A poster exhibition offers ample proof that Liverpool is Britain’s most vibrant cinema city, bar none.
Manchester, Birmingham, and Edinburgh have their merits, but no city outside London has such an identifiable film culture as Liverpool. Allan Ginsberg probably had the Beatles in mind when, in 1965, he pronounced it to be ‘at the present moment, the centre of consciousness of the human universe.’ That same notion has seeped into many screen depictions of ‘Scousers’’ lives, from Terence Davies‘ nostalgic odes to his childhood to Alan Bleasdale’s tragicomic unemployment series Boys From the Blackstuff (1982).
Museum of Liverpool’s Reel Stories: Liverpool and the Silver Screen presents 40 original film posters that show the diversity of films made in and around Liverpool since 1950. If the most charged of them are about working-class Liverpudlians (the nation’s sharpest wits), there are some surprises, too. That Susan Hayward made an MGM movie in Liverpool and New Brighton is analogous to her peer Gloria Grahame having her last love affair there, the partial subject of the upcoming Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, starring Annette Bening as the ailing actress.
Happily, few of the posters below are polished artworks. Most have a scrappy, spontaneous quality redolent of Liverpool’s specific vibe. Picture Palaces of Liverpool, a display of photos of old picture houses culled from the Stewart Bale collection, augments the show, which continues through September. Entry is free. Museum details are here.
Stephen Frears’ first feature starred Albert Finney as a bingo-caller and club comic who fancies himself a hard-boiled private eye, Billie Whitelaw and Frank Forsyth. Finney’s character’s racism and a scene showing heroin use indicate that it’s more than a comic spoof. Also in the cast were actor-screenwriter Neville Smith and fellow Liverpudlian actors Billy Dean and Ken Jones, who had all acted in Ken Loach’s The Golden Vision (1968), written by Smith, and The Big Flame (1969). Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the score. Among the film’s Liverpool landmarks that have since vanished is the Leece Street Labour Exchange.
In the Liverpool-set Under the Skin (1997), Samantha Morton played a young woman who channels her grief over her mother’s death into promiscuity. In Awaydays, which Pat Holden directed from Kevin Sampson’s script, Nicky Bell plays Paul Carty, a 19-year-old youth in 1979 Birkenhead who channels his grief over his mother’s death into soccer hooliganism. Inducted by the leader (Stephen Graham) of The Pack (the ‘firm’ that follows Birkenhead’s Tranmere Rovers in The Wirral), Paul subsists on the high of violence until it outlives its usefulness for him, and a friend succumbs to heroin. The blistering post-punk soundtrack including songs by Joy Division and early Ultravox.
I Thank a Fool (1962)
Director Robert Stevens’ loopy melodrama, handsomely shot by Harry Waxman in CinemaScope and Metrocolor, stars Susan Hayward as a Canadian doctor in Liverpool who’s disbarred for the mercy killing of her married lover. Two years after she leaves prison, she’s hired by the barrister (Peter Finch) who prosecuted her to take care of his schizophrenic young wife (Diane Cilento). A murky mystery then unfolds involving the girl’s licentious father (Cyril Cusack) and blackmail. The interiors were filmed at MGM’s studio in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, and exteriors in Liverpool, at the New Brighton funfair, and Crookhaven, County Cork. The movie bombed, but it has its glories: Hayward alighting from one of Liverpool’s green double deckers near the Pier Head, where two ‘scallies’ ogle her yards from the glittering River Mersey. Keep an eye out for William Goscombe John’s bronze equestrian statue of Edward VII.
Letter to Brezhnev (1985)
A micro-budgeted grass-roots production, this abrasive but romantic Liverpool waterfront rom-com brought a fiercely independent edge to the short-lived British Film Renaissance of 1984–86. Written by Frank Clarke and directed by Chris Bernard, it addresses the social limits imposed on northern working-class women during the Thatcher years. Unemployed Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) and chicken-stuffer Teresa (Margi Clarke) hook up one night with two Soviet sailors, Peter (Peter Firth) and Sergei (Alfred Molina), whose ship has docked on the Mersey. Teresa is satisfied by her and Sergei’s one-night stand. Elaine and Peter fall in love. So what’s she to do when Peter returns to Omsk? Write to President Brezhnev, of course, and see what he can do to help her.
The Terence Davies Trilogy (1976–83)
One of Britain’s greatest film poets, Davies developed his craft on his starkly beautiful semi-autobiographical trilogy – Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983). Shot in black and white, it bleakly documents the memories of a repressed, guilt-ridden Catholic gay man who was bullied at school, lived in fear of his violent father, devoted his middle years to working as a clerk and caring for his mother, and wound up facing death alone in a hospital ward. Choral music and fragments of popular songs retrospectively lend his torment a strange grace. The old Liverpool-ness of it all is caught in shots of the Royal Liver Building, Allerton Cemetery, the ferry, rows of terraced houses, and the cheap public housing of the 1960s, but the story is timeless and universal.
