Radio On came out in 1979, and bravely attempted the impossible: to make an authentic British road movie. It was, incredibly, the British Film Institute’s most expensive film up to that point – a whole eighty grand was lavished on it, although very little of that seems to have been spent on the script. A London DJ, Robert (played by David Beames as the unlikeliest, least charismatic DJ ever, spinning Ian Dury records to an indifferent factory floor) travels to Bristol following his brother’s mysterious death. En route, he meets various characters – a hitch-hiking army deserter who clearly has anger management “issues”; a petrol pump attendant who bears a curious resemblance to Sting (okay, so it IS Sting) and a German woman looking for her daughter. In the end, the DJ drives his car to a quarry and gets on a train back to London. Yes, you read that right.
The film was shot in black and white, by the late Martin Schafer, formerly assistant to Robby Muller, who had shot most (all?) of Wim Wenders’ films up till then, and it was co-produced by Wenders, with consequent pre-sales to the German TV market. Yes, it’s depressing. It came out in the year that Margaret Thatcher came to power, and its monochrome vision of a pre-mobile, pre-video Britain is unlikely to summon any great nostalgia for the era. It’s difficult to remember what it was like growing up in black and white, or listening to Wreckless Eric, after all. As with Marmite, the world is sharply divided between those who loathe Radio On (the cinema-goer who demanded to know of director Chris Petit why he made “such a boring film”, the NME reviewer who wrote that it was “moving… like, toward the exit”) and those of us (both of us) who love it. Even Chris Petit said “only a man with a sense of humour could have made a film so relentlessly unfunny.”
I beg to differ. For a Bristolian, Radio On is full of wonderful jokes (the football scores which begin with the once-inevitable defeat for Bristol City; the protagonist’s humiliation at the hands – or rather the feet – of a female pool player in legendary Montpelier pub the Old England; Sting’s acting) as well as wonderful visual records of things past: the Temple Meads/Temple Gate flyover, the afore-mentioned Old E pool room.
Some things haven’t changed, of course. The seemingly endless journey that Robert makes down the A4 from London to Bristol still takes half a day if you’re lucky. Friends tell me there’s a new-fangled motorway a few miles to the north that’s much quicker but I’ve yet to try it. True, you never see anyone hitch-hiking these days, and Sting doesn’t appear in any films any more, but there are still lots of German women wandering around Bristol crying out “Wo ist mein Kind?” Or are they from Newport? I’m never quite sure. More importantly, Silbury Hill, which is glimpsed briefly through the fog from Beames’ car, is still there, even if the Temple Gate flyover isn’t.
There is, in a minimalist script where entire hours seem to pass between conversations, some cracking dialogue. “Is there anything to do around here?” the luckless Robert asks a young punk outside the long deceased and unlamented Clifton Down nightspot Platform 1. “What do you want?” the punk replies. “Speed, coke, methedrine, acid?”
Later, when Robert befriends the miserable German woman (is that a tautology?) and they gaze forlornly over the Bristol Channel from Weston, she delivers one of the saddest lines in cinema: “Last night I thought we would sleep together, but we won’t….” Robert, I know how you feel at that point.
Radio On is slow, badly acted – in fact Sting comes across like Daniel Day-Lewis compared to the underwritten Beames character – and so dark it’s hard to tell what’s going on most of the time (“not much” is the answer) but if nothing else, it has half a dozen good laughs – more than the average Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler movie – and a soundtrack to kill for. It starts (brilliantly) with David Bowie’s Heroes accompanying the camera on a handheld tour of the kind of cramped but oh-so-bohemian Clifton flat which people always inhabit in films about Bristol. It continues with more Bowie (Always Crashing in the Same Car) Kraftwerk, Devo, Ian Dury and, best of all, Lene Lovich, whose Lucky Number One is heard through the walls of the Platform 1 nightclub Robert can’t get into.
Calling Radio On the best Bristol film ever may be damning it with faint praise. There isn’t much competition. And it isn’t that good. But there’s something gloriously single-minded and cantankerous about it. I don’t remember the late 70s being boring at all. I’d just discovered Hawkwind, and Sam Peckinpah, and self-abuse of various kinds. That was going to keep boredom at bay for a few years yet. But if you WERE bored with the UK, then a film essentially about boredom had to be boring, I suppose. In which case, Radio On only half-succeeds.