn't believe I'd ever do what I loved for a living. In 1991 aged 27 I did a degree in Art and English at Chester College, then joined The Chester Gateway Theatre box office. I had twelve fantastic years there. I met and worked with some amazing people (I acted in a play with Eddie Marsen, did some artwork for posters and programmes, and found myself chatting in the bar with Denis Waterman, Leslie Philips, Patrick Mower, Susan Penhaligon, George Costigan, Joe McGann, William Gaunt, etc.) Working in theatre saw my confidence boosted, and my belief that one should always aim for the stars; no matter where we may eventually fall.
MEL: What has happened since then?
BRIAN: In the last couple of years I decided to really go for it, so I wrote a one man play about 1960s TV & film star Patrick McGoohan ('The Prisoner') which I performed across the UK. I played mass murderer Thomas Hamilton in a TV docudrama on 'Dunblane', and a New York docker in Captain America. I moved to Manchester six months ago, and have performed in fringe theatre productions of V For Vendetta and The Ballad Of Halo Jones.
I’m still working on a three book deal with Simon & Schuster for graphic novels on Manchester bands. I am currently appearing in a new play, called A Lot Of It About (Organised Chaos Productions touring the north west), writing Tuxedo Warrior (which is a play about Cliff Twemlow, 'the king of 1980s Manchester exploitation films'). Plus writing/producing 'New Dawn Fades' for this year's Greater Manchester Fringe Festival. The decision to write a play about a band as iconic as Joy Division didn't come easy, but fortune favours the brave! I am never bored!
MEL: Well to coin the phrase, reach for the stars, you certainly did and it paid off. It sounds like you've had a really varied and very interesting creative life, Now your based in Manchester, which simply oozes with history, in all areas, and your relatively new to living here, what do you like about the city?
BRIAN: I used to be afraid of Manchester; the big city. Around 1980, when I was 16 and earning the grand sum of £23 for a 40 hour week at Stokes' Greengrocers in Wigan, I started riding into Manchester on my push bike every other Saturday. It used to take me an hour, and it was fascinating to enter the city through Salford (which, back then, I didn't even realise was a city in itself; to me, it was just that scruffy bit just before Manchester). I scoured the second hand book and record shops for John Barry soundtracks, old Marvel comics, and Ian Fleming paperbacks. Back then it really seemed a fairly run-down, grey place, where everybody walked twice as fast as the people in Wigan. I felt as though I was on another planet. I was totally oblivious to the music scene, but I remember seeing adverts on TV for Pips ("Fennel Street; behind the Cathedral"), and going into damp basements to root through tightly-packed boxes of old magazines and tatty LPs.
I used to go and watch each new Bond film at The Odeon because the bigger cities always got the films weeks before the small towns. I was so obsessed; I'd even telephone the cinemas weeks before the film's release to check if they were running trailers. I'd pay to see any old film, just so I could see a Bond movie trailer on the big screen. I remember buying an Octopussy T shirt (complete with a plastic octopus on the front that squeaked when you squeezed it) in the foyer of The Odeon in 1983. I queued around the block in the cold for Ghostbusters and Gremlins. Manchester was the place to find the things I wanted that would take me out of the miserable existence of working for a pittance in Wigan. The Palace was my first experience of the professional theatre when I saw Charlton Heston in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1982), and I was blown away by the atmosphere and the sheer magic. When I did 'A' Level Theatre Studies at Wigan Technical College in 1986, I used to regularly visit The Royal Exchange; I saw David Threlfall and Frances Barber in MacBeth (set in a concentration camp), Brenda Blethyn in A Doll's House, Tom Courteney in Poison Pen, and Janet McTeer in As You Like It. Then there was Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet at The Palace, and any number of foreign language films at The Cornerhouse. I remember going to see Dangerous Liaisons at The Cornerhouse, with a Q & A with the director Stephen Frears (who I ended up standing next to in the Gents' urinals!)
