❉ We chat with Stew about his new film, ‘King Rocker: A Film about Robert Lloyd and the Nightingales’.
“It’s a film of people ‘outside’… It’s a feelgood story. It’s a story about a bloke who wanted to do something and is still doing it. It’s about what people need to understand if they ever want to see live things again. It’s about pubs and venues….and the outdoors and England. There are no bad guys in it – it’s a happy thing.” – Stewart Lee on ‘King Rocker’.
Writer and performer Stewart Lee has produced consistently good work over the years. Co-writing Jerry Springer the Opera, winning a BAFTA for his TV show Comedy Vehicle and being one of the most consistently good stand-ups in the business as well as writing for print media, TV and radio. Stewart has now been involved in making the brilliant King Rocker – a film about the charismatic Robert Lloyd and his two bands the Prefects and the Nightingales that also tells the parallel story of a massive sculpture of King Kong. As a fan of the Nightingales and of Stewart’s work I was keen to talk to him.
In a Zoom interview I first asked Stewart how the film came about. “Well, Robert had been told there was a comedian who was a Nightingales fan. That was me. I’d met Robert once before and ten years ago he told me about an idea he had for a film in the vein of the Anvil documentary. A comedy about how unlucky they (in this case the Nightingales) were. I said it should be more than that because obviously they’re a really good group. I thought there should be humour in it but I didn’t want to make it a joke at their expense. I spent about six years trying to piece that together on and off. No one was interested. Then someone at Radio 4 said I could do a radio documentary and I thought with the time it would take for research etc., why not do a film!”
“By sheer coincidence Michael Cumming (who directed the pilot for Comedy Vehicle and worked on Chris Morris’s Brass Eye) was a Nightingales fan and had pitched three documentary ideas, about Jake Thackray, the Nightingales, and Ted Chippington, in the nineties. Fire Records came on board as well. We did a gig where I did stand-up and Michael showed his documentary about Brass Eye (Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes) and we put the money from that into hiring a three-person film crew for about ten days. Everyone else did it for free. Michael taught himself how to edit on modern machinery and edited it in his shed in his garden. We finished it just before the lockdown and the plan was to tour it round the festivals in the autumn. That didn’t happen but luckily Sky came onboard.”
I told Stewart I had seen the film (three times now!) and had found it inspiring and uplifting. “Everyone who’s seen it seems to like it. As an original piece of content weirdly it seems really relevant for the current times. You’ve got this film of people in pubs and venues all packed together. Without getting too political people have suddenly realised there’s a whole world of artists that aren’t famous but ‘get by’. With the situation now the international touring for groups like the Nightingales will be extremely difficult in the future with the arrangement… well, they haven’t made an arrangement…with the EU. The film reminds you of the very tight economics through which live art is made.”
“It’s a film of people ‘outside’… It’s a feelgood story. It’s a story about a bloke who wanted to do something and is still doing it. It’s about what people need to understand if they ever want to see live things again. It’s about pubs and venues….and the outdoors and England. There are no bad guys in it – it’s a happy thing.”
Around the time of what Stewart calls “his postman years”, Rob made videos with late performer and journalist Steven Wells and video maker Nick Small. These included working with Skunk Anansie and Saint Etienne (including their video for Hug My Soul which Swells based on Walerian Borowczyk’s film The Beast).
I asked Stewart about Normal, the newly-discovered sitcom that Lloyd, Wells and Small wrote that has a script reading in the film. “There is only one copy in existence of Normal which is the copy in a brown envelope Rob had. They went into a meeting with Head of Comedy Geoffrey Perkins and came out with a commission! Unheard of. Then Rob said he didn’t want to do it because all the good ideas were Steven’s. That’s typical of Rob. Self-sabotaging with modesty.”
I wondered if the sitcom was based in Bradford, as from the reading it seemed to be. “Well, it’s that area. Hebden Bridge Trades club is mentioned in it. Swells was actually one of the people I was most excited to work with when I wrote for On the Hour with him and Richard Herring and David Quantick. Rob remembers things as he goes along. He told me after King Rocker was shot that he, Swells, Ted Chippington and Tank from the Nightingales were extras in a Skunk Anansie video. In the video they have to escort Jesus through a crowd of reporters. I though ‘You’re telling me this now!’ You can see it online apparently.”