Shirley Valentine (1989)
Liverpool is also for leaving. Shirley Valentine famously depicts the midlife self-rejuvenation of a bored housewife during a vacation in Greece. Tom Conti’s moustachioed tavern-owner and tourist-seducer is an important part of Shirley’s holiday package, but orgasmic sex with him is only one aspect of her liberation. Her natural curiosity and openness to the Mediterranean lifestyle are also key. Adapted by Willy Russell from his hit West End and Broadway play, the film allowed Wallasey-raised Pauline Collins, who had starred in the first series of The Liver Birds sitcom, to recreate her Olivier- and Tony-winning performance on screen. That there’s not much Liverpool in it – an exterior shot of Shirley’s suburban semi and a moment at Lime Street Station – is entirely forgivable.
The Fruit Machine (aka Wonderland, 1988)
Resplendently channelling Judy Garland, Robbie Coltrane’s drag queen Annabelle is reason enough to watch this tale about two gay Liverpool youths, couch potato Eddie (Emile Charles) and rent boy Michael (Tony Forsyth), who witness a gangland murder in the eponymous transvestite club and flee to Brighton. Robert Stephens plays an opera singer and Clare Higgins his manager, both of whom get it on with Michael. A delightful mess, the film was written by Frank Clarke (Letter to Brezhnev) and helmed by the pioneering TV director Philip Saville (Boys From the Blackstuff). It has achieved cult status in Queer cinema circles.
The Clouded Yellow (1950)
In this underrated adventure thriller, heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1937) and The 39 Steps (1935), a butterfly cataloguer (Trevor Howard) on a Hampshire estate goes on the run with his bosses’ niece (Jean Simmons) after she’s framed for a murder; it helps that Howard’s character is a former MI5 man. The couple travel to Newcastle and dash around the Lake District before heading to Liverpool’s Chinatown, which had been relocated from the docklands to west of the cathedral following the Blitz; the cathedral and bomb sites are frequently in shot. The climactic chase through and on top of dockside warehouses was expertly handled by director Ralph Thomas. The Clouded Yellow began his 20-film partnership with producer Betty E. Box at the Rank Organisation.
Business as Usual (1987)
Born in Birkenhead and educated in West Kirby, double Oscar-winner and future MP Glenda Jackson was often considered a chilly presence. However, in Lezli An-Barrett’s searching drama about a working-class woman’s politicisation, Jackson gave one of her warmest performances. She plays Babs Flynn, the manager of a fashion store in Liverpool city centre who was fired after confronting her area boss for groping one of her staff (Mona Lisa’s Dingle-raised Cathy Tyson). The film was based on the precedent-setting sex discrimination case of Militant supporter Audrey White, who fought successfully to have her job at the Lady at Lord John boutique in Church Street reinstated via a 1983 Transport and General Workers Union picketing campaign. This film is Liverpool to the core.
Under the Mud (2009)
Under the Mud was a remarkable collective effort. Roy Boulter, Julie Currie and the movie’s director Sol Papadopoulos, partners at Hurricane Films, raised UK£47,000 (US$58,779) and enlisted 14 young regulars from Interchill, a community-run internet cafe in the South Liverpool port of Garston, to write a screenplay from scratch. A youth-oriented charity financed three rural retreat weekends that enabled the novices to draw on personal experiences in constructing a script, thick with local vernacular, about the crazy day in the life of a family celebrating its eight-year-old daughter’s fairytale first Holy Communion. The result, shown at festivals and released on DVD, was a magical, rambunctious comedy described by its producers as ‘social surrealism’.
The Magnet (1950)
This minor Ealing comedy directed by Charles Frend gave a first starring role to 11-year-old James (then William) Fox, who plays a Wallasey boy who tricks another lad out of a talismanic magnet and, overcome by guilt, runs away. His adventures take him eventually to Liverpool, where he wins over a gang of local boys and saves the life of one of them. The Anglican cathedral on St. James Mount features in the film, possibly the first to show a Chinese Liverpudlian boy speaking authentic Scouse. The cast includes Stephen Murray, Kay Walsh, James Robertson Justice (who stood unsuccessfully as a Labour Party candidate in the 1950 General Election), and Joan Hickson.
Revengers Tragedy (2002)
Director Alex Cox and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, Liverpudlians both, transposed Thomas Middleton’s 1606 Jacobean tragedy to a post-apocalyptic 2011 Liverpool where a grieving man (Christopher Eccleston) seeks revenge on the crime lord (Derek Jacobi) who poisoned his bride. Blade Runner it isn’t, but Boyce’s sardonic script and Cox’s aggressively camp assault on the Liverpool locations, including St. George’s Hall, give the movie a shambolic charm. The cast includes Andrew Schofield (a Bleasdale regular and the father in Under the Mud), one of Liverpool’s finest.