SEVEN RAGGED MEN | 40 years of Take It Or Leave It
The story of Madness... in their own words
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40 years of Take It Or Leave It

40 years of Take It Or Leave It

Released on 14 October 1981, Madness star as themselves in this autobiographical movie, which tells the story of their early days. Stiff and Madness share the £400,000 cost of the flick, with each group member putting in funds. 

WOODY: It was only three years into our career and we thought, ‘Well, we’ve done it all now, let’s make a film of our story.’

BEDDERS: It was quite a weird thing to recreate what you’d done only a few years before but that’s what we wanted to do – get the story across of how bands start.

SUGGS: The money came from the first big royalty cheque we ever received, so we thought that the best thing would be to invest it in something like a film, rather than just blow it all. It was a great opportunity to show the way we were in the early days and how we’d changed.

DAVE ROBINSON: We’d talked about a film a couple of times in the past but the band’s schedule had always been so tight that it had seemed out of the question. Then a window suddenly came free, so we sat down and discussed it and decided very quickly to go ahead.

SUGGS: We just thought a film was a natural step as our early years were so dependent on our visual stuff, which is almost as important as the music. We’d made two albums of music, so we thought it would be a good idea to do a visual thing.

DAVE ROBINSON: The band’s videos were getting a lot of attention and they’d already proved how good they were in front of the camera. We also thought they had a good story to tell that you couldn’t get over in a three- or four-minute video clip.

SUGGS: One of the main reasons we did it was because no one else had done it. Most rock films are about how you’re on the road and it’s all success, success, success…

BEDDERS: …so we just decided to show people what it was like before we had any records out at all.

SUGGS: It was meant to be about a bunch of ordinary people who form a band and eventually make a record and shows that anyone can do it. It was about us as people more than us as part of the music industry.

WOODY: The idea was to make it as realistic as possible, to take some of the shine off the music industry. There was a tendency to be up one’s own bottom with the notion of being a rock star, and I think most of us saw that whole thing as rubbish. We were normal people and wanted to be seen on screen as normal people.

With Dave Robinson in the director’s chair, shooting starts in and around Camden on March 8 1981. The movie has a shooting schedule of 15 days and features pals John Hasler, Andrew Chalk, Ian Tokins and Si Birdsall also playing themselves.

JOHN HASLER: I had no reservations about coming back to act in it. We were all still good mates and I needed the money because I’d recently become a father.

BEDDERS: We checked the old photographs and had the right haircuts, then went digging through scrapbooks and all things like that to try and bring back the mood.

CARL: I made a real effort to be as honest to the past as possible. I shaved my head to look more like I had a few years earlier and wore a cheap Harrington and monkey boots. I reckon some of the others spent a bit more on their clothes because they wanted to look cool.

CHRIS: Woody had short hair when we were filming, but long hair when we first met him, so we stuck a hat on him to get that slightly hippy look.

WOODY: My clothes are very embarrassing in the film, but I was into woolly hats and tatty trousers at the time it was set. Still, that’s the way I was, there’s no point trying to falsify the past or cover it up.

CHRIS: Before we started filming we watched Mean Streets and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Then Mike turned up with that kind of Mean Streets-style hat, which he never really used to wear.

To help shape the story, Dave Robinson tapes interviews with the band to form a narrative that is then used as ‘a basis for improvisation on remembered incidents’.

DAVE ROBINSON: We were going to try something fancy in the beginning but eventually decided on something realistic. I taped interviews with all the boys in which we talked about everybody’s lives and build a script up from there.

CHRIS: A guy came round with a tape recorder asking us about the last six years and someone had the job of writing it out, then we chose the best bits of what happened. It showed us in our day jobs as decorators and things – all things we’d done together so none of us really had to act. We actually did some scenes in Mike’s house with the same stuff on the walls as before.

SUGGS: Although we had the idea, Robbo said he was directing it. He was quite dictatorial – he didn’t want eight people following him round re-directing it. And obviously we were all aiming toward the same end, to make a reasonably good film.

DAVE ROBINSON: I would never have set myself up as the film’s director had it not previously worked out on the band’s videos. But saying that, I was against the one-sided thinking that is generally the rule when a director makes a film. It should be a mutual undertaking with me kind of latching myself on to the side of the band and helping them to make it happen.

CARL: We were used to cameras because we’d done videos, but being comfortable in front of them when you’re trying to put across an accurate depiction of your younger self is another thing.

