Sid and Nancy

Sid’s got a knife and he’s not afraid to use it.

The Duchess Theatre

The Duchess Theatre viewed from Catherine Street in Covent Garden

The Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street Covent Garden, 1984

In the summer of 1978, I was working as a stage technician at the Duchess Theatre in Covent Garden. I had spent four years working on one production — Oh Calcutta! The format of this once notorious show was a series of sketches linked by one theme, sex. The cast of men and women usually began each sketch clothed and ended it naked, which is pertinent to what follows.

That day, I arrived for work only to learn that a film crew had booked the theatre for the morning and afternoon. They were to hold auditions for singers. I knew the routine; sit around doing nothing while getting paid overtime. What was not to like?

The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle

The film was The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, had refused to take part. As a result the film’s director, Julien Temple, decided to use a stand-in wearing a Johnny Rotten mask.

At 10 a.m. Temple and his crew, arrived and set up their equipment.

Shortly after 10.30, young hopefuls trooped into the tiny auditorium.
Temple said he needed an extra audio technician. I volunteered Henry, a friend who worked close by at the Theatre Royal. Temple agreed.

Twenty minutes later, Henry was on set. His job was to operate a sound track of the Pistols’ 1977 hit God Save the Queen.

Meanwhile, I settled down with a mug of tea and the Guardian crossword as Henry ran through a sound check.

The Pistols’ drummer, Paul Cook, and guitarist Steve Jones went through the motions. But apart for Lydon, there was one band member missing.
“Where’s Sid?” Temple asked, addressing no one in particular.

No one in particular replied, “Christ knows.”

Cook grinned, he did a lot of that, and Jones shrugged his shoulders.

Temple instructed an assistant to track down the elusive John Ritchie, aka Sid Vicious.

Young Sid’s reputation at that time was well known. He was a heroin addict with a propensity for violence. He was currently enjoying the affections of a young American woman, Nancy Spungen whom the press referred to her as Nauseating Nancy.

The clock ticked. I logged the overtime while I finished my crossword in peace.

Finally, in the early afternoon, Sid and Nancy arrived.

“What’s this fuckin’ all about?” Sid drawled. He wore black. His matching hair gelled and spiky.

“Someone get me a coffee,” whined his amour, also clad in black and surmounted by a bleach-blond frizz.

Temple explained what was about to happen. That Sid and the band would play while a Johnny impersonator sang God Save the Queen.

“I don’t have a fuckin’ bass.” Sid drawled — he did a lot of that.

“No problem,” replied Temple. He motioned his assistant to scarper tout suite and buy said fuckin’ bass.

Meanwhile, Cook and Jones ignored their band-mate. Then Cook struck up a beat and Jones played a few chords.

Sid and Nancy disappeared for an hour to whatever room had been set aside for the talent. Meanwhile the rest of us drank more tea and discussed the finer points of musicianship.

An hour later, Temple’s assistant handed Sid a gleaming and tuned bass.

“So ‘ow d’you play this fuckin’ thing? Cos I aint got a fuckin’ clue.”

The indefatigable Temple forged ahead. An assistant got Sid to his marks on the tiny Duchess stage where maroon velvet drapes, set yours truly, seemed somewhat inappropriate.

Meanwhile, Cook and Jones ignored their band-mate. Then Cook struck up a beat and Jones played a few chords. (This be the verse)

First up on stage was one of some ten hopefuls. He donned the Johnny Rotten mask and stood at a mic-stand while Henry pressed play on the Revox machine.

The performance was nothing more than perfunctory.

A disembodied voice from the auditorium said, “Thank you. Next.”

I had seen a fair few auditions in my time. Occasionally, a performer would make you sit up and pay attention. Yet, hands down, the best audition I ever saw in seven years in the West End was the next one that took place that afternoon.

Enter Eddie “Tenpole” Tudor.

Eddie, thin with black hair, transformed into a lunatic strucj insane by a bolt of lightning.

“She’s not a human beinggggggg…..”

Even Sid looked impressed as Tenpole hit the floor and writhed across the stage. It wasn’t Johnny, but it sure as hell was hilarious.

When the music stopped, those waiting in the stalls for their chance to impress sat stunned. Then a few began talking among themselves, which is when Sid went thermonuclear.

“What did y’ fuckin’ say?” Sid asked, pointing at one of them.

Sid threw his bass to the stage and jumped into the auditorium. He climbed over seats. Then he punched the so-called guilty party.

Nancy, who was sitting on the opposite side of the auditorium, stood and yelled, “Watch out. Sid’s got a knife and he’s not afraid to use it.”

It took a minute or so for a few brave souls to separate Sid from his bloodied victim.

Meanwhile, Cook and Jones ignored their band-mate. Then Cook struck up a beat and Jones played a few chords.

Meanwhile, Temple and his team ushered Sid and his victim away.

That left Cook, Jones, Nancy, Henry and me.

Henry and I took seats at the front of the stalls. We chatted about talent, in particular the lack of it.

Meanwhile Nancy took the stage and Cook began a beat with the kick drum.

Nancy decided this was her moment, thinking she had a captive audience of two young men. She began to disrobe. Not that she had made much to remove before she stood centre-stage in her black underwear.

Henry yawned and I pretended to address the crossword.

Nancy was not best pleased.

“Hey you two! You wanna see more you need to throw some money my way.”

I don’t think Nancy would have understood the term ‘busman’s holiday’ and that six days a week I worked with naked women.

Henry and I voted with our feet and went to the pub.

We got paid. Tenpole got the gig, and two years later the film reached the big screen. Critics panned it; Lydon made the right decision.

As for Sid and Nancy, she died in October 1978. Someone stuck a knife in her. He committed suicide on Rikers Island in early 1979.

I later worked in the criminal justice system, and I learned how to recognise a psychopath. I also encountered those in abusive relationships.

So I write this with absolute certainty. Sid was a psycho and Nancy predicted her own fate at his hands.

“Sid’s got a knife and he’s not afraid to use it.”