As the Museum of Liverpool launches its Reel Stories exhibition, Getintothis’ Del Pike begins a series of retrospectives of Liverpool films by revisiting Letter to Brezhnev.
In the cold winter of 1985 it felt as if more than just the Russian wind has come to Liverpool. On a particularly cold Thursday in November the vodkas flowed like rain at The State Ballroom on Dale Street, and overcoats were duly kept on. The club had cause for celebration; the previous month Chris Bernard’s film Letter to Brezhnev enjoyed it’s very low key premier at The Kirkby Suite, in a makeshift cinema that was set up in the civic chambers and was now enjoying its first week of wide release. This was a film that touched the hearts of the Liverpool community more than any locally shot film before, and felt like it was made by Liverpool folk for Liverpool folk. Without the airs and graces that you would expect from Hollywood or London produced films, it was just a real low budget, home grown tale.
Director Bernard took Frank Clarke’s script, a story of two working class girls from Kirkby who spend a night with a pair of off-shore Russian sailors, leading to the most implausible of love affairs, and turned it into a tale of the City. The defiance of the female lead, Elaine, played by Brookside regular Alexandra Pigg, reflected the feeling of the City at the time. Thatcher’s Britain was a decade where we were continually being told “No”, and Elaine’s resilience against the authorities was a breath of fresh air for those of us with similarly Leftist inclinations. In the film, Elaine strikes up a romance with Russian sailor Peter before he returns home and she has to fight the powers that be to gain a visa to rekindle their relationship. By the time of the film’s release Brezhnev had been replaced by leaders Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev in quick succession, but Frank Clarke liked the sound of the title so stuck with it.
The story of the film’s production is as intriguing as the film itself and one which found its way onto National news broadcasts on release. Clarke had written his story, loosely based on an idea constructed by his actor sister Margi Clarke and playwright Carol Anne Duffy. He wrote the script in just two weeks but was struggling to find funding for the film. The Tories had put the kibosh on the bulk of British filmmaking at this time, seeing it as an unworthy industry. Clarke visited his friends the wealthy Caseltons, heirs to the fortunes of Baxi boilers who were living on the Isle of Man. News footage from the time shows the most unlikely of partnerships, the happy go lucky Scouser Clarke and the silver spoon Charles and Fiona Caselton who are clearly delighted to be a part of the project. They donated £50,000 but on just a three week shoot, Clarke and Bernard managed to spend just £40,000 of it, Charles Caselton thus took the role of Executive Producer. The film was distributed through the maverick Film 4 and Palace Pictures who pretty much, alongside George Harrison’s Handmade films shaped the unique quality of British film in the 80s. Without them, British films would have consisted only of the Maggie-approved Ghandi and Chariots of Fire style, morale tales. Consequently we also have a canon of gritty, location shot films due to these brilliant risk takers.
Anyone who was hanging around the City during the shooting of the film couldn’t help but notice its presence. With coverage in the local press and the use of many local extras, we felt involved. Alongside Pigg was scouse legend and brother of the writer, Margi Clarke, who was already a recognisable face from her regular appearances on Granada TV’s regional output. Her Margox character, a good time girl with an accent that could grate cheese at ten paces, always seemed to be hovering in the background of Tony Wilson’s What’s On show throughout the 70s. Her character was lovingly resurrected in a feature for Channel 4’s Friday night music show, The Tube in 1985, being hero-worshipped by no other than Steven Morrissey. The piece was primarily a promotional exercise for Letter to Brezhnev.
Further Moz-related promotion came in Clarke’s appearance at the iconic With Love From Manchester gig at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre on February 8, 1986. As a gesture of goodwill and a bid to raise money for the 58 sacked Liverpool city councillors who had fallen victim to the cull that resulted from Derek Hatton’s unorthodox council activities, Factory Records manager Tony Wilson presented a night of Manchester entertainment. In a line-up to die for that included The Smiths, New Order, The Fall (all in their glorious prime)and John Cooper Clarke, Margi Clarke also stood up for the Liverpool Councillors and sang her Lockets and Stars song from Letter to Brezhnev. It was a true zeitgeist moment and a selfless gesture on behalf of Wilson who gave the evening its own Factory number; FACT 152.
This also coincided with the Red Wedge tour which saw a similarly idealistic teaming of music and politics that united Labour leader, Neil Kinnock with the likes of Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Tom Robinson and Jimmy Somerville, in a bid to lure teenagers to the left. It really felt for a while that British pop and socialism were kindred spirits. Weller later dismissed the tour as a vanity project for politicians and vowed never to mix music and politics again. Notably this was also the era of Frankie Goes to Hollwood’s soviet imagery that included a mock fight between Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko in a wrestling ring for their Two Tribes video in 1984. Despite Weller’s protestations, the marriage between 1980s music and Left wing politics were destined to be.
Margi Clarke’s character Teresa, a chicken factory worker and Elaine’s best mate, epitomises the rough stereotype of the scally Kirkby girl that has arguably done more harm than good down the days, but she has enough charm to win over her audience as the film plays out. Her blousy promiscuity helps to emphasise the more romantic nature of Elaine. The girls go to The State on the pull where they meet their Russian sailors, Sergei (Alfred Molina) and Peter (Peter Firth) and the inclusion of the nightclub proved essential to the appeal of the film with City dwellers. The State had been in operation as a dance hall from as early as the 1920s and had played host to tea dances and in later years, Littlewoods Social Club. Its ostentatious interior of marble and brass was sadly under-appreciated throughout the 1970s when Littlewoods used it as a storage facility.
