At the pictures: Letter to Brezhnev

Liverpool

Scorpio Rising – the death and resurrection show

Longitude 5 point 3; 25 North

Latitude 3 Zero Zero West

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The stars align: a ship looms through the dark, two men peer across the bow:

‘Liverpool…Beatles…’

Of course, it could only be Liverpool: Britain’s one, true mythical city: a place , through sheer will and determination has created an all encompassing culture which reinvents itself time and again, with new heroes and villains, new stories and new stars.

‘If Liverpool didn’t exist – it would have to be invented’ Terence Davies

This  Liverpool, the Liverpool of ‘Letter to Brezhnev’, is not the land of the Beatles or Cilla Black: it is 1985.

To an electronic fanfare, the camera pans across the river, rising above the Liver building and the iconic Liverbirds: the metropolis lit at night, a modern bustling city a world away from the cheeky-chappy moptops and dipsy Nerys Hughes. Economically battered and bruised but majestic and proud…

Further across the city a vision in white (sterilised in white, a sack-like overall, smothering headscarf and wobbling wellies – ‘Like having your fanny took off yer’ as Margi Clarke says in the commentary) stops outside the chicken stuffing factory for a ciggy and later, across town a bus pulls up…the stars waxing and waning as they exert their influence…romance is in the air, but for who?

‘Letter to Brezhnev’ was written by Frank Clarke, directed by Chris Barnard on a budget which ‘had varicose veins, it was so tight’ and born on a fairytale’s stardust…As Margi Clarke (Frank’s sister who plays Theresa in the film) tells it, no one in the film industry would touch Frank’s script at the time- this was, after all, the time of Thatcher and Reagan and a terrible fear/ hatred of all things Communist. However, Margi and Frank’s merry gang of squatters were asked to put up a stranger – one Fiona Castleton – for the night. This they did and it was only the next day that they discovered that Fiona came from the rich family behind ‘Baxi’ boilers. In return for their hospitality, Fiona invited the gang to stay with her family in the Isle of Man. Clubbing together their dole money, they sent Frank over and while there told the family about his script. They agreed to stump up the money…

‘Letter to Brezhnev’ is a personal romance but also political romance: through the story of Elaine and her love for a Russian, this film tells the story of a class, a country at a specific time, in a specific place talking about themes which resonate across time and space…

‘It explained about Liverpool’s ability to rejuvenate itself. The minute they say we’re over; we’ve done; you’re dead: that’s when we spring back to life and butt the gob off you.’ Margi, on the film commentary.

A bus pulls up and a girl gets off, calling to her friend Elaine, who follows her.

Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) is unemployed and fed up life in depressed Kirby. She’s out for a drink with her mate Tracy and they decide to pop into the local for a quick one. As they sit, a jingle-jangle voice calls across the bar and our patron saint of the chicken factory appears:

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It’s Elaine’s friend, Theresa, played by the incomparable Margi Clarke, fresh from the chicken factory where she takes ‘the innards out of chickens, puts them into plastic bags and stuffs them back up again. Then they play this classical music shite but the only thing is they speed it up bit by bit throughout the day so you end up stuffing chickens in time to the music.’ Even though she’s in work ‘purse strings are tight’, but seeing her friend so miserable she decides it’s worth risking her Ma’s wrath (‘she’ll probably glorm the face off me, but I’m gonna get so rat-arsed I’ll not notice‘) and the pair decide to go into town. They fetch up in a run-down bar and in return for being letched over by a pair of dirty old men, Theresa picks a wallet and they run for their lives.

Running, walking, driving, dancing…’Letter to Brezhnev’ starts with a flourish of movement, the characters rarely still, all the while moving towards destiny and providing the film with a pace and energy which is a breathe of salt-kissed air.

They arrive at ‘The State’ club, (‘Looking cushty, girls’) and Elaine looks around while Theresa disappears into the toilets: from her bag she produces her potions and familiars: a slash of lipstick engorges her inner woman  with hot, pulsating blood: a stretch of scarlet lust smothers her body and killer heels tantalise with danger. Theresa emerges transformed into a sex-death diva, a preying mantis grinding out a warning as her stiletto crushes a phallic cigarette.

