Pop quiz. What links Joan Collins, the US invasion of Grenada, a giant robot fish, 70s ITV daytime drama Crown Court and 007 supremo Cubby Broccoli?
The unlikely answer is the wild career of Manchester’s underground filmmaking legend Cliff Twemlow.
Between the early 1980s, and his death aged just 55 in 1993, Twemlow — a former nightclub bouncer — made half a dozen straight-to-video exploitation movies, bolstering his non-existent budgets with help from a small band of friends and devotees.
And now Twemlow’s gonzo career is the subject of a fascinating, unexpectedly touching, documentary, Mancunian Man, by director Jake West.
“I became aware of him when we were doing the documentaries about video nasties,” West, who has directed both low-budget horror movies and a brace of documentaries about the infamous ‘video nasty’ panic of the 1980s, tells Yahoo UK.
Watch a trailer for Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life of Cliff Twemlow
“GBH [an early Twemlow film] was a video nasty,” says West. “So we did an interview with CP Lee, who wrote the book about the lost work of Cliff.
"To me, he just became this fascinating character. I was just not aware that there was this hidden Cliff-verse, a secret world of his films, and that's how I really got into it. He was just this larger-than-life character and I found it really hard not to like him.”
He was just this larger-than-life character and I found it really hard not to like him.Jake West
A nightclub doorman and amateur bodybuilder Twemlow began his improbable showbiz career writing, or rather humming, music. Completely untrained he improvised his compositions, using what he would call his ‘dum-de-dum’ method.
“That was typical of Cliff,” says West. “If he decided he was going to do something, then he did it. He couldn’t write music, but it was, ‘I am going to be a composer’. So he would hum the tune into a tape recorder, dum-de-dum-de-dum, and take it to someone who could turn it into a composition.”
Unorthodox though his technique might have been, he was an unlikely success, composing over 2,000 pieces of library music (including the theme to ITV’s 80s daytime drama Crown Court).
His musical career suffered a major setback when, on hearing that Bond movie Live And Let Die was in production, Twemlow penned his own title song which was recorded by Selena Jones. The track was a hit, but 007 producer Cubby Broccoli was, perhaps understandably, enraged, and sued.
“He thought being cheeky would get him noticed,” says West. “What he didn't realise was that Cubby Broccoli was incredibly protective and was going to sue his arse off. Which he basically did, and so Cliff lost pretty much all of his money at that point.”
In 1984 Twemlow’s autobiography, The Tuxedo Warrior — a surprisingly pacy, funny account of his adventures on the doors of some of the North’s most notorious nightclubs — was adapted into a low-budget film starring John Wyman, though the film’s story, about diamond smugglers in Zimbabwe, had precisely nothing to do with Twemlow’s experiences ejecting drunks from Manchester’s Millionaire Club.
Twemlow decided to take matters into his own hands and become a filmmaker himself. The sudden availability of relatively low-cost video cameras, as well as the thousands of corner video shops which would rent out literally anything, meant the ground was ripe for a kind of DIY filmmaking of which Twemlow would become an early pioneer.
Things didn’t start out well. An early attempt to adapt his own novel, The Pike, about a man-eating fish established a pattern when it came to Twelmow productions: defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
After assembling £2m of financing, as well as the unlikely involvement of Joan Collins, he attempted to demonstrate the giant animatronic fish he had had constructed to Kieron Prendeville of the 80s BBC technology show, Tomorrow’s World.
“They put it in the water and it just basically f***ing didn't work,” says West. “The finance got pulled. If that film had actually been made, it was going to be shot on film and it had recognised actors, you get the feeling that his career might have been very different. So he decided to do his own version of Tuxedo Warrior which was GBH. And it was a success for him.”
1983's GBH, a more faithful adaptation of Tuxedo Warrior, rode the coattails of more respectable films such as The Long Good Friday and was a video rental hit, helped a great deal by its being named a video nasty.
Twemlow’s subsequent movies were marked by their chaotic production stories and spotty releases. 1984's The Ibiza Connection commenced shooting with a boozy party which seemed to extend throughout the shoot, which was made even more complicated by the fact that the director ran off with half the budget.
1983's Target Eve Island, filmed on location in Grenada, saw Twemlow and his crew held at gunpoint by police who demanded they rewrite the script (a feeling occasionally shared by Twemlow’s audiences). It was a situation that only came to an end when the US helpfully launched a military invasion midway through the shooting.
“I get the feeling that Cliff enjoyed the chaos of making films his way,” says West. “Cliff was always trying to make the best of a bad situation. So the fact that a war broke out during his production is hilarious.”
Sadly as the failures, misfires and half-completed projects piled up Twemlow gradually succumbed to depression as well as increasing anxiety about his age and looks. His body had always been both his pride and his meal ticket, and he turned to steroids.
I get the feeling that Cliff enjoyed the chaos of making films his way.Jake West
“He was finding it harder and harder to raise money for his films. One of the last things he did was [1991's] Bad Weekend. It was literally made over a weekend for a thousand pounds,” says West.
“But unfortunately by that time he was getting more insecure about his looks and he started taking a lot of steroids. His physical decline was something he couldn't really face.”
At the end of his life, he was living in a room in a friend’s flat, which was where he was found dead from heart failure, the result of his steroid abuse.
But Twemlow’s career, chaotic as it was, is a kind of beacon to independent filmmakers everywhere.
“He's this one off and it’s hard not to feel inspired by him,” says West. “He had this grand vision but not the resources to do it. But if he wanted to write a novel, he’d write a novel.
"If he wanted to do music he'd do music. If he wanted to be a filmmaker, then he just did it. He didn't seek anybody's permission. You can't really help but like the guy.
"Ultimately I want people to feel inspired by Cliff, not to feel sad about him.”
Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life of Cliff Twemlow had its premiere at FrightFest 2023 and will be released by Severin Films soon.
Mancunian Man gets its Manchester Premiere on 12 November 2023 at Cultplex.