Page last updated at 07:54 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 08:54 UK

Pop biopic takes on Transformers

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Telstar, a British-made biopic of the 1960s music producer Joe Meek, arrives in UK cinemas this week on the same day as the heavily-hyped Transformers sequel.

Con O'Neill in Telstar
Actor Con O'Neill has now played Joe Meek on stage and screen

It is a David and Goliath battle that would no doubt appeal to Meek, a maverick talent accustomed to ploughing his own idiosyncratic furrow.

A pioneer who created musical history from a humble flat on London's Holloway Road, Joe Meek enjoyed phenomenal success with the iconic Telstar.

Performed by The Tornados, the instrumental track - named after the first active communications satellite - was a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1962 and the biggest-selling record of its time.

Meek's other successes included Johnny Remember Me, a "death ditty" for singer John Leyton, renowned for its eerie, ethereal vocals.

But he is equally well known for his lapses in judgement - he turned down the Beatles four times - and the nature of his tragic demise.

That came in February 1967 when he killed himself with the shotgun he had just used to murder his landlady, Violet Shenton.

His dramatic rise and fall form the basis of a film that could hardly be further removed from a certain effects-laden blockbuster.

Actor turned director Nick Moran admits he would rather his modestly budgeted film did not face such stiff competition.

"It wasn't planned," he tells the BBC News website. "But I don't think it matters, because it's not going to be seen by giant robot fans.

"What this film has is amazing British talent and world-dominating acting," he continues. "That's what we're good at.

"We're not good at robots. You want to see robots, go see them - the choice is yours."

Telstar director Nick Moran
Lock, Stock actor Moran based the film on a play he co-wrote

The British talent of which Moran speaks spans an eclectic range of actors, comedians and music stars.

The latter include singer and guitarist Carl Barat, of the Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things, and Justin Hawkins, formerly of The Darkness.

Barat plays rock 'n' roll star Gene Vincent, while Hawkins makes a memorable impression as the late Screaming Lord Sutch.

Moran, best known for his role in Guy Ritchie's film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, says it was important to involve figures from the current music scene.

"We've tried to throw in contemporary links, and hopefully people pick up on that," he explains.

"If they don't it still stands up, but if they do it's an added bit of texture."

Actor Con O'Neill, who plays Meek in the film, sees further parallels between his character and the modern pop industry.

'Star maker'

"Joe was the Simon Cowell of his day," he says. "He was a star maker, which is what Simon is, and he was as abrupt as he is too."

"I think Simon owes a lot to Joe," agrees Moran. "Joe was taking kids off the street, giving them a shiny suit and turning them into a pop star.

Con O'Neill and Ralf Little in Telstar
Ralf Little (right) and James Corden are among the supporting cast

"That's something that was going on back then and couldn't be more relevant, thanks to shows like Pop Idol and The X Factor."

Having played Meek in the stage play on which Telstar is based, O'Neill knows pretty much all there is to know about this neglected British icon.

Given Meek's well-documented obsession with the occult and the afterlife, then, what does the actor think he would make of how he is portrayed?

"I think he would love the fact that a film has been made of his life," says O'Neill. "It's great it's raised interest in that era and his music.

"And I think he'd appreciate we don't dress him up as something he wasn't. We chose to show him as a complex, flawed human being."

Moran, meanwhile, is convinced that Meek, wherever he is, thinks his leading man did the late impresario justice.

"When we did the cast and crew screening, one of Joe's relatives said he was in the room," he reveals.

"He thought Con did very well, even if he was a little bit too short."

Telstar is out in the UK on 19 June.

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