“There was a lot more we could have done about the video production years. For example, after the video company (Gob TV) was dissolved Rob was brought in as a freelance on a video for a song by Richard Marx – the theme tune for an animated film called Anastasia. It came to a sticky end somehow and we couldn’t get a straight story on that. There’s also supposed to be another piece of footage somewhere from the solo period of Rob on a talk programme in Scotland hosted by the Shetland musician Ali Bain. It went so badly that it was never broadcast so I don’t know what Rob did!”
“With the film we wanted to tell the story properly. With the postman years for example I couldn’t really have talked to Rob about those things. Luckily with Louis his son it became a different kind of conversation to what I would have had. I’m not a hard-nosed journalist but we wanted to tell the story properly. Rob wanted to have a film made about himself but when he realised he would have to talk about stuff he sort of didn’t want to… That’s why a lot of the interviews happen in pubs , Indian restaurants or on a walk …incidental. That’s why I’m much fatter! Rob’s not gonna do an interview and spill his guts.”
I put to Stewart that one of the most effective parts of the film is where ‘celebrities’ such as John Taylor, Frank Skinner, Nigel Slater, Paul Morley, Samira Ahmed and Robin Askwith appear to comment on the truth of otherwise of Robert’s stories. “Yeah, I did an interview recently on BBC 4’s Loose Ends where Clive Anderson, who didn’t know anything about the Nightingales, suggested the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. How could it be! For example, on the last day of shooting Rob said ‘Oh, I had a shower with Robin Askwith once.’ We then found out Robin knew of the Nightingales as his brother’s band had supported them at some point. When we asked him to be involved he was really up for it and because he was in Malta he wrote this brilliant monologue and got his mate to film it. He’s arranged this hilarious list of everyone he’d showered with. They also shot some footage of the landscape of Malta. It was all done in one take. I’d have really had liked to have used footage of the film Queen Kong that Robin appeared in too.”
The King Kong aspect works brilliantly. “Yes, that worked out really well. It makes it visually interesting instead of just old men talking about things. It struck me that there was an element of suspense about the film. Most films are about people you know who become famous or died or whatever. People don’t know the Nightingales. The director Michael wanted to make a film like the BBC Arena films of the early to mid- ‘80s – made from an odd angle – Elvis Presley through the lens of what he ate for example. Anthony Wall, who made those films and from whose John Peel Arena documentary we used footage of the Nightingales from, sent us a nice note. He said he was really pleased with the way the footage was used which I think was really great for Michael.”
At the end of the film both Rob and Stewart visit the reinstated King Kong statue in Penrith. Stewart walks out of the camera shot and we end on just Rob with the statue. I asked Stewart was that deliberate? “Yes, I walked out of shot and told Michael to keep filming. We wanted to end on the King Kong standing upright and the victory for Rob in keeping the group going. Rob intuited that but rather brilliantly undermined it with ‘is this the kind of thing you want me to say?’ It does the job but chops the legs from it at the same time.”
Finally, I asked Stewart what he had coming up in the future. I was aware of the work he had done last year for the Asian Dub Foundation – anti–Brexit track Comin’ over here. “I’ve written some words for musician and composer Laura Cannell that appear on her These Feral Lands Volume 1 album. My wife (Bridget Christie) has been writing a radio series so I’ve also been doing some home stuff. When the first lockdown happened, I was in the middle of a tour. Me and Michael have also really enjoyed how this has gone and have talked about doing something else. The full gig I did at the Hackney Moth Club with the Nightingales will also be shown in the future. I worry about the infrastructure for performing and want to do some smaller clubs in the future as well”.
When things are hopefully back to normal again I look forward to seeing both Stewart and the Nightingales at their live and glorious best.
❉ ‘King Rocker: A Film About Robert Lloyd & The Nightingales’ premieres on Sky Arts (freeview) on 6th Feb 2021 at 9.00pm and will be repeated throughout the year. Running Time: 90 Minutes. Visit www.kingrockerfilm.com for updates and information.
❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre.
Image sources: https://www.stewartlee.co.uk, kingrockerfilm.com. Images subject to copyright.