Obviously, any film that was going to set itself on a pirate radio station in the swinging sixties was going to pique my interest. And so it was with the new Richard Curtis film.
Richard Curtis films are big affairs – you don’t make films like Love Actually and Notting Hill and decide that your next project is going to be a small one. So despite the relatively niche interest in something as obscure as British radio broadcasting history, we still get a sampling of some of our finest comic actors and a top American actor to boot.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the obvious star, playing The Count, an American DJ broadcasting to the UK. The film tells us that something like 25m people a week were listening to pirate radio, and although I’m not sure how accurate that figure can possibly be, it’s clear that for a long time before the BBC gave us Radio 1, Brits had to look elsewhere: legal or otherwise.
Is this an accurate history of what it was like to be on a pirate ship in the North Sea? Almost certainly not. They all look like they’re having far too much fun, and of course the boat is manned by just about nobody else but DJs (there are other people who work at a radio station believe it or not). But that’s not really the point. Curtis’ films are never framed as social documentaries. They’re supposed to give you a good time and leave you smiling at the end.
And The Boat That Rocks does that. It’s laced with music from the period, and for the most part – despite some sexual escapades between the locked up men, they all get on well. The laughs are broad – sometimes too broad for my liking – but it all looks like fun.
If anything, the story is too slight. There’s evil Kenneth Branagh, the government minister who’s trying to close down the perverted pirates, and his henchman "Twatt" (Jack Davenport). Branagh is clearly having a whale of a time being evil with a Hitler-esque moustache to boot.
But aside from that, and Bill Nighy, the station’s owner trying to combat the government, there’s not really a lot to say. A young lad joins the boat, falls in love, and gets his heart broken before… Well you know. It’s a Curtis film. Then there are some fallings out between DJs – I’d love to see two DJs sort out their differences by, say, climbing to the top of the Crystal Palace transmitter as the two do in this film.
Throughout the film we get cutaways of swinging Britain listening eagerly to "Radio Rock" from their transistor radios, quite often dancing around in public. We get montages of them at various points as the plot unfolds. But mostly it’s just all about having a good time, and finding some appropriate music to play.
It’ll do pretty well in Britain with a cast that includes the excellent Rhys Darby, Nick Frost, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Chris O’Dowd (playing a DJ, unlike his character in ITV2 comedy FM who is… a radio DJ) and Katherine Parkinson. But I wonder how it’ll be sold in the US? This is a big film that’s had a few quid spent on it, and although it sets up the story and explains why there were pirates, it’s not part of the heritage.
Still – who cares (apart from Universal and Working Title)? I’m here to talk about the film, not worry about its commercial viability.
Overall, I’d say it’s definitely worth catching, even if it’s not the funniest comedy you’ll see this year. It’s a tad too long to be honest with a few surplus scenes, and some of the plot is just a little predictable.
The end sequence of the film explains that by the summer of 1967 the pirates were over (I’m not spoiling anything – you should know this). It doesn’t then point out that Radio 1 launched using lots of DJs who’d been on pirate ships. But the film does then say that there are now 299 music stations playing rock and pop twenty-four hours a day (It’d be churlish to point out that on the day that another batch of Global services turn into "Hearts" that’s probably over-egging it because so many sound alike, and indeed, are alike), but it then goes on to say that in the subsequent forty years, the music has had a good innings. And we get a feelgood montage of clips of the characters and classic album covers from the period – starting with Sgt. Pepper.