CHRIS: I was always looking at the camera.

DAVE ROBINSON: I had to keep telling him, ‘Stop looking at the camera Chris.’

CHRIS: It was hard not to because we’d done all those videos.

WOODY: Some of the acting is hysterical. Mike and Lee look relaxed, like they belong in front of a camera, but acting was never something I particularly wanted to do. I’m a drummer, that’s all I ever wanted to be.

CHRIS: Mike and Lee were good natural actors and were very charismatic.

LEE: I’d always enjoyed a little bit of acting. At school I played this headmistress, which was my first experience of dressing up and going on stage and performing. There were several times when the audience laughed out loud, which was pretty infectious.

SUGGS: If Mike and Lee were in any dialogue together, they’d try and argue, try and out-do each other. Like Mike says to Lee – and it’s nothing to do with anything, he just made it up on the spot – ‘Where’s that money you owe me, Lee?’ Just trying to put Lee down and then Lee would try and put Mike down.

CHRIS: Most of the dialogue we made up, although we had a rough idea of what we wanted to say in each scene.

WOODY: Not having a proper script made it worse for me. Dave would just say, ‘Imagine you’re walking down the road, what would you say in that situation?’ Well half the time I wouldn’t say anything! When someone tells you to act naturally you just as quickly end up doing or saying something that looks very unnatural. It’s not always easy to pretend to be yourself.

DAVE ROBINSON: Lee was always trying to do his own script; he would never stick to what we’d agreed he was meant to say.

CHRIS: It also seemed to be quite easy for him to act shifty.

CARL: I wouldn’t describe what any of us is doing as acting, but it does a good job of portraying us how we were back then. Suggs has always enjoyed being in the spotlight and that certainly comes across. And the camera loves Lee; he’s an interesting and enigmatic figure.

DAVE ROBINSON: One thing was, we couldn’t get used to doing it out of synch, like a proper movie. And I don’t think we had enough budget for a Steadicam, so we had a guy on a trolley, which moved round quite a bit. Also, I could never say, ‘Action’ because it sounded so pompous. Instead I would say ‘Go’ or ‘Shoot’ and the crew never used to be ready because they couldn’t relate to those kind of words; they thought we were just having a run-through. So a lot of the real spirit of Madness was probably lost by the crew not capturing the first take.  You’d find that on the first take – the inspirational one – the guy didn’t have his focus together or the sound man had his machine off. The crew weren’t interested in what we were doing. Between shots they’d pull out the Daily Mirror and start reading it. They weren’t focused on us. That was the English workman at work. They didn’t care, even though they were earning £600 or more a week.

LEE: Making it was hard work but we enjoyed every moment, even though it did get quite tedious. For example, one particular scene we had to take eight times – we must have spent an hour at it – but in the film, it only lasts two minutes.

DAVE ROBINSON: We also had to get everyone to play very badly at the beginning.

CHRIS: That wasn’t very hard for me.

After the first few days’ filming, disaster strikes when the laboratory over-exposes the film.

DAVE ROBINSON: The first three or four days were very productive and we got a huge amount of stuff done. We shot it all in black and white because it was meant to represent the early days.

CHRIS: It was all going really well – then we sent the film to a lab in Sweden to be processed.

DAVE ROBINSON: Usually in the morning you see the shots you did the day before so it gives you an idea of how well you’re doing. But in this instance, because the first four days were in black and white, the lab wanted to do them all at once, rather than every day. So they decided they would put on a special kind of developing bath. And we all sat down after two days of great shooting and it came back completely burnt out. Turns out he’d made the bath too hot and overexposed the film so everything went down the drain. Everyone looked at me like I had done it on purpose – it was like a snow scene with black lines moving around in it. The guy told me he was sorry but I couldn’t believe it; isn’t there a bigger word than sorry? This was the film business. There were huge sums of money being spent.

CHRIS: We were insured so it wasn’t a problem, but we it meant we had to re-shoot two days worth of material. However, this was a bonus as it meant we’d all got a bit of a practice in the film game. Another bonus was that for the early scenes in Camden, it was raining which gave just that drizzly dreary effect that would cost a fortune these days.

DAVE ROBINSON: Nah, it wasn’t as good the second time round; it was magic the first time.

While most footage is shot in the original locations, the November 1978 show at the Acklam Hall is recreated at the Keskidee Centre, because the hall is unavailable after a fire.