It was in 2006 when I moved (after 15 years in Chester) to Salford, and immediately felt at home. I discovered that I lived just a couple of streets away from where Joy Division's Bernard Sumner had grown up, and that a favourite actor of mine, Christopher Eccleston, had spent his childhood just around the corner from me. It sounds spooky, but I could actually feel the history of Salford and Manchester in the air, and I knew I was 'home'. The more I delved into the history of the place, the more amazing things I discovered; Frederick Engels staying in Salford and writing about the conditions of the working class, The Peterloo Massacre, Alan Turing, the industrial revolution, etc. I stayed for a couple of years before returning to Chester (work-related), but always knew I had to come back. Just over six months ago I decided to really try hard to make things happen - to make it as a writer/artist, and to try my hand at professional acting. Thanks to the strong arts scene in Manchester, I soon found lots of opportunities, and loved every minute. Made new friends and colleagues, and discovered a whole new world. I recently discovered a book about Cliff Twemlow (written by C.P. Lee), who was a low budget film-maker in Manchester in the 1980s. He attempted to make Hollywood style action thrillers and fantasy films on a shoestring, and appealed to me as a kindred spirit. I used to make short films myself (writing, acting, directing, etc), and I fully empathised with his efforts to create something from nothing. I've now had permission from C.P. Lee, and Cliff's son (Cliff died in 1993) to write a play about Cliff's life, and will be producing it at The Lass O'Gowrie in December.
MEL: How did you become interested in Ian Curtis/Joy Division and then of course writing the play?
BRIAN: Ian Curtis and Joy Division...Interesting!!! Well, I loved New Order in the 1980s, and was vaguely aware they started as a different band. But I only discovered Joy Division when I was researching a book on Manchester in 2007. I saw a clip on You Tube, and was amazed. When I first saw Ian Curtis dancing I didn't know whether to laugh or gasp in horror. I immediately loved the music, as there was a dark, gothic, melancholic quality to it. Having missed out on 'pop music' as a youngster, my tastes had always veered towards TV and film soundtracks - I loved John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith, and John Carpenter. I immediately bought all Joy Division's albums, and they are now my favourite band.
Around the time I discovered them I was asked by a company in London, Free@Last TV Ltd if I'd like to do a series of graphic novels on Manchester bands, and I jumped at the chance. I'd been thinking of doing an independent graphic novel on the history of Manchester and Salford, and this seemed an ideal opportunity to merge the history of the area with the history of the band. Ian Curtis' lyrics seemed to be full of ideas about different times and places being linked, and of different realities co-existing. I discovered some amazing links between events and situations in the life of the band and the history of the cities. For instance, the famous Kevin Cummins photograph of the band walking down an alleyway near Manchester Cathedral prompted me to investigate further. I discovered that the alleyway is called Hanging Bridge, and was the site of an actual medieval bridge that connected the city to the Church of St Mary (that became the Cathedral). The band were crossing a now non-existent bridge. The bridge has recently been uncovered and can be seen if you go to the underground cafe that is part of the Tourist Information place. Then I discovered that the notorious Dr Dee - Elizabeth The First's adviser, astrologer, philosopher, and reported 'magician' - was actually caretaker of the church in the 17th century. Curtis' lyrics 'to the centre of the city where all roads meet' (from 'Shadowplay') seemed to suggest time overlapping, and characters co-existing in different times and dimensions. This was perfect for a graphic novel! Whilst waiting for the book to be published I decided to see if I could adapt it for a stage play, and here we are. The decision to write a play about a band as iconic as Joy Division didn't come easy, but fortune favours the brave! We'll see if it works!
MEL: When can we expect the book that sounds really interesting (I had no idea about the history of that alleyway shoot).
BRIAN: 'Joy Division: A Graphic History' is a 140 page graphic novel which I finished a year ago. It was due for publication this August by Simon & Schuster, but I think it's now been put back.
MEL: When and how did you begin to research for the play? [Photo: the cast with Brian pictured far right]
BRIAN: Around 2007, just after I'd moved from Chester to Salford. I love researching an area I've moved to, and I found out many surprising things about Salford and Manchester. A friend of mine, Bryan Talbot, is an award-winning graphic novel writer & artist (he and his wife, Mary, have just won The Costa Book Award for a biography; a graphic novel based on the life of James Joyce's daughter. It was the first graphic novel to be honoured in such a way). Bryan had a big success with a book called 'Alice In Sunderland' which covered a history of his adopted home (he's originally from Wigan, as I am), and I thought I'd try and do the same for Salford and Manchester.
