Richard Curtis, director and script. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Duke), Bill Nighy (Quentin), Tom Sturridge (Carl), Nick Frost (Dave), Tallulah Riley (Marianne), Emma Thompson (Carl’s Mum), Chris O’Dowd (Simon), January Jones (Elenore), Rhys Ifans (Gavin), Kenneth Branagh (The Minister), Rhys Darby (Angus), Jack Davenport (Twatt), Tom Brooke (Thick Kevin)
Zoomers, especially Anglophiles (and who wasn’t in the Sixties), will recall the pirate radio phenomenon. In Britain, BBC radio continued to rule the airwaves, secure in the knowledge that the government wouldn’t license any private broadcasters. That had been the story since the Twenties and it wasn’t going to change unless something phenomenal took place.
But in the ‘60s, people were intent on rocking the boat. Literally. The pop music scene had exploded with the Beatles leading the way for a wave of bands to “invade” the US and the rest of the world. The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds, The Kinks—the list is endless. And the BBC responded with a few tame shows hosted by announcers who disapproved of rock’n’roll.
In a brilliant riposte, a group of entrepreneurs began to broadcast pop music 24/7 from ships outside of Britain’s jurisdiction. From 1964 through 1967, pirate radio was a huge success—until the Labour government found ways to shut it down by, among other things, making advertising on the stations illegal and cutting off supplies to the ships. Though one station, Radio Caroline, struggled on for a few months, the rest gave up their boats quite quickly and pirate radio was over.
Now, Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral decades ago and nothing of consequence since, has directed and written a film about this astonishing moment in history.
And sad to say, he’s completely blown it. Despite a fine cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, Curtis has made a silly, inconsequential farce. Think “Carry On, Pirate Radio” and you won’t be far off the mark.
The main story has been reduced to a parody with Kenneth Branagh’s Minister (based on Tony Benn) a caricature of an upper class prig determined to close down the stations. His assistant is actually given the surname of Twatt!
Worse—there’s little sense of how the majority of Britain was reacting to pirate radio. Obviously, the shipboard stations were huge favourites but the only hint of that is supplied by scenes with no dialogue, where nurses and students and clubbers are shown huddling next to their radios, dancing, or weeping depending on the circumstances.
Onboard ship—Radio Rock standing in for Radio Caroline and the rest—the situation depicted is nearly as bad. Instead of giving the viewer a sense of Sixties Britain and the reasons behind the power of rock in a suppressed society, the plot Curtis gives us is the old chestnut about a young man growing up in a tight, group situation. Young Tom Sturridge as Carl has the leading role—looking for love, his absent father and friendship—aboard a pirate radio station.
Pirate Radio is silly, clichéd and predictable. Worse, a great opportunity to tell a wonderful story has been lost—probably for decades. Do yourself a favour—protest! Don’t even watch it on DVD, let alone in the theatres.