‘Oh my god, Theresa, I didn’t recognise you!’

‘I know, I look like a little doll don’t I?

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The pride in looking good is something rarely touched on in films with working class characters. Arthur Seaton in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ had it; think of the mods in ‘Quadrophenia‘, and Theresa has this in spades. Looking good is something that doesn’t have to cost a lot but for working class people it is a matter of pride, of self respect to look the best you can. I always remember going to my Nana and Granda’s on a Sunday afternoon, but after tea at 6 o’clock we had to leave because they had to get ready to go to ‘Richie’s’ – ‘Richardson Westgarth Social Club’ – and they always had to look their best. Always.

Elaine has a wistful look in her eyes. She’s spotted our Beatle enamoured sailors. Elaine wants to take it slowly. ‘Wait my eyes,’ says Theresa‘let’s judge ourselves over there before some other floosy gets their nails in on ’em. Now remember what I said, a little bit of cat and mouse, a bit of tease…’

One of the most impressive aspects of the script of ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ is how it brings to the fore the full whit, imagination and power of the language of working class Liverpool. Lines have a bounce, a jangle which lifts words to the level of music, of poetry almost. And like the best music it carries the listener, washes over you and, as with the  universal language of love, these strange, beautiful words are so perfect and so…true. I’d never heard the word ‘glorm’ before, but I knew exactly what Theresa meant.

‘The Liverpool accent is really unique. We sound like we’ve got a terrible cold. We’re really nasal. Because we’re nine leagues under the sea. We’ve got the Atlantic to the left of us. The biggest Ocean in the world. The River Mersey is a tributary of the Atlantic and we’re really effected by that Ocean and everything it pumps into Liverpool. It’s effected the accent. So the poorest people produced the richest accent because that’s where your money is, not in your pocket, in your mouth. In Liverpool you were rich if you could tell the best stories, make everyone laugh, be great at the optimism. Liverpool’s ruled by Scorpio. Scorpio is best friends with Pluto and Pluto is the god of Humour. And he turns everything upside down. So when Scousers get scared, they laugh. When Scousers wanna say something is really good, we’ll say ‘It’s Dead’! Dead Good! Another scouse word that’s travelled all over the world is Knobhead! I was laughing my head off to see Americans on social networking sites saying KnobHead. Gobsmacked in another. Its a strange kind of shorthand! There are loads of excellent words: Lippy for lipstick, Ciggy for cigarette. Everyone say ‘Kop Off’ for when you meet up with a stranger and off you go to make whoopi. That’s Kopping off. Suzzies for suspender belts. And mine have just twanged…’  (Margi, interviewed by Ginger Coyote in Punk Globe.com)

You can’t talk about the Scouse accent without discussing camp: just listen to how scouse squeezes every syllable up and down the rictor scale: does any other accent do this to such wonderful effect? Even the most hardened of scouse men sound as camp as Christmas (although that doesn’t mean you’d want to mess with them): in many ways the scouse accent has probably developed in the same way and for the same reasons that camp developed amongst gay men: as armour and protection against a hostile world: disarm your opponent with a wise-crack or a drop of sarcasm and watch their ‘cock-of-the-walk’ bravado wither and die. It is an attempt, as Margi says, to conjure something out of nothing, or perhaps, in the words of Susan Sontag

‘…Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous’

I’m sure (if) any true scousers read this, then many would probably think that I am implying the scouse accent is a tease, a phony accent put on the visitors, but this is as far from what I am trying to say as possible: the reason the scouse accent is a wonderful camp creation is that

‘The pure examples of camp are unintentional; they are dead serious’

In short, Letter to Brezhnev is a celebration of a virile, pregnant language full of wit and invention and still manages to be one of the campest British inventions since the Panto Dame. Some might add that this is because everyone in Liverpool is a comedian, but this is clearly untrue…everyone in Liverpool is a performer. Just walk down Church Street or Bold Street on a crowded Saturday afternoon and you’ll hear everyone in full flight, words cast out in a desperate audition for life: loud, lolloping great explosions of words on the edge of a laugh, laughter teetering on the edge of words: life as an audition, every minute there to be filled with joy.

