Arrivals and departures are the motifs of Chris Bernard’s surprise 1980s low-budget hit, Letter to Brezhnev – those, and a haunting awareness of the sands of time. Frank Clarke’s screenplay uses a framework of romantic comedy to look at idealism, escape from the mundane, and the courage (or lack of it) to break free from a trap: Kirkby in 1985. Once a boomtown of the Liverpool Irish, a community with work available for all, here it is mired in the slough of the Thatcher years, suffering one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the UK.
Nonetheless, when Peter Firth and Alfred Molina’s Russian sailors approach the Three Graces and the port, to commence a one-night stopover, their hyperactive chatter (inevitably invoking The Beatles) suggests a destination akin to some kind of Shangri-La. Bernard’s direction understands the enduring romanticism of a large port city, even one where the glamour is low-rent, merely bright plasters on a town struggling to keep up. There are some beautiful noir touches as we take in the neon-lit back streets, tiled underpasses, volatile chip shops, bouncers in bad tuxedos, and lairy, scary late-night bus. Aside from Firth’s Russian sailor at the outset, Beatles references are left alone. While depressed, the Liverpool of the mid-1980s had no need to trade on its past in terms of culture. The city had a futuristic and exciting music scene, its own pop stars, fanzines, legendary venues such as Eric’s, and a highly influential youth movement (albeit a male-dominated one) that in the coming ‘football casual’ years would dictate the correct apparel for gigs, the match, and the street.
Peter and Sergei, both played with easy charm by Firth and Molina, are predictably on the lookout for a good time. About to provide them with more than they bargained for are Elaine, an introspective dreamer who seems to have given up on the idea of finding work, and Teresa, fresh out of her shift at the local factory, where she relieves processed chickens of their giblets. Tired of their grim local pub, the girls blow their cash on a night on the town – a decision which sets in train a defining twenty-four hours. Early impressions are misleading: we will learn that it is Elaine (a natural and understated performance from Alexandra Pigg) who can find the drive to change her life. Teresa, played brilliantly and with a building poignancy by Margi Clarke, who is the star of this picture, never will. Clarke, glamorously, had to be coaxed back from Paris where she was living with the artist Jamie Reid. Emotionally the weaker of the two girlfriends, her character compensates by being oppressively fun: not such an easy essence to capture, and her delivery of this is the film’s soul.
Frank Clarke penned the first draft of his screenplay for Letter to Brezhnev in 1981. The next four years saw rejected pitches to Channel Four; a 1983 stage play version at Merseyside Unity Theatre; backing from, among others, a local builder; plus advice and financial help from Willy Russell. However, only when Charles Castleton, the brother of an heiress friend, contributed £30,000 did the movie seem possible. “If you don’t know the rules,” said Castleton, “you don’t know you’re breaking them.” His piece in the booklet of this BFI re-release is well worth a read, and communicates rather succinctly the energy and despair involved in such a project. It’s unsurprising, then, that above all else, Letter to Brezhnev is a battle of hopes against stark reality. The film’s success is born of that magical, dogged determination only available to the unknowing innocent.
The love and tough social realism in this picture continue the traditions of the New Wave, notably with regard to how those films insisted on a stubbornly accurate depiction of current times. Authenticity is bolstered by extras played by, in the writer’s own words, “Kirkby scallies.” Certainly, the club scenes where “gangs of Liverpool queens danced, twirled and minced for hours on end” are wonderfully redolent of the 1980s: a bristling, irony-free new age of disco, powered significantly by the North-West and the Midlands. Liverpool’s State nightclub – art nouveau, gilt, marble – is where Teresa transforms herself from factory girl to femme fatale. Lipstick. Stilettos. The dream must be pursued.
Sergei has basic aims for his night out. Teresa, forever on the brink of desperation, is happy to accommodate. Further destroying her bank account, she pays for rooms in a docklands hotel, where Elaine and Peter talk all night about the giant truths – and by morning have fallen in love. (We might think it a sign of the times that Clarke and Bernard’s own experiences of picking up visiting sailors formed the original basis for Letter to Brezhnev, but the story was safely refactored into a mainstream heterosexual one. My Beautiful Laundrette appeared that same year, so maybe said times were a-changing.)
In Cinderella fashion, it must all end horribly soon. The departure of Peter, symbolically afloat on an endlessly wide sea of possibilities, conflicts harshly with Elaine’s return to the family home: a boxed-in regime of rules and must-agree opinions. Unemployment makes her room a cell. Frank Clarke, as mentioned in Julia Hallam’s essay for the BFI, remarked that life in Russia couldn’t be any worse than living on the dole in Liverpool, and sympathy for the Soviet Union was by no means unheard of in 1980s Liverpool. (Famously, Alexei Sayle’s parents were both flag-toting, doctrine-reciting communists.) While not exactly a piece of communist propaganda, Brezhnev is fine with painting the Moscow system in a favourable light. Like the night-time shadows that we glimpse in the city’s lanes, the Cold War and the notion of Big Bad Russia – primed to destroy the UK at any moment, of course – loom throughout. Yet things, surely, have moved on? It’s uncomfortable, watching in 2017, the year of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, when a repugnant tabloid hack asks Elaine how she would cope with the food shortages in Russia. She makes the point that he’d find food shortages in English kitchens too if only he’d look.
Unwilling to accept that her time with Peter is at an end, Elaine writes her titular letter to Leonid Brezhnev, asking to be reunited with the man she loves. His improbable response is a ticket to Moscow —cue the mother of all family rows and deceitful intervention from Home Office suits. Usually branded a rom-com, Letter to Brezhnev has more in common with the Alan Bleasdale than the Richard Curtis treatment, but there is something incontestably Love, Actually about Brezhnev’s reaction to the letter. More likely is that he’d never have seen it, and that the officials who did would have sent Peter on holiday to Siberia. And isn’t it a touch unlikely that two Russian sailors would be allowed to career drunkenly around a Western port city? Perhaps, but it doesn’t feel absurd, and we can permit these suspensions of disbelief for a movie made on what Margi Clarke described as “the cocaine budget on Rambo.”
Whatever the future might bring, we sense at the film’s closure that Elaine’s true fight has been internal – and has been won. Teresa’s bravado, meanwhile, has all but dissolved. In a sonar echo of another tragicomic figure, William Fisher in 1963’s Billy Liar, she is so fearfully bound to home that she can never leave, no matter what opportunity may present itself. Unlike Billy, though, with his Ambrosia dream-world as refuge, Teresa only has real life.--Neil Jackson