The Boat That Rocked

The Observer, 5 April 2009
By Philip French

Karl Marx, fashionable once more in these times of financial meltdown, famously observed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. His comment came to mind as I watched the final sequence of Richard Curtis's nostalgic comedy about the era of pirate radio stations in the 1960s. In a manner reminiscent of the Titanic, the film's ship, Radio Rock, sinks in the wintry North Sea to the plangent strains of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (one of the movie's 54 golden oldies) and the Minister for Broadcasting orders that no rescue attempt be made. After two hours in the company of these DJs, we feel that Davy Jones's locker is the offshore studio best suited to their talents. But no. Dozens of little boats put out from east coast ports, steered by bunches of pubescent girls to save the heroic DJs from a watery grave. Looking back for a suitably rousing episode from our national past, Curtis has alighted on Dunkirk, a tragedy narrowly averted, which he reprises as mirthless, feelgood farce.

Curtis, an extremely talented student of dramatic humour, has been the dominant figure in British film comedy for 15 years now, ever since 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' in 1994. That's half as long again as the heyday of Ealing Comedy, which stretched for a mere decade from 'Hue and Cry' (1946) to 'Barnacle Bill' (1957). Only in a superficial sense is he the heir to Ealing, whose best comedies reflected the temper of the times: the discontent with austerity and bureaucracy in 'Passport to Pimlico' and 'Whisky Galore', the dominance of class and unearned privilege in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets'.

Reflecting a partial, idealised Britain, his films add a dash of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll to the once popular West End comedy of the sort called "well made". Now that he has turned his attentions to the 1960s, the time he moved from prep school to Harrow, the result has as much connection with the period as The Flintstones has with the Stone Age.

In the mid-1960s, the post-Reithian BBC radio, still evolving as public-service broadcaster, operated on three channels with special social and cultural responsibilities. In the field of music, it was hamstrung by agreements with the Musicians' Union that restricted the use of commercial recordings in order to safeguard the livelihoods of its members. Most people working for the corporation were opposed to commercial radio and many had doubts about popular culture, though it was on my Sunday lunchtime Home Service programme The Critics in November 1963 that the Beatles were first compared (by David Sylvester) to Monteverdi.

By 1965, with rock'n'roll well established, there was pressure from commercial interests and the public for a 24-hour popular music channel and there sprang up a number of pirate radio stations outside territorial waters. Harold Wilson's Labour government sought to suppress them, its chief agent being the postmaster general, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, then as now something of a zealot.

That's the background to 'The Boat That Rocked' and it's a fascinating, rather complicated subject that was rejected by both the BBC and ITV when proposed in 1967 by a playwright friend of mine. Today, I'd think it ideal for Peter Morgan after 'The Damned United'. Curtis, however, begins by writing off the BBC as an organisation that ignored popular music and proceeds to suggest that pirate radio, in the form of his Radio Rock, was transforming the nation.

All over an infantilised country, in a series of cringe-making vignettes, we see schoolgirls and schoolboys, nurses, housewives and truck drivers glued to their radios and dancing in the streets like risk-taking listeners in Warsaw Pact countries tuning in to Radio Free Europe.

Meanwhile, out on the North Sea, there is a collection of free spirits playing the people's music under the aegis of Quentin (Bill Nighy), their paternal boss, an upper-middle-class renegade. These DJs are Merry Men of Sherwood, countercultural adventurers, embattled by puritan forces led by cabinet minister Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), half Raymond Huntley-style Whitehall warrior, half Nazi functionary. His stiff-necked assistant is called Twatt, a somewhat unusual name that amuses Curtis no end.

As in the manner of Ben Jonson's comedy of humours, each of the DJs has a single defining characteristic (eg lechery, conceit, stupidity, innocence), but whereas Jonson's intention was satirical, Curtis's one-dimensional characters' cuteness puts them closer to Disney's Seven Dwarfs. Except on a shore expedition strutting around the West End and when a boatload of dolly birds comes to the boat for a discreet orgy, the DJs sit around drinking and talking about their embarrassing sexual experiences.

They have nothing of interest to say about music either on or off the air, no commercials are broadcast and on the one occasion someone is about to read a news bulletin, the camera cuts away. Vietnam is referred to once, when the war is compared to the conflict between the two most flamboyant DJs, the Count, an American inspired by Emperor Rosko (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the English lothario Gavin (Rhys Ifans).

Curtis claims two American movies of the 1970s, Altman's 'M*A*S*H' and Landis's 'Animal House', as his models. The first is an anarchic, anti-war movie about men with authentic skills saving lives while risking their own. The second, a complacent picture about indulgent slackers, was the harbinger of the Reagan years and a signal that American students were returning to harmless fun and the imbecility of fraternity life after the rebellious 60s. The thin, slack, meandering 'The Boat That Rocked' lacks the audacity of Altman's film and the exuberance of Landis's. And neither film has anything resembling Curtis's most excruciatingly sentimental scene. With the ship about to be closed down by the 1967 Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, each DJ makes a little speech on what he's learnt from working on Radio Rock, while "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations plays on the soundtrack.

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