Of course, the lyrics may be good, but they need a talented singer to be great and, while the whole cast is good (Tracy Lea as Tracy and Margi’s little sister Angela as Elaine’s sister Josie stand out), it is Margi Clarke who truly owns the film. Margi is completely at home here, from the casual conversations in the local to the heights of scouse camp and back down to earth with heartbreaking poignancy, she provides the backbone around which the action takes place.

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I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a straight performance in any other film in which the actor just devours the words and yet also lights up everyone around her. In comparison Alexandra Pigg seems subdued, timid but this works perfectly, a calming foil which yang’s Clarke’s ying and allows the pair to prove just why they were awarded ‘Best Newcomers’ at that year’s Bafta awards. Apparently Margi initially wanted the role of Elaine, but Frank put a wise stop to that – who on earth could possibly provide the supporting foil to Margi without being swallowed whole?

The couples get together and become friends. ‘Igor’ asks Theresa, ‘You like to dance?‘ to which Theresa can only reply, ‘You asking?, with a giggle to recognise the song by The Scaffold which started every episode of ‘The Liverbirds’ a sitcom about two Liverpool girls sharing a flat: ‘You dancin’?  ‘You askin’?’  ‘I’m askin’.’  ‘I’m dancin’.’

After a quick frug across the dancefloor, Elaine and Theresa retire to the toilets:

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‘They might be a bit strange’

‘And what’s wrong with a bit of strange? You’ve been whinging and moaning all night for a bit of romance and adventure – well, here’s your chance staring you straight in the face. My one’s just kissed the gob off me and don’t know about you but I’m getting in there for another slice of the cake. They’re gorgeous Elaine, well better than anything we’re gonna find round here. So get your laughing gear round him!’

I love this scene: Elaine is sat on the toilet, tights round her ankles talking to Theresa and mid conversation they changes places: a casual pointer to the film’s easy way with female sexuality. These women are familiar with their bodies and are able to relate in a sisterly way to one another in a casual, non-sexual manner which, again, is rarely seen anymore. Think back to the last time in which you saw women on screen in which they are intimate physically, nude or semi-nude but not viewed in a sexual manner? It is also worth remembering that ‘Brezhnev’ was originally it was thought of as a story of two gay men (based on Frank Clarke and director Chris Bernard) out on the cop when a ship comes in – and while genders have changed, it still retains a very gay sensibility: a refreshing non-judgemental view of sex, especially refreshing for the time given that it was still quite rare to have women with a sexual desire not coming a cropper as some sort of punishment for it.

‘You told me about her giving a wank to some bloke from St. Helens’

‘I never.’

‘You did!’

‘I never… I said she went round the back with him but I didn’t see what happened after that. I was just fuming ‘cos he didn’t wanna go round the back with me. What man in his right mind would refuse a dollop of what I’ve got to offer?’

‘She’s a little scut and I’m sure she fancies my Mick’

‘Oh, come Tracy, we’ve all done it.’

‘Done what?’

‘Given wanks and had our tits felt and we’ve loved it. It’s just some girls like her get caught and some like you don’t’

Remember  – we were still in the midst of a US crop of ‘stalk and slash’ movies in which teenagers were depicted as randy sex-maniacs who needed to be punished for it. And even the blockbusters were at it: in ‘Fatal Attraction’ Glenn Close’s character has to been seen as ‘mad’ for having sexual desire and must pay the ultimate price. The mid-eighties also saw the mass panic over AIDS: this would never have been allowed if the main characters were gay men.

The foursome leave the club and head into the rainy night. In the chippy, they cross paths with the miserable couple from the pub who signal the deadend delights of a loveless marriage. After an altercation (‘Fuckin’ Communist aggressors!’), Elaine, Theresa and the Russians take rooms in a nearby hotel.

