Monday, May 11, 2009

When pirates were cool

I'm a shade too young to remember Radio Caroline. But I remember the memory of it. When I was at school, Caroline was a legend - gone but far from forgotten, its personalities, practices and morals co-opted by the Establishment, in the person of the BBC.

But there was a time, in Britain, when rock-'n'-roll really was considered dangerous and subversive. That time was, approximately, 1964 to 1967 - a period often seen as a golden age of rock, with the UK firmly in the lead. But no-one would legally broadcast the music in its home country. Back then, if you wanted to listen to rock music on the radio, your only option was to tune in to a ship anchored in international waters off the coast of Norfolk.

(Which is an interesting thought, when people try to argue that revenues and/or exposure from broadcasting are important to stimulate creativity. But I digress.)

The legend of pirate radio is probably unknown to most Britons under the age of, ooh, about 35, or to most foreigners of any age. And so I was delighted to see it being given new life, perpetuated for another generation, by Richard Curtis's The Boat That Rocked.

Curtis has attracted a lot of flak in the British press for reducing his subject - which, some seem to feel, deserves an epic historical rewrite worthy of Oliver Stone - to a merely average British sex-comedy, closer in its feel to Carry On Caroline than Good Morning, UK.

But for me, it works. Pirate radio was indeed a glorious, romantic rebellion against the mores of its time - but it was always and essentially trivial, and it does no service to the spirit and memory of Caroline to take it too seriously. What we are left with is a celebration of rebellion, anarchy, the sexual revolution and the healing power of tea and biscuits. Plus an astonishing soundtrack that reminds one just what was so special about the 60s.

Despite its historical roots, the film and its characters are firmly fictional. Which is a wise decision. Relieved of the need to do justice to real people or events, the cast is freed to unleash its own creativity. There are fine performances from Kenneth Branagh, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris O'Dowd and (particularly) Bill Nighy, who seems to be channeling the unnatural lovechild of Peter Sellers and Peter Stringfellow.

Sadly, the film's ending lets it down badly. First, Curtis tries to invoke the Dunkirk story, to show The People standing firmly behind the pirates. It's a cheap twist, co-opting mainstream history - or at least mythology - into his rebels' story; and it seems to legitimise the wholesale identity theft that happened next. (Because if Caroline's heroes were the legitimate heirs of Dunkirk, it follows that they were also legitimate, if rebellious, children of the BBC.) Then he gives us a triumphal postscript, which notes that since 1967, pop music broadcasting and private broadcasting have both flourished across the UK.

And with that postscript, he endangers the entire story - utterly missing the point that those things are only thriving now because they're not only permitted, but actively nurtured by the same establishment that once tried to repress them.

Indeed, their grip on power today is far firmer than it was in 1967. With the growth of digital broadcasting, it's now physically impossible for a successor to Caroline to attract more than the barest handful of listeners. Most people simply wouldn't know how to receive their signals any more. Unlicensed broadcasting is dead.

Long live the unlicensed Internet.


HiStandards said...

I saw the trailer to this movie and decided I must see it.

vet said...

Well, I hope you enjoy it. Presumably it won't have the same kind of nostalgia value for you. And I should warn you that bits are truly cringeworthy, in the worst Carry On traditions. But you can't go far wrong if you just shut your eyes and listen to the soundtrack...