Doing the research I naturally came across Tony Wilson, and the You Tube clip of Joy Division. I was blown away. In 2009 I was offered the chance to write & draw a graphic novel on the band, and I decided to merge the history of the band with the history of Salford and Manchester. Regarding the band, there were various books by Deborah Curtis, Mick Middles, etc., which were all very useful, but I focussed on actual documentary footage, filmed interviews, and transcripts. I wanted to get the facts right, as I think that's very important when writing about real people. Any dialogue in the play is from actual recorded interviews with the people themselves, or sensitive paraphrasing. For scenes such as the Curtis' domestic life, I have created dialogue based on people's recollections. There is a certain amount of artistic licence used in such intimate scenes as Ian's suicide, and a certain degree of theatrical styling. But I am confident that the production is handling such delicate areas with real humanity and respect. Apart from researching via the internet and books, I also visited sites around the Manchester area that had Joy Division connections. I'm pretty nocturnal, and I walked down there one night at around 3am, to get a feel of the atmosphere. Another location is Little Peter Street, behind Deansgate Rail Station. This was where T J Davidson's rehearsal rooms were, and you can see the interiors in Kevin Cummins' fantastic photographs. The building itself has been demolished, but one morning around 3am I wandered down there to find a couple of old Victorian cobbled streets, and the remains of what looked like small dwellings. I could feel the atmosphere! That was a couple of years ago, and now they've also been demolished.
MEL: Why did you decide not to direct the play yourself, and how did you manage to get Neil Bell to come on board as director for the play - is he a Joy Division fan at all?
BRIAN: I originally intended to direct the play myself, simply because I didn't know many directors in Manchester, but we now have Neil Bell on board. Neil is a well-known local actor, and is bringing a wealth of experience to the project. He offered to help with the play, and asked if I had a director. We had a meeting, and I was blown away by his enthusiasm, energy, and wealth of ideas. I'm quite happy to concentrate on the producing side, and will be fascinated to see how Neil brings the script to life. He's also a big Joy Division fan, which helps enormously!
I've directed before, and I have some strong ideas on the staging, but I'm completely comfortable to see how someone else would do it. I'd met Neil Bell a couple of times, seen him on stage, and chatted to him when he came to see 'Blade Runner'. I'd first seen him in the film 'Dead Man's Shoes', and regularly spotted him in various TV shows such as 'Downton Abbey', 'Coronation St'.
MEL: When is the first performance of the play?
BRIAN: The first performances will be on Ian Curtis' birthday (15th July), and we're having the 9.30pm performance on the 15th as a special fundraiser for the mental health charity, MIND.
There seems to be so many strange coincidences, timings, and locations involved in the evolution of this play, that it makes me feel it was always destined to happen. Another strange coincidence - the flat I moved to in Fallowfield 6 months ago is just 15 minutes walk from another old Factory Records office in Palatine Road.
MEL: I think it’s a grand idea to have the play premièred on Ian’s birthday, and also a worthy cause for the mental health charity. Is this anything you have been involved in with before?
BRIAN: Ian Curtis' birthday (15th July) just happens to be right in the middle of The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, and seemed the right time to put it on at The Lass O'Gowrie; which just happens to be yards away from the Factory club (Tony Wilson's old office). Bearing in mind the details of Ian Curtis' life (mental health issues, epilepsy, and domestic problems which apparently led to his suicide at 23), producing a charity performance for MIND seemed highly appropriate. Coincidentally, just a couple of weeks ago I dug out an old poster of the first play I wrote, produced and performed in ('Welcome To The Real World' Chester College 1995), and noticed we'd advertised all the profits going to MIND.
MEL: Have there been any input or approval from any members of Ian's family, or friends at all, or indeed the backing of those who were close to him?
BRIAN: I have attempted to let the family know about the play, and to reassure them that it isn't simply a retread of Ian's story (as superbly told in the film 'Control', and in Deborah Curtis' book 'Touching From A Distance'), but have had no response. I can only assume that there are no major objections. It's a fringe production in a very small venue, and we certainly aren't doing this to make money.
MEL: How did you select the actors, did you take into account if they resembled the characters in any way i.e. Ian’s vulnerability?
BRIAN: We wanted actors who could embody the spirit of the characters on the page. Certainly we looked for a resemblance, but it was more about conveying the spirit of the character. We certainly didn't want impressionists, and we've been very lucky to get four guys who can deliver. I've worked with Michael Whittaker, who plays Ian, a couple of times (acting opposite each other on stage, and even playing the same character in one production; at different ages). Mike is exactly the right age, build, height, and even has a look of Ian with his dark hair, and melancholic soulful eyes. We needed an actor capable of showing the light and dark sides of Ian's character, and Mike has that ability to frighten you with his passion, but also make you care for him with his vulnerability. Again, with Tony Wilson, we needed someone who could embody the essential spirit of the man, and Lee Joseph has that. Natalie-Marie Perry I've worked with in a stage production of Blade Runner (she played Rachael, I played Leon; she got to shoot me!), and she's such a professional. Again, she has that vulnerable quality, but with a spine of Titanium! Good actors should be able to express strength and weakness, and be able to mix the two at the right moment, and Natalie can do that frighteningly well! I am convinced their scenes together will have people in tears.