BEDDERS: It was quite eerie going through things like that again, in the same places they originally happened. We started remembering what it was like and started getting all those feelings again.

WOODY: It was an uncanny experience. I walked onto the set and there was Mike and Chris as the old band and I felt completely out of character. I felt like I was traveller from the future stepping into the past. It was really weird.

CHRIS: For the bit after we come out of the tube, when we’re in the pub and chip shop, we actually went out on the lash. And during the Suggs rehearsal scene we were actually playing live. In fact, we did a lot of the stuff live which is great when you think about it. There was no backing track or playback.

SUGGS: It reminded me that we did have a really good time – but then I also realised it wasn’t really great playing the Nashville or the DC on the same night, or being chased by a load of skins at Acklam Hall.

MIKE: When we did the rerun of the early gig at the Dublin Castle, when everyone was pissed and we came in late, we had a lot of the same people who were at the original gig but I swear some of them thought it was a real show. Everyone was really drunk this time round too and shouting for us to come on. We actually did it again – rushed in with all the gear and started playing.

LEE: The actress who played Mike’s mum did it quite well ­– she was just like her. In one scene that was cut she goes, ‘Hello Mikey how are you? What have you been doing?’ and he said, ‘I’ve just been practising with Chris and Lee.’ And she says, ‘You haven’t let that awful Lee in the room again? You know what he’s like don’t you?’ He says, ‘He ain’t like that any more mum’ because I had sort of changed by then.

CHRIS: We borrowed a trick from Top of the Pops and used a slightly wide-angle lens to make the Dublin Castle look bigger.

CARL: There was another scene in a pub where they put the sound of the jukebox on later. We had to shout as though there was a lot of noise. That felt really weird.

MIKE: We did want the real people to be in it as much as possible…

CHRIS: …but the unions said we had to have a certain amount of union actors and wouldn’t let us have our real mums and dads. So it wasn’t my real son at the start but it was my first wife. She was told to look annoyed. Ha ha.

MIKE: My wife of the time, Sandra, is also in it, and there’s a bit of romance between us. It was more fun than getting an actress to play her.

CHRIS: Mike had had a few girlfriends around the time the film is set and I wanted him to appear with a different one every time, but he was married to Sandra so that was the end of that. Then I suggested a different hair colour for her every time but the budget wouldn’t stretch.

LEE: We all put our ideas in and it was 99 per cent true to life, although we did dramatise bits of it.

CHRIS: Lee certainly enjoyed the bits with him in.

LEE: I just acted naturally really and ignored the cameras. When I’m acting I’m really confident in myself. I say to myself, ‘Today we are going to do this one in one take.’ One day, for some reason, I just burst out laughing with Suggs. It was a bit of a comical scene where we were doing this plastering job. I was trying to teach him how to do it and I was desperately trying to get this plaster on the wall but it kept falling. We did those jobs in real life because we needed the money. We were penniless at the time.

DAVE ROBINSON: Lee’s scenes were great. I always thought he’d go on to great movie glory. His role as himself was phenomenal.

LEE: I was given a few offers and did a few bits and pieces but I never pursued it or did anything professional. I preferred the instant stuff on stage.

Filming continues for two weeks, during which the director suffers a further mishap…

DAVE ROBINSON: As I was directing a particularly tricky shot, I slipped and fell off a camera support on a gantry in a tube station and broke my ankle. What’s worse, I didn’t even get the shot I wanted! So I spent the last few days of the movie (a) in extreme pain and (b) with a cast on, in a wheelchair, trying to control Madness, which was never easy at the best of times. It was another example of how everything that could go wrong did go wrong at one stage or another. My ankle’s never been the same either; it still twinges every time I hear a Madness track.

Dave Robinson on crutches during filming

The film has its premiere at The Gate Cinema in Camden on October 14 1981.

CARL: The film shows exactly what the people in the band are like. It really is honest. Obviously there’s no sex and violence, though. You can’t be that honest.

CHRIS: That was the thing – we weren’t allowed to swear as we had to keep it PG.

DAVE ROBINSON: We had a concept that a lot of very young kids would be watching it, so we didn’t want to drive them into the wrong area.

LEE: There is a bit of how naughty I was in the film but it was petty. There is a sequence where I walk into the shop and I take a few things out of it but it wasn’t included in the film as such because if it did it would have to have a AA certificate.

