Mark Fisher, editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls, talks to director Charlie Thomas about the making of This Is Pop, the superb XTC “rockumentary”, as it makes its North American debut on Showtime.
HOW DO YOU make a rockumentary when your principal subject detests rockumentaries? That was the challenge faced by Charlie Thomas when he set about filming the story of XTC. He knew there’d be little point in proceeding if he didn’t have chief songwriter Andy Partridge on board. He also knew Andy was bored silly with the clichés of rock’n’roll reportage. What was he to do? “Persuading Andy was the key,” says the moviemaker.
Andy told him that every couple of months a director would get in touch wanting to make an XTC documentary, every time Andy would suggest ideas and every time he’d never hear from them again. Thomas gave him a call and they chatted for an hour. “We found common ground,” says Thomas. “And from that point forward it was a case of building up trust so he knew a) that I knew the band and was a big fan and b) that I wasn’t going to do something that was your standard run-of-the-mill rockumentary.”
Andy’s high standards meant Thomas had to up his game. “I always had at the back of my mind that I’ve got to make a documentary that appeals to Andy and that he can be proud of,” says the 56-year-old former Sky sports reporter. “The further we got into it, the more Andy felt he could get involved too. And the more input we had from him the better it got.”
The result is This Is Pop, a tremendous documentary that paints a broad overview of XTC’s career from punk-era upstarts to masters of orchestral pop, by way of original artwork, model train sets and miniature band members. Already broadcast in the UK on Sky Arts and now making its North American debut on Showtime, it is built upon a witty and revealing interview with Andy, fleshed out with contributions from bandmates Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Terry Chambers.
Alongside that are endorsements from sundry producers and collaborators plus fans in the shape of Clem Burke, Stewart Copeland, Fassine, John Grant, Miles Kane, Harry Shearer and Steven Wilson. “Harry Shearer, who you would have thought would be one of the hardest people to get, came straight back to me and said he’d be in London the next week and we should do it,” says Thomas, who spent 18 months on the project.
He adds: “All the people that ended up in the documentary were delighted to do it. John Grant said, ‘God, it would be an honour just to be involved in something like this.’ His interview was fascinating and we only ended up using two or three quotes. He had some really interesting things to say about Nonsuch, about Andy’s lyrics and about the difference between Andy and Colin. He said Andy was like the young boy who’s constantly flicking switches to see what they do. We had so much material that couldn’t make it in.”
All of which adds up to a better class of rockumentary, funny, touching and celebratory, one that you’ll happily watch repeatedly. Not that that made it any less scary when Thomas came to show Andy his work. “He didn’t see any of it until it was pretty much finished,” says Thomas, who co-directed with Roger Penny. “It was a leap of faith for him. He was thinking, ‘Have I done the right thing here? I’ve handed over my life’s work to these people; are they going to do it justice?’ So it was a moment of real trepidation when I eventually sent him a link to the nearly finished version of it.”
Andy’s response? “He watched it, came straight back and said he really liked it. He said it was rather wonderful. That was a great moment – to think that we’d captured some spirit of the band.”
…and the postman just told me he’d watched THIS IS POP TV doc, and loved it.I’m living in a sunny Hollywood musical this morning.
— XTC (@xtcfans) 27 October 2017
The impetus for the documentary came from TV editor Yvonne Wootton, who was the proud owner of an original set of Limelight fanzines decades before the publication of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls. “I was thinking, ‘Why’s nobody done a documentary recently about XTC?” she says when I meet her at Dave Gregory’s house in Swindon. “Why are they not recognised?”
“The same questions you were asking in 1982,” chips in Dave, recalling the first issue of Limelight. “That’s what fired your fanzine, wasn’t it – that there weren’t enough people into the band?”
