When Kevin Allen’s black comedy, Twin Town, was released in 1997, the Welsh tourist board feared it would have a damaging effect on visitor numbers. Set and filmed in Swansea (with a dusting of nearby Port Talbot), the film shows Wales’ second city in a less-than-favourable light, with excessive profanity, drug-taking and violence as the order of the day. Upon release, one MP described it as “sordid and squalid, plunging new depths of depravity.” Quite the review. Although still seen as a negative portrayal of the city by some, Twin Town has gained cult status in Swansea and, in August 2017, the film, its director and members of its cast are welcomed back with open arms for a special 20th anniversary screening. Originally intended to be held on Swansea beach, the screening is moved to nearby Singleton Park when the initial 500 tickets sell out within an hour.
For those who haven’t seen it, Twin Town centers on Julian and Jeremy, two joyriding, homemade-bong-hitting brothers known as the ‘Lewis Twins’ (though they were actually born three years apart). When their father, Fatty Lewis, breaks his leg while working for local crook Bryn Cartwright, the twins demand compensation for the accident. Bryn’s refusal is taken personally and the twins seek revenge, beginning a chain of events that (spoiler alert) culminates in a haunting final scene involving a male voice choir and a murder/burial at sea.
The film was met with mixed reviews in 1997, with that giant of film criticism Roger Ebert giving it two out of four stars in the Chicago Sun-Times. Though two out of four is neither a thumbs up nor a thumbs down, Ebert revealed that he was “not sure where the movie wanted to go and what it wanted to do – this despite the fact that it goes many places and does too much.” Admittedly Twin Town is far from perfect, but for a certain demographic of Swansea’s population (myself included), it’s a favourite. Allen and his co-writer Paul Durden successfully captured the character of the city, exposing its underbelly. This isn’t the Swansea the tourist board wants you to see, but it is the Swansea many of its residents know and love. A place with soft curves, but with an edge that keeps it interesting.
The anniversary event at Singleton Park is a celebration, a mini-festival that raises a defiant middle finger to Twin Town’s critics. It’s cooked up by Cinema & Co – an independent cinema based in the city centre (where, we’re told by compère Kev Johns, Twin Town is by far the most-requested film). Cinema & Co report that they’ve sold 3000 tickets, though the forecast of heavy rain may have deterred some holders from turning up. Gates open at 5.30pm, with plenty of time to enjoy a hot dog for tea before the screening starts at 9. There’s a DJ set filled with 90s classics, and Swansea supergroup King Goon take the stage to cover some of the film’s iconic songs. The PA isn’t powerful enough to carry a chat between director and compère all the way to the back, but you sense it doesn’t matter. Those who want to hear what Kevin Allen has to say go and stand by the stage, and everyone else carries on with their conversations (some even into the film itself). This is a Swansea occasion to say you were there – like Stereophonics playing Morfa, or the final Swans game at the old Vetch Field.
Swansea’s love of Twin Town must seem curious to outsiders. In the introduction to their segment on the anniversary screening, Channel 4 News emphasised the peculiar way that the film has become “loved by the very place it parodied.” While it’s true that parts of the portrayal of Swansea and its inhabitants were exaggerated for comic effect, Twin Town presented the post-industrial city in a way that was far more realistic than the overused, romantic view of it as an ‘ugly, lovely town’. Allen recently admitted that many of the characters were based on real people, born out of co-writer Durden’s “fantastic anecdotal knowledge of Swansea.” It’s a disclosure that doesn’t surprise – most in the city will have encountered a man like Bryn Cartwright, been sassed by an Adie Lewis, or been invited up onto the stage by a Karaoke King like Dai Rees. But while the characters are well crafted, it’s the film’s dismissal of the words of favourite son Dylan Thomas that’s most celebrated. The description of Swansea as an ‘ugly, lovely town’ is usurped by ‘pretty shitty city’ – an insult uttered early on in the film by Scottish copper Terry Walsh. Just as the insult ‘Jack Bastards’ (thrown originally by fans of rivals Cardiff City) has since been turned into something positive by followers of Swansea’s football team, ‘pretty shitty city’ has become a badge of honour in the years following Twin Town’s release. It appeals to Swansea’s tendency for self-deprecation and gallows humour, and suggests that we take ourselves a little less seriously than certain other cities.
You get the feeling that had an event like this been held elsewhere, there would have been red carpets and appearance fees. But Swansea doesn’t do slick, thank God. Before the screening we’re treated to video messages from cast members who couldn’t be here, though some of them cut out to reveal a hooked-up laptop, and have to be restarted. The film’s DVD menu sits on the big screen between the end of the cast Q&A and the main event – a period of twenty minutes that other cities would have sold off to advertisers. And, as predicted, it rains – creating an unintended Mexican wave as the crowd jump up from their camping chairs to extend umbrellas, unpack pac-a-macs, chuck on cagoules. The whole event is Swansea as a microcosm, and it’s better for it.
And so we reach the screening itself. It’s not quite the karaoke version of Twin Town that I imagined it would be, but there’s still plenty of dialogue made louder by the crowd joining in. The film is packed full of quotable one-liners, many of which have entered the local lexicon. Since 1997, countless Swansea after-party invites have been delivered with the line “Party back at the Ponderosa after. You. Are. Coming!” Although the script perfectly captures the city’s patois, reviews suggest the film doesn’t translate well outside of Wales (sometimes literally – an English friend of mine revealed he had to watch it with subtitles). Curiously, Allen says during the Q&A that it does very well in Iran. Twin Town has definitely been enjoyed elsewhere, but those who love it usually have some connection to this part of south Wales. There are thousands of them here tonight – “the most amazing, most incredible, most loyal film fans that any film that’s ever been made, anywhere in the world, could hope to have,” as Rhys Ifans calls us in his video message. I still haven’t decided if the now-Hollywood actor’s tongue was in cheek. In readiness for that haunting final scene, a male voice choir shuffles onto the stage below the big screen. It doesn’t quite work as planned at first, the real-life choir’s rendition of ‘Myfanwy’ being drowned out by the one on screen. The decision by the event organisers to cut the film’s audio, robbing the audience of the final lines of dialogue, is a little bizarre – but certainly well-intentioned. Faint chants of ‘Oggy, Oggy, Oggy!’ and ‘Jack Army!’ from the crowd sound over the choir as the credits roll. We’re back to the event being a Swansea microcosm, with amusing disorder providing a fitting conclusion.
Having recently returned to live in Swansea, Kevin Allen is a very vocal supporter of the city’s bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021. So far the campaign has done an excellent job of redefining residents’ definition of the word ‘culture’, gaining their support in the process. “Culture is a scary word to some people,” says Allen, “some think the word culture only relates to art galleries and poetry. But nothing could be further from the truth. Karaoke is culture, skateboarding is culture, fashion is culture, coasteering is culture, allotments are culture, singing in the shower is culture…” Thousands of people gathered in a park to watch a film together is culture too.
Last month, Swansea made the shortlist for 2021. Hopefully this means this isn’t the last Singleton Park screening we’ll see from the excellent Cinema & Co, who put on a night to remember (though the council should be congratulated too). With Cinema & Co’s social media pages regularly awash with film requests, there are certainly plenty of options for future big screenings – but I can guarantee that no film will be as well-received by Swansea as the one that lovingly christened it a ‘pretty shitty city’ twenty years ago.