This is the first of two Channel 4 films being used to extend this series as far as it will go. Written by Alan Bleasedale when he was at the height of his powers, the film saw theatrical release in other countries but was confined to broadcast over here by the relatively new Channel. I am convinced that I watched it on the evening of New Year’s Day, probably 1986, but I can find no evidence for this. I could give you its release date in Canada, mind.
I remember loving the film. I remember being deeply affected by its ending. I answered a letter condemning it in the Manchester Evening News that demanded the writer not be told to switch it off as he had a right to watch TV, defending the film but, more importantly, reminding him he was not obliged to like it or even watch it but that there were three other Channels broadcasting at the same time and he had no right to demand that television only show what he wanted to watch, which brought forth a third letter from someone else basically slandering anyione who liked No Surrender, and you can’t answer those.
And I never saw it again, or if I did maybe once, a repeat one night, maybe in the Nineties. I have not seen it again until today. I remembered so many vivid moments and lines. I was moved again by the ending, whose quiet power will only ever lose its effect if we finally learn not to hate each other so irrationally. But I forgot something. I forgot how absolutely brilliant Alan Bleasedale was as a writer, to make a film about pain, and despair, and pathological religious hatred, about inadequacy and ineptness and violence, and make it so abso-fucking-lutely funny.
You’re going to have to excuse the language because this film is set in Liverpool in the mid-Eighties, when the City was simultaneously dying, being killed and refusing to recognise that it was dead, and they just talk that way and Bleasedale, a Liverpudlian whose best works came from his home ground, isn’t going to strike a false note by sugarcoating anything.
The film takes place on New Year’s Eve. Michael (Michael Angelis) is starting his job as Manager of the Charleston Club, a prefab nightclub in the middle of a post-industrial wasteland where you can see the Police coming from miles away but can’t see the crooks, the thugs, the crazed and the kids with no future at age 12 until they’re under your nose. The club is owned by Mr Ross (Tom Georgeson), who turns out to be a leading figure in organised crime, who insists on Michael being the perfect, seemingly-ignorant front for the money flowing through the club, which acts as a wash-tub to make it clean. It has a bouncer, Bernard pronounce Ber-nard, who claims to be ex-Foreign Legion and whose IQ is somewhere down in the Liverpool 7s (Bernard Hill, reuiniting three of Bleasedale’s Boys from the Blackstuff).
In the backroom, Michael’s predecessor as Manager is undergoing a fairly ruthless beating. He’s tried to steal from Mr Ross. Michael wants nothing to do with this: he’s a nobody, he knows that, he accepts it, but he won’t be anybody else’s nobody. Unfortunately, Mr Ross doesn’t care and his on the ground henchman Frank (Vince Earl, the future Ron Dixon of Brookside) is gently persuasive about how misguided it would be to let Mr Ross down. Frank also views himself as a comedian, and Earl is perfect as that guy who can’t help but come out with what he thinks is wit, without accepting any deflection.
So far, so thriller in its construction, set upon a very definite picture of Liverpool of the time, the football club still riding mighty but everything else about the City sliding down the pan. But what embodies this film is the other thing the unfortunate McArthur has done, and what he’s landed Michael with.
He’s gone and booked the Charleston out with three Pensioner’s Parties. Nowt wrong with that, you might think, it’s New Year’s Eve in Liverpool. But one party comes from the 12th of July Memorial Club, meaning that they are hardline Protestant Loyalists, who look up to former hard man Billy ‘The Beast’ McCracken (Ray McInally, who has never been better) and one party comes from St Joseph’s Social Club, meaning that they are hardline Catholics, who look up to former hard man Paddy Burke (James Ellis, unrecognisable from his long-standing role as Sgt Bert Lynch in Z-Cars), ex-boxer, blind but still full of aggression, determined to get Bily the Beast.
And the third party is a small group of seriously elderly men and women, suffering from senile dementia.
You think that’s bad? That that’s playing with cigarette lighters in close proximity to a serious petrol spill? McArthur wasn’t finished. For entertainment he booked a seriously unfunny comedian who’s overtly gay and hasn’t got anything remotely resembling a funny line (even Frank has more going for him), a useless magician who suffers from stage-fright and whose white rabbit, stuffed pathetically visibly under his top hat, has chosen this moment to die on him, literally, and a punk band of stunning ineptness including a McGann brother and Andrew Schofield, another regular Bleasedale player as a compulsively ‘witty’ little scrote you’d pay to watch being stuffed through his own guitar strings.
As recipes for chaos go, this is already Cordon Bleu and that’s before you complete the mixture with a Loyalist gunman on the run, Norman Donoghue (Mike Mulholland), a ‘pal’ of Billy the Beast from forty years ago, blackmailing Billy for shelter by bringing up his daughter in Ireland, the one who married a Catholic, to whom Billy never has nor never will speak, and Cheryl (Joanne Whalley at the height of her loveliness), kitchen assistant, would-be singer andOrange Lodge hater, delaying the Protestant’s food because it’s not cold eough yet.
No need to stir this mix because it’ll stir itself.