Indeed it was. Having made contact with Dave, Wootton sounded out Andy and, thanks to her contacts in the industry, brought in Special Treats, the production company behind I’m Not in Love: The Story of 10cc, Promises & Lies: The Story of UB40 and Fairport Convention: Folk Heroes. “They were very keen on doing it,” she says. “Although it’s something I wanted to get going two years ago, now is a better time. The Complicated Game book has come out, Andy has taken part in interviews and on top of that Terry has come back and is working with Colin. Everybody’s interest has been spiked and they’re more forthcoming to discuss the musical legacy.”
Like the other Special Treats films, This Is Pop was a labour of love. “The projects that we’ve done have all been bands that have been a passion,” says Thomas, an XTC fan since the late 70s. “I always felt 10cc had had a bit of a rough deal. They were such a big band of the 70s and then they seemed to fall off the radar. When I got in touch with them, it was pushing at an open door because they all felt the same.”
There was a similar story with XTC. Having shed his initial caution, Andy spent a generous three–and-a-half hours with the film crew, providing far more material than they could ever use. That was before they returned for interview number two.
“Andy is one of those people who is absolutely fascinating to listen to,” says Thomas. “The other three are such nice people, delightful company, but Andy has something a bit special as an interviewee. He’s part of that rare breed where you just want to listen to what he’s saying, almost regardless of what he’s talking about. He has interesting views on a wide range of subjects, not just music. We made a virtue of that.”
As well as trying to make the most of such a rich interview, they had the dilemma of how to do justice to the band’s three-decade story within a limited amount of time – 75 minutes plus commercials. “One thing I was really keen not to do was to go into inter-band disagreements, and disagreements with managements and record labels, because I wanted it to be a celebration of their music,” says Thomas. “Every band there’s ever been has had the same problems. It’s what Andy says at the beginning, it’s classic rockumentary territory and it’s boring for the viewer to hear that they didn’t make as much money as they should have done. XTC’s music was so uplifting and I wanted to capture that, so you come away from the film feeling the same way you do after playing one of their albums: you’ve been through a journey and you feel uplifted and enriched.”
Although Andy’s demand to break the mould required lateral thinking, it didn’t necessarily cost more because filming original material can be cheaper than paying for archive footage. More importantly, filming afresh allowed the directors to do justice to the nature of the band and their music.
“I never think of XTC as a rock band,” says Thomas, now working on a film about the history of the music festival. “Rock tends to look backwards at tradition, whereas XTC were always trying to do something new with each album. Quite often it involves focusing on the small details of English life, a little bit like the Kinks. So the idea of smallness kept coming to me. That’s where the idea for the model railway came from: a visual illustration of smallness.”
They achieved a similar effect with tilt-shift photography, the focusing technique that gives a real scene the look of a miniature landscape. Further filming took place at Oxfordshire’s Pendon Museum, where models recapture scenes from the early 20th-century English countryside. “The idea was you weren’t quite sure whether you were looking at real houses or model houses,” he says.
With the North American broadcast deal with Showtime sorted out, plans are under way for distribution elsewhere in the world. Once the TV networks have broadcast it, Thomas would love to release a DVD with bonus extras. Unused material includes Andy going into detail about the writing of several songs, Dave demonstrating how he and Andy dovetailed on tracks such as Roads Girdle the Globe, and Steven Wilson listening to one channel at a time on Skylarking.
“It’s fascinating, but we couldn’t get it all in,” says Thomas. “I had to step back and say, ‘Take your XTC fan hat off – we have to appeal to a broad audience here.’ It would be really nice if one day we could make that available…”
This is Pop is broadcast on Showtime at at 7PM ET/PT on Thursday 11 January 2018
Back after 25 years, the classic 1980s fanzine about XTC is on sale again. The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls is a 256-page edition of Limelight, featuring the original copies published between 1982 and 1992 plus new material for 2017, including interviews with Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Terry Chambers.
“The most comprehensive and incisive book about XTC yet published” Dom Lawson, Prog Magazine.
“A delicious thing to dive in and out of” Iain Lee, Talk Radio.
“Music publication of the year” Dave Jennings, Louder than War