Radio Ga Ga

Tuesday September 8, 2009 in 2009 cinema |

Possibly it was the high altitude, or maybe just because I was trapped on a plane, but I managed to sit through Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked in its entirety. Although the film takes a point in recent history that’s so fascinating that you may find it incredible that the idea isn’t already taken, the film manages to make a complete fudge of depicting pirate radio in the 1960s.

Curtis employs a couple of his usual regulars, Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans, and adds Philip Seymour Hoffman in what should have been inspired casting. Familiar faces also include Nick Frost, the brilliant Ralph Brown (from Withnail and I) and two stars of The IT Crowd who play their usual gormless selves. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson also appear again the the same cast, although they don’t get to meet onscreen. All the actors do their best but this is a film that only barely reaches Carry On credibility; skilled performers reduced to delivering their usual turns (specifically with Nighy and Ifans). Imagine the call:

Oh hi Bill, it’s Richard here. Yeah, not so bad thanks. I was wondering – could you turn up for a few days filming please and do your usual? Yes, it’ll be a full Bill Nighy turn. Insoucience, slightly camp etc. Okay, speak later – need to call Rhys and get him to repeat his Peter Cook impersonation.

The Boat That Rocked is set in 1966, the year before pirate radio was brought to an abrupt halt. Branagh and Jack Davenport play nasty men from the ministry who, by hook or by crook, plot the end of the seafaring DJs. As you might typically expect, the film includes a rich soundtrack from the era, although the music doesn’t appear to be confined to ’66 and resembles the soundtrack to Heartbeat with its anything from the 60s will do approach. Similarly, fashion and decor looks suitable from the era although just as little research probably went into styling the film.

What’s ultimately irritating about this movie is its sheer laziness of script and characterisation. The pirate radio stars don’t come across as stars at all, just a bunch of stupid idiots, which too many frankly embarrassing scenes where the repetition of the word ‘lesbian’ just isn’t amusing. The dialogue remains embarrassingly sexist throughout and Curtis seems unable, or unwilling, to write substantial female characters. The appreciation of pirate radio by the British public goes little further than shots of people at home or at work, generally going about their business, stopping and enjoying the hilarious radio sounds. Similar in fact to the Radio 2 tv ads from a couple of years back.

The Boat That Rocked isn’t terrible, just disappointing. It’s a bit of a waste of time, although it isn’t a crime against cinema. That award goes to the new Terminator movie…

Totally agree with your review.

Thought you’d be interested in a review I wrote for some Australian publications as a former DJ on Radio Caroline.


Ian MacRae

In the sixties, DJ’s on the UK’s “Pirate Radio” ships did nothing but party and have sex with the constant visiting supply of lusty young ladies. Oh yes, and present the occasional radio program, which was totally off the cuff as no preparation was required.

At least that’s what the new movie “The Boat That Rocked” would have you believe.

OK, you expect a movie to have a bit of artistic license and it’s great that a whole generation of British kids will now be aware that it was us broadcasters who were directly responsible for forcing later Governments to legalise land-based commercial radio in the UK.

However I squirmed for the over-long 135 minutes the movie runs watching misrepresentation after misrepresentation of what really went on flash up on the screen.

Firstly I have to take issue with the title of the movie “The Boat That Rocked”. Radio Caroline, on which the story is based, was a “ship” not a boat. People row boats.

Secondly no visitors were ever allowed on- for insurance and safety reasons. The idea you could invite 200 fans and have them running all over the ship is ridiculous when you have generators running and transmitters putting out 50,000 watts. Which makes the scene where the two guys compete to climb the mast even more ridiculous.

The few visitors who did come on board were people like pop stars and entertainers, for on-air interviews, and they had to have special permission from head office in London.

The movie makes no reference to the station even having a head office, which was actually a salubrious building just off Park Lane, but gives the impression the whole operation was totally run from the ship.

I’m being careful not to put any spoilers in this review, in case you haven’t seen the movie yet, but you’ll probably be a bit confused as to what the Bill Nighy character is supposed to be. He seems to be a combined ship’s captain, Program Director and owner.

In real life there were two sets of crew on the ship…the seamen, headed by the Captain, and the radio station people such as DJ’s, engineers and technicians. Neither group had the faintest idea what the other actually did.

The movie makes it appear there was only one radio ship, which they call Radio Rock, with one DJ telling his listeners he has 25 million people listening to him. In fact there were at least twelve stations that I can think of broadcasting around the coastline, with about six positioned off London, all with a combined audience of 25 million..

The movie really totally misses the point when the police attempt to raid the ship to close it down. The vessel was in international waters and outside the jurisdiction of any British authority. A raid like that would have been real piracy by the police.

The only way the government could eventually close the pirates down was by cutting their supply lines. They made it illegal to supply them with everything from advertising to food, water, fuel or even supplying labour. That is, working for them. Come ashore and you’d get arrested.

That’s when I decided two years at sea was enough and came home to Australia where you weren’t a criminal if you worked for commercial radio.

As for the movie enjoy it what it is – entertainment. But don’t regard it as history.

Ian MacRae    Wednesday September 9, 2009   

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