Reel Stories: Liverpool and The Silver Screen at The Museum of Liverpool



To coincide with his new Getintothis column looking at key Liverpool films, Del Pike chats to Paul Gallagher at The Museum of Liverpool about his exciting new exhibition

Liverpool has long had a love affair with the cinema and back in the day, the streets of our city were lined with luxurious Picture Palaces. Rumour has it that when John Lennon sat down to watch Elvis Presley on the big screen at the Woolton Picture House, he looked up and thought “I can do that”. This defining moment in Liverpool culture was retold to me by Paul Gallagher, curator of contemporary collecting at The Museum of Liverpool. The reason I was there, was to be granted a private tour of the current Reel Stories: Liverpool and the Silver Screen exhibition.

Like myself, Paul has a passion for cinema and has created an exhibition around one of the greatest joys of his own childhood. The basis of the show is to allow visitors to discover how influential Liverpool has been in the world of cinema, not just as a location but as a point of reference, a political cauldron, and a social statement. We know that we live in an important place, but it is incredibly satisfying to be reminded through this collection of over 40 actual film posters and information panels, spanning over a century of filmmaking (Mitchell and Kenyon’s The arrest of Goudie dates from 1901). Each piece tells a different story and Paul is happy to elaborate.

He explains how the collection has been split into categories so that people may understand better the impact of the films. The Waterfront is the first section that beckons us, with Letter to Brezhnev calling for our attention. This film is also the first in my series of Getintothis features based around some of the key films promoted in the exhibition posters.

Paul explains how “The waterfront is a hugely important factor.” With Letter to Brezhnev, the 1985 love story between a Russian sailor on leave and a normal working girl from Kirkby, Paul highlights that the film works “in a romantic way, but in a more practical way too, paving the way for the introduction of the Liverpool Film Office, making them realise that it was possible to attract filmmakers by simply closing off roads and offering buildings.”

Read all about Letter to Brezhnev in our first retrospective here

Liverpool as a location figures largely in Letter to Brezhnev with its pre-refurb shots of the Albert Dock, the Baltic Quarter doubling for Kirkby and, of course, the landmark of the Waterfront. This trend goes way back to 1950 with an early appearance of Richard Burton in Waterfront, shot on location around the docks and the long disappeared Overhead Railway, this film was sold much like a Stateside Exploitation movie with its garish poster art and illicit promises (In America it was released as Waterfront Women!).

Paul uses films like the Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy and Alex Cox’s Revenger’s Tragedy to further illustrate the use of the Waterfront in the poster art. He is, however, quick to point out that this exhibition is “not so much about the posters but on the importance of the films. One of the things I want this exhibition to do” Paul tells me “is to encourage people to go and see the films”.

Our tour certainly works in that respect as it soon becomes clear that there are a wealth of films I had never heard of, and I can’t wait to seek them out. Paul shows me a poster for The Reckoning, a 1970 revenge tale starring Nicol Williamson, which sounds like it could have been a Get Carter rip-off, if it didn’t predate it by a year. See the poster and I forbid you to not seek it out.

Gumshoe is another long lost classic in a similar vein; Stephen Frears’ first feature starring Albert Finney as Eddie Ginley, the Sam Spade of Gambier Terrace. An otherwise wonderful film that suffers from a now shockingly racist script by Neville Smith, as Paul explains “This is why we never see it on TV anymore.”

Other categories in the exhibition deal with Faith, leaving Liverpool, Liverpool’s radical voice, Big Dreams in the dirty city and the place as a Boomtown attracting Hollywood money. Paul sees the Terence Davies section as essential to the collection and regards the auteur as “One of the greatest filmmakers in Britain… Most people won’t have even heard of him.”

Throughout our talk Paul mentions the importance of the collaboration between Liverpool’s independent Hurricane films and Davies, which has led to the creation of three projects including the epic Of Time and the City, a must see for anybody born in the city.

The Faith section, entitled, With Hope in our Hearts, reminds us of how powerful the themes of religion and belief are in Liverpool and how that has been reflected in film. The woefully overlooked No Surrender from 1985, Alan Bleasedale’s tale of “A Normal night out these days”.  A working men’s club that finds itself multi-booked on New Year’s Eve with groups of Catholics, Protestants, pensioners, a punk band and a hopeless magician (Elvis Costello).

Amidst the humour, Paul explains how the film “manages to mock the polarised views of the Protestant and Catholic communities.” Films like Priest explore themes of homosexuality in the church whilst Hurricane Films’ Under the Mud allowed a group of Liverpool teenagers to write their own story about Holy Communion.

The Leaving of Liverpool features Shirley Valentine, The Fruit Machine and A Hard Day’s Night, a film not actually shot in Liverpool but still very much a “Liverpool” film. The Beatles are the Ultimate Liverpool Story” believes Paul, who also points out the poster for the Stuart Sutcliffe biog, Backbeat.  The overlooked The Birth of The Beatles, a made for TV film from 1979 is not a great film in the traditional sense, but one that utilises the City’s locations to a much greater extent, and is listed on a lengthy wall mounted checklist.

Cinema itself is celebrated in the Picture Palaces section of the exhibition, looking back on long lost cinemas and highlighting the two remaining gems, The Woolton Picture House and The Plaza in Crosby. In the viewing room, a collection of short films expands on the stories of the posters and a short film made by Paul himself about “Going to the cinema” can be seen.

One of my favourite sections is the Power to the People collection, Paul explains how “This is not just about the overt political voice of the city, but the personal voice of expectation in films like Educating Rita”. Willy Russell’s tale of a Scouse hairdresser (Julie Walters), who under the guidance of an Oxford professor (Michael Caine) disproves many of the negative connotations of the average Scouser by getting herself a proper education.

The film was a massive hit.  Posters from various Ken Loach films and politically charged stories such as In the name of the Father and Business as usual instill the idea that Liverpool is a city of morals, unity and power. Most of these stories are based on true events and successfully show the City’s radical voice. As Ken Loach states “If there was a revolution, it would start in Liverpool.”

Boomtown will no doubt be a favourite of many visitors as it deals with the Hollywood invasion.  In recent years we have been home to Harry Potter, Captain America, Jack Ryan and Sherlock Holmes. Just last year Goodison Park and St George’s Hall played host to Sylvester Stallone and Michael B Jordan appearing in the Rocky movie, Creed. Our small Studios near Sandhills have welcomed big names, and the proposed development of bigger studios on the Old Littlewoods Pools building can only mean more business will be coming our way.

Reel Stories is a must visit and will be running right up until September 2017 so there is no excuse.  In the meantime check out the Museum of Liverpool website or download the exhibition app via itunes. Keep your eye on Getintothis for my series of retrospectives on key Liverpool movies that will run alongside Reel Stories.