MEL: Does the play involve the actors playing music as the band?
BRIAN: Ah, now, THAT's a good question! I initially toyed with looking for actors who could play the respective instruments required, but once you go down the route of trying to put a tribute band together you're opening a massive can of worms! This is a play, it is not a musical. And how miraculous would it be to find actors who could play the characters well, play similar instruments, play Joy Division songs, and play them in the STYLE of Joy Division? Nothing can compete with the original music, I feel, so we are working on a couple of ways of communicating the music in a way that works theatrically. We are not trying to recreate a phenomenal band. We are seeking to create an atmosphere, to light a spark in the audience's heart, and you'll have to see the production to judge if we succeed.
MEL: Without giving away any spoilers, could you give us a gist of where the play starts and where it concludes and how is Ian's suicide addressed in the play?
BRIAN: It begins in a slightly surreal way, and then we have a certain larger-than-life personality who guides us along. There are a mixture of times and places, including the 5th century AD. Be prepared for all kinds of real life characters from all time periods; all connected intimately with Salford and Manchester! As for the conclusion - it's well documented that the band came to an end with Ian's suicide, but I certainly didn't want to end the play in a bleak fashion. This is the story of a band and a city (well, two cities). Ian's story is part of that, and all I can say is that his suicide is treated very sensitively. Wait and see!
MEL: What’s your personal favourite Joy Division track?
BRIAN: I think 'Dead Souls'. Being a big fan of film soundtracks, this has a real atmospheric and exciting drive to it. There is a very long instrumental build -up before Ian Curtis starts to sing, and I have heard that the band would often open their live shows with this one, as it gave Ian a chance to get in the mood, and to lose himself in the song. It has great dramatic, almost operatic, qualities. And, as ever, Ian's lyrics are so evocative, dream-like, and disturbing. The title is certainly disturbing in itself!
MEL: If this takes off where do you hope to take the play next and has there been much interest from the media at all?
BRIAN: I don't like to count chickens, and life is full of 'if's, but the hope is that the script will prove to make a solid stage show, and that we can consider developing it further in the future. The play is a celebration of Salford and Manchester, and of a band that came from nowhere to become a hugely influential force in British music. Joy Division proved that, with the right attitude of perseverance and natural talent, anybody could achieve their dreams without having to sell their souls to the big companies, and be straight-jacketed into diluting their talent. The band stayed with Tony Wilson's Factory Records, and remained independent to the end. London wasn't the be all and end all of everything. Manchester could do it all by itself.
There are a lot of Joy Division fans out there, but it's a story of a place too. It's a story of how certain events in certain locations can have a lasting impact on people. I would hope that anybody interested in the history of Manchester & Salford would get a lot out of this, and that it's a very human and universal story that will travel well. We have had a great deal of interest in the play, and I have now managed to fulfil two life ambitions: Getting a write-up (and a photo of myself!) in the Manchester Evening News, and making the cover of my home town newspaper, The Wigan Evening Post. Within 2 days of the tickets going on sale, we have sold out two performances, and a third of the entire run already.
MEL: And finally I guess I should ask...what do you think Ian would make of all this attention and cult status 30 + years after his death?
BRIAN: From all accounts, Ian wanted to be a huge star, but I'm not sure he liked what stardom brought. He seemed an essentially shy and sensitive guy, but when he died just before his 24th birthday, I think he was only just beginning to realise what he really wanted in life. I'd like to think he'd appreciate the way we are portraying his and the band's story. He was very interested in history, of how human beings worked, and seemed fascinated by the concepts of time and place. New Dawn Fades isn't simply a story about a band. It's a story of different times, different places, and the basic workings of human beings. I know I sound pretentious here, but I truly believe that a person has to follow their calling, and seek out who they really are. Ian seemed to be striving to do that, and his lyrics communicate this. Sadly, he was faced with some huge obstacles at an early age, and his story is incredibly tragic. But he left an indelible mark; he managed to touch a lot of hearts and minds. His music and lyrics are timeless, enigmatic, and extremely emotional. I think he would have been happy for anybody who found inspiration from what he and Joy Division created.
MEL: Thanks Brian, we look forward to coming to see your play, but in the meantime, lets remember just how great they were.
Interview by Melanie Smith