In the middle of all this is Michael, so far out of his depth he could be halfway to Wallassey without a Ferry, but determined to survive all this, intact and detached.
Bleasedale was a fantastic writer in that decade, one of the few people capable of depicting pain whilst reducing you to tears of laughter. I always had a problem with any kind of ‘don’t know whether to laugh or cry’ set-up because I would always cry, the jokes never being funny enough to cross over to the other emotion, but Bleasedale had the knack. It’s funny, very funny, but it’s also deadly serious, and increasingly so. The hatred flattens itself against your screen and leers at you. As an atheist, I watched both then and now in bemusement that the details of how to ‘properly’ worship the same God, a God of Love, generates such hatred, such venom.
The film gets more intense. The disturbing expectation of danger from the outset becomes real threat. Remind yourself that these are all old men and women. Everybody is over 60, every man over 65. You want to tell yourself that they’re old enough to know better, but they are not.
Is one side better than the other? Does Bleasedale favour Protestant or Catholic? Much as he tries to portray both sides as impossible to favour, there is a slant. The drama requires one to produce an ending and the Protestants have it. There are three reasons. Cheryl, one of the three stars, hates them and acts maliciously over their food, plus when the Loyalist Marching Band bring in their instruments, she starts the Catholic counter-singing. And there are Billy the Beast and Paddy Burke.
Ray McInally was a bloody good actor. Thiough he protests to Norman Donoghue that his father left him three things, his faith, his loyalty and his football, and they’re all true blue, it’s equally clear without words that Billy is reconsidering all the things his life, his past has been. Paddy Burke, his opposite, has gone blind, physically as well as mentally. Deprived of his sight, deprived of the chance to grow as Billy may, at long last be doing, he sees only the past, the rivalry with Billy McCracken. Paddy intends to start one more fight, to batter Billy the Beast.
Billy doesn’t want it. Everyone around him, with the exception of a sceptical old woman who won’t go on the Marches any more because she never liked shouting ‘Fuck the Pope!’ in public, are on his side, ready to back him, ready for war again at any moment. Billy wants no trouble. No trouble any more.
But Billy finds that trouble is unaoidable. First Norman, seeing the Police arrive for Michael’s scheme to drive Mr Ross clear, accuses Billy of betraying him, threatens his daughter. Billy does what he has to do, his old comrade, his old pal, a man after his own heart, once, and strangles Norman in the toilet cubicle where he’s hiding. It’s brutish, but unavoidable.
Then, tricked into a trap by Tony (Michael Ripper), made ready for paddy’s assault, with both parties trying to cram into the toilets and a hell of a lot of them achieving it, Billy has to face Paddy. He’s had a beer bottle smashed over his head, he’s been kicked in the stomach, but the Beast rises and he beats Paddy Burke, hard. One man smashing punches into the face of a blind man yet we suspend the automatic moral judgement, not overturn it just suspend it, until Paddy goes down, crashing through a cubicle door onto the lap of a dead Loyalist gunman.
It’s over, it’s all over. Billy walks away alone. The pensioners celebrate New Year’s Dave. Michael and Cheryl share a New Year’s kiss that is not going to be extended to Ber-nard. Afterwards, after one final drink in peace in a cleared but not cleaned club, Ber-nard goes home to his mother. Cheryl makes it plain she wants Michael to go home with her for the fuck she’d proposed in the middle of the film. Michael points out he’s a happily married man. Cheryl tells him it won’t last. He puts his arm round her waist (lucky Michael Angelis) and they go off together.
But that’s not the ending, not the ending I remember, the ending that was so moving. Billy McCracken returns to the 12th of July Memorial Club alone, lets himself into the deserted office, dials the telephone. He calls his daughter Elizabeth, the one in Ireland, the one who married… They wish each other Happy New Year. Then, to her surprise, he asks to speak to Brendan. Yes, Brendan. His son-in-law, identified as such for those who are hard of thinking. He asks Brendan if he may be thought to be sentimental to wish him Happy New Year?
And the music takes over and credits run and the camera stays at a distance as Billy settles into his chair for an unheard conversation, and from the smile on his face a opleasant one, with the son-li-law, the Catholic to whom he mever will speak, and we fade away, marveling at how it is ever too late to go against your lifelong beliefs and to learn what your religion truly means.
This may seem like a fairly detailed synopsis of the film and certainly I’ve spoiled all spoilers, but there are layers and depths and individual stories I haven’t even begun to hint at. Alan Bleasedale writes like a dream and the best thing you can say for the cast is that they rise to the level of his script. There are distinguished actors and familiar actors in here and from beginning to end they cease to be actors and become the people you watch.
The film’s only failing is the gimmick of having Elvis Costello play his first acting part as the magician, Rosco de Ville. Aside from a silent entrance, crossing the background, Costello only appears in two screens and it was very noticable that whilst he said his lines adequately, both scenes were monologues, played to Angelis and Hill, who remained silent, to protect Costello. But that’s a nitpicking.
So, a TV film, but an extraordinary film whichever way. I wonder what they made of it in America? Did it have to be subtitled? There’s now very little time left for Film 2020, but I’ll try to post a little earlier next Sunday.