Saturday Night Fever Is Actually Set In Shepherd's Bush

Last Updated 23 May 2024

Saturday Night Fever Is Actually Set In Shepherd's Bush
John Travolta and Goldhawk Road station
Tony Manero was really a Mod from the Goldhawk Road called Chris. Images: public domain/David Howard via creative commons

It's a quintessential slice of Noo Yoik: John Travolta strutting down a grimy Brooklyn street in brogues and leather jacket, munching a double helping of Lenny's pizza while the L train clunks by and the Bee Gees squeal Stayin' Alive.

Now make that street Goldhawk Road, and turn the train into a Circle line service bound for Hammersmith. After all, Saturday Night Fever — a hit 1977 film only rivalled that year by Star Wars — was really set in Shepherd's Bush, London. Sort of. Allow us to explain.

The year before Saturday Night Fever was released, NYC's disco scene was reaching boiling point. Disco Inferno by the Trammps was all over the airwaves. Flares and massive collars were in. Studio 54 was about to become the most famous club in the world.

A British music journalist, Nik Cohn, was commissioned to write a piece on New York's disco subculture — an emerging scene among the city's working class communities — for New York magazine. He came up with Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night, a plucky piece of journalism profiling a disco-obsessed American-Italian 18-year-old named Vincent: "He owned fourteen floral shirts, five suits, eight pairs of shoes, three overcoats, and had appeared on American Bandstand."

The piece was an instant success and Cohn sold the film rights in a flash. A young man called John Travolta was signed up for the lead role (the name changed from Vincent to Tony Manero) and the rest was history.

Shepherd's Bush Green
Saturday Night Fever wouldn't have been quite the same with Tony Manero strutting across Shepherd's Bush Green. Image: Chmee2 via creative commons

But something was eating away at Cohn, and two decades after the film premiered, he came clean in the most spectacular way. Vincent, he admitted, had never existed. Others in the piece — Lisa, Billy, John James, Lorraine and Donna — were made up too.

Despite the fact Cohn had prefaced Tribal Rites... "Everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved", the young journo had quickly realised he'd bitten off more than he could chew. As the Guardian wrote in 2016, stepping out of a cab at the 2001 Odyssey disco club in Brooklyn, Cohn had witnessed a brawl then had someone throw up down his trouser leg. This isn't really my scene, thought Cohn, got back in the cab, and drove off.

"He's basically made Vincent up," says Tom Holland in an episode of The Rest Is History podcast, where we discovered this nugget of trivia, "he's based him on a Mod he knew in Shepherd's Bush — a one-time king of Goldhawk Road." That Mod was a person called Chris who Cohn had got to know a bit in 1965. The original Tony Manero wasn't consumed by glitter balls and Donna Summer but motorbikes and the Small Faces. By adapting Chris' debauched tales of swigging from whisky bottles, violent bust-ups and back seat fumbles, Cohn projected 1960s Shepherd's Bush onto the canvas of 1970s Brooklyn — and came up with the blueprint for the gritty film that would scoop an initial $85 million at the box office.

But Tony Manero wasn't all Chris: The night Cohn had had his trousers vomited on, he'd spotted "a figure in flared crimson pants and a black body shirt standing in the doorway" of the 2001 Odyssey Club. We wonder if he ever knew he'd been sloshed together with a bloke from Shepherd's Bush, to create an iconic film character.

Anyway, next time you find yourself walking down Goldhawk Road or across Shepherd's Bush Green, and automatically start strutting like cock of the walk, you'll know why.

We found this nugget of trivia out on the unimpeachable The Rest Is History podcast, specifically this one — and there's more on this story in this 2016 Guardian article.