Friday, 14 September 2012

The Boat That Rocked - review

Over a lifetime, one accumulates a number of works of art - books, pieces of music, films - that one cherishes, drawing pleasure from reading, listening to or watching many times, studying them and getting to enjoy them more from knowing them inside out.

Into this category, I feel I must place a recent (2009) film, The Boat That Rocked (US title: Pirate Radio). It is a film I've only watched four times to date (compared to say, 14 viewings of the Coen Brothers' 2009 film A Serious Man), but it's one that sticks with me and resonates most thoroughly.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis, the film was a box office flop and was not critically acclaimed. I must say like it for personal reasons. A thread running through my other (and far more occasional) blog, Grey Jumper'd Childhood, is that the transformation of life in Britain from the drab, post-austerity, buttoned-down, orderly, country it was in 1960, to the multi-coloured, multi-cultural, modern hip and happening place it became a decade later.

And the music - snips (some longer, some shorter) from no fewer than 60 rock and pop hits from the epoch, and the comedy - bawdy yet intelligent - and that feeling of wallowing in a nostalgia, and in having Actually Been There (though I was nine at the time). And this being a Richard Curtis film, it's tuned to arousing our emotions in a feel-good kind of way.

The film, set in 1966/67, (around the same time that A Serious Man was set) purports to show a pirate radio station in the North Sea, blasting out the rock'n'roll to an eager British public.

The basic premise is accurate, though the details are way off. True, the BBC by the mid-1960s was way out of step with the times. The BBC Light Programme would play endless swing music hits, popular from two decades before, played live by union musicians from the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra, interspersed with How Much Is That Doggie In The Window and other novelty songs. Exciting rock'n'roll received little air-time on the BBC's Housewives' Choice or Music While You Work, daytime staples on the Light Programme. Not much chance of hearing Mr Jimi Hendrix's popular tune, Hey Joe, then.

Meanwhile, across the North Sea, Radio Luxembourg and numerous pirate stations were broadcasting what was really happening - the soundtrack to a civilisational shift.

Historically, the main inaccuracy was the suggestion that it was a reactionary, emotionally-stunted British government that put an end to pirate radio by passing the Maritime Offences Act. Not so - it was a shoshalisht minister, Tony Benn, who was in charge of all things related to broadcasting. And it was not policemen and commandos who put an end to pirate radio - it fizzled into insignificance by a) the BBC turning the Light Programme into Radio 1 (employing many pirate radio DJs in the process and b) by the British government finally taking away the BBC's monopoly on radio broadcasting. By the mid-1970s, I was happily listening to Capital Radio, with some good DJs on Radio 1 as well. Headed by the immortal John Peel.

If you were alive at the time, if you can remember jumping up and down on your bed, pyjama'd, to the sound of rock'n'roll radio, if you can remember the Received Pronunciation of BBC Light Programme announcers suddenly giving way to the wild rantings of BBC Radio 1 DJs, then this film is a celebration - a monumental, 135-minute long celebration - a mythologising, legend-creating depiction - of a moment in history which was there - and yet wasn't.

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