In 1982 it was re-opened with the grand claim of being Liverpool’s first laser disco and soon became one of the premier venues for alternative music on Thursdays, alongside Planet X and The System with a more mainstream playlist at the weekend. Its reputation as an alternative hub was cemented when it appeared on The Tube as a backdrop to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s legendary performance of Relax in February 1983 and was host to iconic gigs by Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Big Audio Dynamite. Thursday nights were a frenetic mix of indie pop from the likes of The Smiths, The Cure, The Cult and New Order, wrecking anthems from The Meteors, The Cramps and Spear of Destiny and pre-rave dance from James Brown and Bronski Beat.
In the latter half of the 80s the club very much embraced the rave era as Mike Knowler and Steve Proctor adopted a much more acid drenched repertoire. It’s clear from The State scenes in Brezhnev that the club night has been re-created, as the lack of atmosphere is starkly obvious. The extras unfortunately are not dressed anything like State regulars and its half empty, but it is still thrilling to see all these years on, if you were a State-head from that time. You can almost smell the dry ice and taste the Red Stripe. Bronski Beat’s Hit that Perfect Beat plays during the sequence and the single was used to promote the film. The band had recently swapped frontman Jimmy Somerville for newbie, Jon Jon and …Perfect Beat was about the best tune the new line up could muster. The video for the track shows the singer walking around key Liverpool locations from the film, mainly the docklands and Dale Street and includes a mimed performance in The State itself.
Smalltown Boy and Why? had been regular favourites at The State along with The Communards’ Disenchanted the following year, so the Bronski connection seemed apt. The famous State toilets also feature, the site of many a real life drama (although actually shot in the toilets of the old Odeon) and this sequence was also re-created for the Margox / Morrissey sequence for The Tube with a cameo from Shelagh O’Brien, Brookside’s Karen Grant.
It’s probably a good point to make at this stage that Letter to Brezhnev is not a masterclass in acting, nor is it exactly an example of great cinema, but as low budget Brit movies go, it has its undeniable qualities. As a Liverpool travelogue it also serves its purpose, but don’t go looking for geographical accuracy. A morning after bus ride with Elaine and her new love Peter, makes quantum leaps all over the city and cries out for better continuity, but that kind of misses the point. This is after all a fairy tale of sorts.
Costly studio time wasn’t an option, so when the girls take their beaus back to a hotel for the night it is the actual Shaftesbury Hotel on Mount Pleasant, now demolished and replaced with a Tesco. A shot, clearly taken from the top of the multi-storey car park also shows the memorial gardens that are still there behind Central Hall. There are a whole host of notable film locations including a house party at Chris Bernard’s flat at Livingstone Drive in Aigburth and various sequences shot around Kirkby. For the sake of convenience some Kirkby scenes are actually shot around The Dingle and now demolished estates on the Upper Parliament end of town. The chicken factory gates, often mistaken for Kirkby’s Birds Eye factory, are actually shot on New Bird Street, bang in the heart of The Baltic Quarter, at what Frank Clarke claims was at the time, a stinking sausage factory. For a glimpse of what life must have been like for the real life Teresas, try and stomach the scenes of the actual Birds Eye chicken factory in Nick Broomfield’s astonishing 1974 portrait of Kirkby life, Behind The Rent Strike.
The budget of the film could not stretch to establishing shots of Moscow skylines and were mocked up with clever images of Birkenhead rooftops instead. Sequences that see Elaine spending her last moments with Peter alongside the dockside show a much quieter waterfront as the Albert Dock regeneration was still in its infancy. When Peter’s ship is shown in dock, it is over the water in Birkenhead. It’s a great document of Liverpool before its major refurbishment, still looking very much the rainy Northern town before Liverpool One brought its boutique status.
What is refreshing about Letter to Brezhnev is the fact that it is a perfect snapshot of Liverpool at that exact point in time; the political turmoil, the struggle for identity and the pre-rave club culture. It beautifully reflects the joy of being young in 80s Liverpool too. The vitality of Film Four and Palace Pictures output in that decade as purveyors of challenging work that was pretty much guaranteed an audience is certainly relevant to the film, and it is doubtful that such a niche film would be made now and gain that much attention.
Whilst the central relationships in the film are heterosexual, there is an undeniable campiness to the film which is down to Frank Clarke and Chris Bernard’s very open and appealing delivery. Clarke’s later project, The Fruit Machine in 1988 focussed much more directly on gay culture and followed similar themes of Liverpool nightclubbing and frowned upon relationships. Nightclub-based Liverpool films became almost a mini genre during this period with Willy Russell’s Dancin’ Thru The Dark (1990) and Alan Bleasedale’s No Surrender (1985) joining the roster. A further collaboration between the Clarke siblings with Frank taking the role of director, 1991’s Blonde Fist, failed to ignite interest to the same extent as Letter to Brezhnev. Possibly the tale of the Kirkby girl who goes to New York in search of her father and ends up finding a career in boxing was too far removed from the ordinary lifestyles of Brezhnev fans or maybe the moment had simply passed. Letter to Brezhnev remains very much a film of its time and has to be viewed as such. As Joan Bakewell described it at the time, it’s a story the filmmakers “understand about people they know in a place they love”.
Blonde Fist was Frank Clarke’s final foray into the movie world whilst Chris Bernard went on to enjoy a successful career as a TV director with credits that include Where The Heart Is, My Parents Are Aliens and Eastenders TV movie The Return of Nick Cotton. Alexandra Pigg’s screen career dwindled over the years but Margi Clarke continues to work, notably as a Coronation Street regular a few years back as Tyrone’s mum Jackie.
Letter to Brezhnev is available on Cest La Vie DVD and serves as priceless nostalgia piece and an unrivalled example of Liverpool’s warmth and humour.
A screening of Letter to Brezhnev – Special Cast & Crew Reunion complete with a Q&A session takes place at FACT on Tuesday April 18