CARL: I wanted there to be a scene where I was on acid, but Robbo wouldn’t allow us to do it. Record companies always want to go for the kiddie market, which means you have to censor yourself to a certain extent. Otherwise, it is totally accurate. There’s no glossy dramatisation or anything. It’s just us.

DAVE ROBINSON: It shows how ridiculous it is. These guys, most went to comprehensive schools and learned nothing but they did very well and made more money in a year and a half than their parents did in a lifetime. But it was chancy. It had nothing to do with any real talent per se, but with chance and circumstance. And at least they understood that, which is why I don’t think they changed at all.

SUGGS: What I really liked about it is the honesty of it. Like Bedders’ Mum says, ‘You dressin’ up to go to rehearsals?’ And he says. ‘Yeah, I want to look the part’.

BEDDERS: I like the rehearsal scene too. It was nice because it was a really sentimental memory, so I enjoyed doing it.

CHRIS: That bit was done exactly how it happened; I remember Bedders thought we were really pro cos we had all this borrowed equipment.

BEDDERS: I just felt that everybody got into the right mood and it wasn’t really acting, it felt exactly the same as  it had before.

LEE: The scene showing my only saxophone lesson certainly brought it all back. I can still remember exactly how I felt, how my cheeks were burning up in front of all those other students. He made me feel embarrassed and stupid.

CHRIS: Gerard Kelly had a hard job playing Dikran at Si Birdsall’s party; he couldn’t hear himself singing and strangely enough didn’t know Jailhouse Rock which actually added to the charm of the performance. It’s the sort of thing some directors and actors do via ‘the method’ but – hey! – we were doing it for real.

SUGGS: The whole film is very honest. It shows that a lot of the group could have been criminals but had something else, were interested in art, and music particularly. There were loads of other kids hanging around the group at that time. And we were really in the middle, not being real hooligans and not being completely artistic.

LEE: The film shows the innocence and naivety of Mark and Woody when they first joined the group; the frustrations of Carl when he wasn’t a full member; the humpiness of me; the paranoia of Mike; the kindness and thoughtfulness of Suggsy and the wit and sharpness of Chris. It gets us all down to a tee.

CHRIS: It’s about as close as it gets to what it was like, although they did take a bit of artistic licence.

MIKE: I think it gave people the impression I was being stroppy when all I wanted was to get things done.

CHRIS: I think Mike is also misunderstood in the film and does come across as too unpleasant; he wasn’t that bad, just single-minded.

DAVE ROBINSON: He just had a standard he was trying to get people up to.

CHRIS: The thing was, Mike had the van and he had the place to rehearse, so he had the power.

MIKE: We wanted it to be quite realistic and every group has arguments and shit like that. The only thing is, I think when you know too much about a group it sort of spoils it. If I think I know everything about a group and there’s nothing I don’t know, it’s a bit boring. But I don’t think people would know everything about us from seeing the film.

CHRIS: It was difficult to come across as yourself. Some of it looks awkward as it was hard to say things as though you meant them – especially if you’re going through it for the eighth time for a different camera.

LEE: When I first saw myself I seemed to be too grumpy – I am a bit of a moaner but not that bad. I didn’t find the serious bits too difficult but I found it really hard to laugh in front of the cameras, though once they filmed us without us knowing and I never seemed to stop laughing.

BEDDERS: The film had no script, its stars had never acted and its producer/ director had never masterminded a film before. It sounds like the makings of a complete disaster but it turned out as we’d all hoped it would – just a down-to-earth story of how some honest guys from north London got out of a rut and made the big time.

SUGGS: It shows that absolutely anyone can be in a group. It’s about a group of ordinary people who join a band and make a record. Anyone can do it and we just get on with it. If you start analysing it all, you’ll end up crawling up your own bum. The real thrill was being so popular when we’re really just a bunch of absolute knobs.

WOODY: We just wanted to make a rock ‘n’ roll film like it had never been done before to show the reality; that it’s not all so wonderful.

DAVE ROBINSON: It’s a very authentic film; everything you see really happened. It’s all done in the same locations and in the same suits.

JOHN HASLER: It’s an entertaining film and reasonably honest, although I think all of us might have different memories about how certain things happened. But I guess it’s hard to get the 100 per cent truth when the people involved have varying recollections.

