A long, long time ago, although I can still remember how that music made me smile, that’s not what this is about. Mostly, because if you can remember the music you can remember the rest of it, the clothes you wore, the people you knew, the cold through to your bones, that thing she said and all of it, it’s about the fact there was a film called Radio On.
It was Chris Pettit’s first film. It was made deliberately in black and white and not because they couldn’t afford colour stock. It was released in 1979. And it was made in the country I knew, not just as the A4, as a choice because old cars that were all we could afford and the M4 didn’t always go that well together, not just as a deserted, abandoned garage near Silbury Hill that I used as a fairly creepy public bathroom more than once of a night time, not just as a route I wrote about in Not Your Heart Away, the road I drove up and down to get to London and interviews for university and life, but as a psychic space. There. I’ve said it now.
It was and is an odd film. An English road movie. A man has a job that’s now disappeared as a workers’ in-house radio DJ in a factory that’s now disappeared and drives a car that’s long since gone to the Great Scrapyard in the Sky and was pretty close to it then down the A4 to Bristol, trying to find out what happened to his brother who died after sending him a birthday present of some Kraftwerk and Bowie tapes. The German music was from the Kraftwerk Radioaktiv album, the one that was never, ever discounted. He picks up a half-nuts squaddy on the way and luckily gets rid of him on the road just past Silbury. This was a real issue at the time. Hitching lifts, as people did in those days, I remember a soldier exactly like this, except he was driving, who told me about things that never, ever got on the news, like cross-border fire-fights. There were plenty of them back then. Messed-up squaddies as well as things that didn’t get on the news.
The man drives on to Bristol, lets himself into his dead brother’s house and is challenged by dead brother’s girlfriend, who it turns out the flat actually belongs to. It isn’t mentioned whether it’s bought or rented but the decor was instantly recognisable. Indoor plants and Anglepoise lamps. Ashtrays on the bashed-up stripped pine kitchen table. Think Howard Kirk s/Habitat and you’ve just about got it.
The girlfriend doesn’t much like him; he doesn’t much like her so he goes for a walk in what looks now like an ancient and shattered Bristol, which in large part it was, not least thanks to the war. He meets, because half the film was financed from Germany and Wim Wenders produced it and put his wife in the film, a German girl.
German girls were edgy and cool at the time. There was the war thing, but that was for parents. More so there was the Baader-Meinhof gang, back when the idea that only Moslems are terrorists wasn’t close to government policy, name-checked by the ‘Free Astrid Proll’ graffiti sprayed under the Westway. Knowingly enough, Astrid Proll was arrested when she pulled in for petrol and the guy on the pumps recognised her. As one of the frauleins says, she thought they would sleep together, but now she knew they never would. That was a pretty darned edgy and cool thing to say at the time, especially from a girl.
Instead, Wim Wenders’ ex-wife takes him to her Mum’s in Clevedon, which is a nice period touch. I don’t know if that still happens. It did then. The Mum came over in 1939. She insists on speaking to her daughter in German in front of him, cutting him out of the conversation entirely , so he excuses himself politely enough (despite slouching in his chair – lost parent points there, I can tell you) at which Mum launches into a spiel about how selfish and self-referential and rude young people are, only interested in themselves. It’s a nice touch.
He goes for a drive having nothing much else to do, happily sipping from a can of Guinness which if not expressly recommended in the Highway Code wasn’t entirely unknown back then and ends-up parked in a quarry. There’s quite a lot of casual, low-level, part-of-life drinking in a way I remember but haven’t done for years and years, thankfully. He shares a half-bottle of Haig with the German girl on Clevedon pier. After saying goodbye to her he goes to a godawful pub where he finds out what Jarvis Cocker didn’t mention when he sang about what happens when you want to do what the common people do. If you’re actually a nice middle-class young man they kick your bar stool out from under you and call you names, whereupon you’re not allowed to do the same thing back.
In a superb piece of period detail now, which then was just how things were if you were young and had a car then, sometimes he needed to start it with a handle but he’d parked too close to the edge of the quarry to stick it in. He can’t start his car. It’s probably still there. He hasn’t found out how his brother died or why. He didn’t get to bonk either of the German girls, which seeing the film, I’d find regrettable. Almost nothign happens, all the way through. Except so much does, at the same time. Eventually our hero got on a train and rode off into the 1980s, the way we all did. Maybe it was in colour when he got there, although as I recall, a lot of it wasn’t.
This was England. It was broken and bombed and broke and messy, full of angry and numb people. Some of the buildings and most of the cars have changed. Watch it. You can make your own judgements as to what else changed.