Theresa is upset – she hates the idea of spending money (even if it was stolen) on men, but the promise of sex soon takes her mind off it.

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Meanwhile, Elaine and Peter spend a romantic night. Peter presents Elaine with a locket and promises that whenever he sees a particular star in the sky, he will think of Elaine…The next morning the couples say goodbye and the dream, it appears, is over.

…but you’ll just have to watch the film itself to find out what happens next. Needless to say it does literally involve a ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ and ends with one of the most poignant scenes in British cinema history.

‘Letter to Brezhnev’ is truly one of the most underrated and neglected of British films…it is unique in its depiction of the 1980s in that it doesn’t present a patronising image of working class people: you get the contradictions which exist in all of us and an intelligence which exists everywhere, not just in universities or the ‘professions’. It  presents a picture of 1980s Britain which feels right: it was a hard time and people did struggle but individually we also found time to live and love and laugh. This invented world works so well, feels so real that it provides the viewer with its very own ‘folk memory’: the viewer oddly feels they have known a Theresa or Elaine, have been to a club exactly like that or had nights out which have had equally messy endings. I say oddly, because I was brought up in the North East, my family didn’t struggle like some in the film but it still provides what Paul Farley, when writing about Terence Davies’s wonderful (and also Liverpool set) ‘Distant Voices Still Lives’, calls an ‘ache’ for a shared history: a hazy perception, a kaleidoscopic impression of memories and people and thoughts and ideas which together sum up a people, a place, a time without resorting to tired cliché or simplified signifiers (the dole queue; the angry, emasculated male) and provides a recognition which may or may not be based on your own personal reality. As Terence Davies himself has commented, ‘Where does memory end, and imagination begin?’

During the depression of the 1930s a film came out which similarly addressed what it was like to be working class in an economic downturn: ‘Sing As We Go’ starring Gracie Fields. In that film the mill closes down and the redundant workers move the Blackpool to find work  and sing their way out of the doldrums (‘If we can’t spin, we can always sing!‘). Gracie eventually leads the people back to where they ‘belong’ – spinning in the mills. Thankfully, ‘Brezhnev’ does something more radical: it takes the spirit of Punk (the poster was designed by Margi’s then partner Jamie Reid who designed some of the original Sex Pistol’s sleeves; Margi had a previous life as Margox in post-punk Liverpool), sticks two fingers up and advocates fighting the power by following your dreams.

‘You can have your dream Theresa, just go out and get it. You’re lovely you and you’re wasting your time stuck in Kirkby. You could have anyone you wanted if you put your mind to it. Oh come on, Theresa, what do you dream of?

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‘Letter to Brezhnev’ ranks alongside the best of British films: a short, sharp burst of scouse passion, working class guts and sweet, sweet romance.

The British Film Institute is releasing ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ on DVD and blu-ray on 24 April 2017

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This entry was posted in At the Pictures: Letter to Brezhnev, Paul Farley and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to At the pictures: Letter to Brezhnev

  1. Brilliant film, really funny.

    Like

  2. Cathy Cowley says:

    What a brilliant film and writer and of course without Margie would not have been as good what a talented lot the Clarkes are

    Liked by 1 person

    • Too true – Margi is a true star and has filled me with joy and admiration for so long! Can’t wait for ‘Blond Fist’ on DVD – not seen it since it came out. More Margi ‘n’ Frank ‘n Angela fun!

      Like

  3. Cathy Cowley says:

    Talent actress Talent Writer brilliant

    Like

  4. Edward Barrett says:

    A truly inspired and inspirational film.

    Like

  5. Paul fleming says:

    Made up,hopefully the sound and picture are cleaned up,be great to see it in the way it should be seen,as i watched or tried to watch an old vhs copy with my australian mrs,after telling her how great i remember it being ! Had to abort it after 20 mins,so hope and pray BFI have given it the treatment it truely deserves

    Like

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