By 2013, Garry Stanley was running out of options. An out-of-work jobbing actor, Stanley was working part-time as a litter-picker and a sign-holder for Pizza Hut in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. In search of extra pub money, he had the idea of forming a busking band with a couple of mates. “One of the lads was on benefits,” says Stanley. “He didn’t want to get done.” The solution? They bought large rat face masks from a fancy dress shop. The Piccadilly Rats were born.
Over the next five years, the band would become a fixture of Piccadilly Gardens. They performed their haphazard cover versions of anything from Elvis standards to Rod Stewart hits on the pavement next to a large Wetherspoon’s, and became embraced as a people’s band – beloved by locals and incoming visitors from the nearby station as a welcome shock of anarchy in a commercial city centre. When the flamboyant Ray Boddington joined as the group’s Bez-style dancer, it completed the group’s classic lineup.
“Ray always believed he was famous anyway,” says Stanley with a laugh. “But in the end, it started to become true. He’d walk through the Arndale Centre and say people were looking at him, but he had a big gold chain on, wraparound shades and a Beatles haircut. You’re going to get looked at, aren’t you?”
They were no ordinary buskers, says Stanley, now 64. “If somebody straight was singing Wonderwall, people wouldn’t join in – but we were all mad. It was more like street theatre.” Boddington would take his top off like Iggy Pop, while Tommy Piggott – a former rag-and-bone man in his late 70s – liked to wander about with a police truncheon. “I don’t even know how that started,” says Stanley.
Those were the years when Piccadilly Gardens’ social problems became national news, as rising homelessness combined with endemic use of the new, highly addictive psychoactive substance spice. “Piccadilly is like a giant open-air factory where everyone knows each other,” says Stanley. “I know all the Big Issue sellers. I know everyone on spice, and 99% of homeless people.” Members of the band had experienced homelessness, and the rough sleepers around Piccadilly Gardens would become an important part of the Rats’ story – acting as a readymade audience, or even security in exchange for a few quid.
A new documentary, The Piccadilly Rats: Live in Moderation, aims to tell the tragicomic story of these street musicians finding hope and mutual support amid austerity and addiction. “I’m pretty shy really,” explains Stanley, who has suffered from depression and anxiety, “but all these people and all this madness around me, it took the attention off me and deflected it on to them.”
Nathan Cunningham, the first-time director who made the film, says: “I wanted to give people like that a voice. Busking bands, street performers – people make their judgments straight away. But scratch the surface and there’s a lot of emotion, backstory, trials and tribulation. It’s celebrating colourful characters. It’s away from the norm.”
The band hustled for success through the avenues available in 21st century Britain – TV talent show auditions, an appearance on Judge Rinder, a viral video of one of the Rats asleep in a wheelie bin. They were also invited to open the 2018 Parklife festival. “We started it and Liam Gallagher finished it,” says Stanley, still incredulous. Bez even buttonholed Boddington for a selfie.
But bad luck began to mount. Piggott was severely injured during the city’s Irish parade. A succession of bad weather days knocked their income: Stanley grows sheepish when asked about their average take-home pay, but highlights one particularly good Saturday when the Rats made more than £500. The move towards a cashless society didn’t help either.
Street performers are one of the most common ways British people experience live music. And today, one of the oldest forms of entertainment faces profound challenges. “With local authorities struggling for funds, they’re increasingly selling off vast swathes of public land to private companies,” says David Fisher of campaign group Keep Streets Live. “This won’t often be noticeable to the public, but makes things difficult for buskers.”
The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has been used by councils to restrict busking with no outside oversight. In one memorable scene in the film, the Piccadilly Rats take the train to London in an attempt to crack the capital. They are immediately reprimanded by a Westminster Council representative. Even at home, they run into new obstacles. “We started getting bother off Manchester city council,” says Stanley. “They brought in a set of laws where you can only do two hours and move on. That wouldn’t have worked for us. It takes a while to set all the gear up, and we have the same spot. In the end, they sort of left us alone.”
By 2019, Stanley was wearying of the band’s chronic bad luck – and then things got worse. He was badly injured in a hit-and-run. Boddington offered to take Stanley’s sicknote to his employers at Pizza Hut. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry cocker, I won’t let you down.’” But Boddington was hit by a MetroLink tram and died later that day.
In the weeks after his friend’s death – and, by extension, the end of the band – friends began to notice Stanley behaving differently. “I’d always been a drinker,” he says. “I was what you would call a high-functioning alcoholic.” The alcoholism escalated. Suffering chronic insomnia, Stanley began to self-harm. One Saturday afternoon, he disappeared from his family home and was found by his wife and daughter by a roadside attempting to take his own life.
With no ambulance able to get to Stanley within an hour, his life was saved by some passing policemen. He was then sectioned under the Mental Health Act. “I was frightened to death,” he says. “I was scared they’d put me in a straitjacket. They promised me them days are gone, and after a few days you’ll feel all right.” He pauses. “From that day, I started to get a bit better, each day.” He’s now three years sober.
Stanley’s days are quieter now. He misses the everyday madness of band life. But more than that, he hankers for a return to acting. Seeing himself on the big screen at the film’s sold-out Manchester premiere brought up a mix of emotions, which he neatly sidesteps discussing for a detailed rundown of the complimentary food and drink at the event.
Earlier this year, the first phase of a £25m redevelopment of Piccadilly Gardens was unveiled, with promises of “public space that Manchester can be proud of”. The concrete “piss wall”, already partially removed, will be rejuvenated with a new art installation of LED lighting with a perfunctory “nod to Manchester’s cotton industry”.
The city’s skyline is changing, says Cunningham. “There’s money coming in but those kind of characters are still there. It’s hard for working-class families to keep up with the mass transformation in the city. The film is about those characters not getting lost.”
• The Piccadilly Rats: Live in Moderation will screen at the Doc’n Roll film festival across 14 cities, 27 October to 13 November.