When Meek ruled the world

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Opening this Friday, Telstar tells the story of the pioneering British music producer Joe Meek, a man who in the early Sixties established the template for Simon Cowell’s manufactured pop, before succumbing to bad luck, heartbreak and mental illness. We caught up with Con O’Neill (far right), who puts in a bravura performance as Meek, and JJ Field (third from left), who plays Heinz Burt, one of the hit maker's lovers and ill-starred protégés.

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ESQUIRE: Con, you played Joe Meek in the stage play of Telstar, also written and directed by Nick Moran, before making the film. Is it a relief to get such a forceful, troubled character out of your life?

CON ‘O’NEILL: The film was very hard for me. The way we were filming wasn’t in order so I had to be “Happy Joe, Sad Joe” all day, every day. I would take myself off and sit with the iPod on and just work like that. It was quite a lonely experience to be shooting like that for seven weeks. Do I miss Joe? I miss his complete conviction that he’s right. But I don’t miss his pugnacious side and I don’t miss his volatility.

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ESQ: Joe Meek was a uniquely complex character. He mixed remarkable levels of joy, exuberance and dynamism with incredible darkness. Was that what attracted you to the part in the first place?

CO'N: The joy about playing someone like Joe was that his mindset was that of a teenage girl. He was attracted to those teenage boys that are a bit rough, a bit ready. The songs in his head tended to be on the romantic, mushy side. The intriguing thing was playing a man that was so brutish and yet so vain in all walks of his life. As an actor, you have to commit yourself entirely and it’s rare to get the opportunity to throw yourself off a cliff like that.

ESQ: Other than the millions of records he sold, most notable of which was Telstar, what was it that made Meek so special?

CO'N: He was the voice of independent pop. I think it’s completely underestimated how important his dynasty is. This is a man who lacked a studio system, who created a world within his own world. The magic of what he did is that he didn’t rely on anyone else. He was capable of creating music in anyone. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and those bands who wrote their own songs were the ones that made Joe obsolete, but for those five glorious years before they arrived he was the most innovative man in the world of pop music.

ESQ: And if Meek was the original Simon Cowell, could Heinz Burt be described as the proto Gareth Gates?

CO'N: Maybe. I think Heinz broke his heart, but I think Joe was far too gone by that stage anyway. For a man his age to fall in love with a straight boy, to all intents and purposes, and to put that much of himself into all those sort of things, which he always did…it was not acceptable behaviour. I don’t think Heinz was terrible to manipulate Joe. Joe ran in there regardless.

JJ FIELD: Heinz was an innocent. I think he became the product of what was thrust upon him. He didn’t have enough of his own personality and intelligence to survive without that, without the support. I think it was that sort of innocence that attracted Joe…they were perfect for eachother. Heinz needed someone of brilliance and of charisma like Joe Meek to make him who he was. He’s a reminder of the present obsession with celebrity, how dangerous it is today and that this has been going on for a long time.

ESQ: How did you prepare for the part of this blonde-quiffed pop poseur?

JJF: Nick gave me a giant folder of video footage and audio and literature to pile into. I went home and I sat in my living room and I remember putting the DVD footage on loop and talking to the screen ‘cos Heinz had a very particular voice. I arrived a couple of days before we started filming, and then we went straight in.

ESQ: And how did Con help?

JJF: Well, I had to research how to kiss a man and this was done through hours and hours of hard practise with Con O’Neill. Luckily, he is one of the best kissers in the world (at least that’s what we've agreed I'll tell everyone)

Telstar is out on Friday June 19