CHRIS: That’s certainly true. For example, before filming, we were talking about the bit where Mike is giving Carl a lift home, then drops him off at the bus stop. Carl recalled it happening, but Mike denied it and they had a row about it all over again – talk about art imitating life. I also like the part where I had to get Mike out of bed; he was even late for rehearsals at his own house!

CARL: The fight scene at Acklam Hall is far removed from the reality of what actually happened – it was a lot more violent in real life. It was like back in the day at youth clubs, someone would say ‘What are you looking at?’ and it would all kick off. I remember as a kid walking down the street in this Christmas outfit and this geezer who was twice my age punched me in the face for no reason. So I would have liked the film to have reflected those times and aimed high. It should have appealed to a more mature viewer.

CHRIS: For the ending, I originally wanted us to walk onto an empty stage, with no one there; y’know, every artist’s nightmare. We filmed it, but I reckon Robbo never had any flippin’ film in the camera. Although the ending we ended up with was great.

MIKE: I think it is maybe a bit short on entertainment but I liked it, even though I was in it. The only thing was, it was promoted the wrong way so it didn’t do very well.

DAVE ROBINSON: There wasn’t any real film industry muscle behind it. A couple of distributors showed an interest but they got cold feet. Consequently not many people got to see it and it didn’t exactly make its way into multiplexes all over the country.

WOODY: It could have been made more commercial – I think the concept worked fine for us, I just don’t know if it was the best idea.

DAVE ROBINSON: It would have been nice to have had a chance to let the buzz grow by rolling it out gradually, attracting word of mouth. It could have ended up as being one of those midnight movie things like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where it’s on in the same cinemas in the wee small hours of a weekend for months at a time. I think the film and the band deserved something like that.

LEE: I haven’t seen the film in years but I remember it being ‘straight up’; it nestles somewhere between Spinal Tap and The Clash’s Rude Boy.

SUGGS: The only regret I have is that you’ve got the Madness compilation video and you’ve got that film and it should have been a mixture of both really. There was none of the humor and the kind of theatrical elements we like in the film. We shot it straight and then we were going to have foam rubber streets with the lamp-posts bending, like when you’re drunk. But it never really happened.

MIKE: The only thing I sort of regretted was that that it was done on such a budget that Robbo was directing it, producing it and washing up the tea cups afterwards. Usually on films you do three or four takes, but we’d do one and that was it and we’d be packing the cameras up straight away. I felt like Robbo was so focused on trying to get it to work on a very basic level that he didn’t spend a lot of time on getting a bit of a good vibe. We didn’t get a lot of time or help – it was all a bit rough. I thought it was a bit of a shame because what’s good about Madness is you get a nice feeling and repertoire between people that didn’t really come through. Plus it was quite hard work – I wasn’t used to getting up so early.

DAVE ROBINSON: The fact we had such a short time to shoot it and no one had much opportunity to over-think what we were doing was the essence of its naturalism. Looking back, it was a bit long, but it was our first attempt to do a movie. If I was to make a director’s cut today I might take 20 minutes out of it, just so some scenes are a little tighter, but other than that it’s a faithful telling of the band’s story.

MIKE: If anything, I felt it was too factual; most of the stuff in it you could have read on a Stiff handout. I would have preferred it to have captured more of the actual atmosphere. It wasn’t about who met who on what day and where. Plus everyone was a bit tense and nervous, and it didn’t look like anyone particularly enjoyed themselves. None of the characters were particularly developed, so it was all a bit shallow.

CHRIS: The ‘naming of the band bit’ was certainly done a bit badly – it was just rushed in a throwaway comment that was dubbed over later.

MIKE: There’s aonther bit where we’re all sitting in the car and we’re supposed to be driving along from a practice, and John Hasler’s just been sacked, and Chris says, ‘What are we gonna do now? We don’t have a drummer.’ And Bedders says, ‘I know a drummer. I’ll bring him around next week.’ And that was it – we just explained it in one quick line.

CHRIS: The only saving grace was that it was all done at exactly the right time – just enough for us to be enthusiastic. If we’d waited another couple of years, we’d never have got it done.

DAVE ROBINSON: It was certainly eventful.

BEDDERS: It wasn’t going to win any Oscars, that’s for sure.

CHRIS: I just remember that Robbo finished the opening scenes at the airport as we were getting ready to go off on tour. He said if the plane crashed at least he had the film in the can…