Radio On to Bristol

By Sean Kaye-Smith

radio-on-chris-petit.jpgRadio On, 1980

"A city is different for everybody…it’s an extension of yourself and your hopes and dreams and, particularly when you’re making a film, you’re externalising a character in terms of his environment. Bristol is marvellous for this really, it’s like a huge backdrop; it’s like it’s been built by a drunken set designer for the purpose of making…films."

In a 1985 BBC programme to coincide with the release of his rain forest drama The Emerald Forest, the British film director John Boorman returned to Bristol to revisit the locations of some of the documentaries he made in his pre-cinema days as, eventually, Head of Documentary at BBC Bristol. (Boorman made close to two hundred films about Bristol and the South West and it is a local issue that most of them have remained unseen since their first showing in the early 1960s). Despite declaring himself to be feeling ‘disoriented’ at the beginning of the programme, as he stands in the Avon Gorge wondering whether he is still, in fact, in the Amazon Basin, Boorman’s affection for the city visibly returns as he revisits places such as the The Royal York Crescent, The Inkerman pub in St. Pauls and Temple Meads Station.

In the light of Boorman’s words, it’s hard not to feel that Bristol’s potential as a film location has, as yet, not been adequately realised. Some film makers, mainly working with smaller budgets, have tried, as with the recent Starter For Ten, and the city is obviously seen regularly as a backdrop to television hospital dramas. But we are still waiting for the ‘Great Bristol Film’ to rank alongside the Nottingham of Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1960), the Newcastle of Get Carter (1971), or even the Sheffield of The Full Monty (1997), not to mention the many excellent films which have used London as a main character.

radio-on-chris-petit-5.jpgRadio On, 1980

Radio On is a rare example of a British road movie. There are others, such as John Boorman’s own first feature, the underrated Catch Us If You Can (1965) in which the Dave Clark Five play TV stunt men who flee an advertising shoot in London to head West with blonde ‘60s icon Barbara Ferris in pursuit of adventure and a more meaningful way of life. Their journey takes them through Salisbury Plain, where they are nearly blown up in an army training exercise, to Bath’s Royal Crescent, where they are befriended by a disillusioned middle-aged couple. However Bristol is avoided as they head South to the denouement of the Devon coast at Bigbury-on-Sea and Burgh Island. Radio On follows a similar route. The unnamed leading character, played by the handsome British actor David Beames, heads West out of London to investigate the mysterious death of his brother, who may or may not have committed suicide, possibly as a result of his involvement in a sinister pornography ring. This time the destination is specific, a flat in the Paragon in Clifton and it is this flat which we see in the opening credits as the camera roams the dimly-lit rooms as David Bowie’s Heroes blasts out on the soundtrack, the brother’s dead body being glimpsed twice, slumped in the bath. At one point in this continuous shot the camera lingers on a handwritten note which has been pinned up like a declaration of intent; but this, with its explicit referencing of the German film director Fritz Lang, is an aesthetic rather than political manifesto and one of the keys to Radio On’s look and style. Because Radio On, despite its powerful use of distinctly English landscapes and architecture, is also a self-consciously European, and specifically German, film. Director Chris Petit was openly working in the style of the New German Cinema of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and in particular that of director Wim Wenders, who, throughout his career, has specialised in haunting, atmospheric road movies. Although Wenders is perhaps now most famous for colour films such as the American-made Paris Texas (1984), most of his earlier films were shot in moody black and white. Petit wisely employed Wenders’ assistant camera man, the late Martin Schafer, to ensure that he got this distinctive look to the film. The presence of one of Wenders’ favourite actors, the iconic Lisa Kreuser, and the music of the seminal German electronic band Kraftwerk, add perfectly to the mix. It is not surprising to see in the credits of Radio On that Wim Wenders himself acted as executive producer on the film. So, just as the great British comedian Tony Hancock could say of his encounter with Henri Cartier-Bresson that ‘it was like being photographed by Rembrandt’, so Bristol can claim, with even greater validity, to have featured in a key European art movie.

radio-on-chris-petit-2.jpgRadio On, 1980

The final shot of the opening sequence is of the Bristol Hippodrome at night in the days when the moving fluorescent signboard lit up the top of the frontage; the significance of this shot, apart from it being a title shot, becomes clear later in dialogue about doomed rock and roll star Eddie Cochran. After this the film becomes in its early stages focussed on London and the classic Rover 105S driven by the protagonist does not roll into Bristol until the fifty-fifth minute. Before that the city has been heralded by some distinctive Western locations such as Silbury Hill, where Beames abandons an increasingly aggressive army deserter who has press-ganged him into a lift, and the Hillside Garage on the Northern edge of Chippenham. Here Beames shares the Cochran moment mentioned above with an Eddie-obsessed petrol pump attendant played by Sting, reinforcing the frequent connection, already established in films like Summer Holiday (1962) and Catch Us If You Can (1965) and in American classics like Easy Rider (1969) and Vanishing Point (1971), between road movies and pop and rock music. Inevitably this has become the film’s most famous scene. There is a special bond between the town of Chippenham and Eddie Cochran as the star died in hospital there on 17th April 1960 after the taxi in which he was travelling late on the previous evening following a gig at the Bristol Hippodrome hit a tree as it approached the town on the A4. Rock mythology lays heavily on this tragic event: also in the car but surviving the crash was wild, leather-clad rocker Gene Vincent – earlier on the soundtrack of the film we have heard Ian Dury’s Sweet Gene Vincent – who was on tour with Cochran, and the first person to arrive at the crash-scene, as Sting says in the film, was police cadet Dave Harman, who later found fame as the singer with the dreadfully named Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. Apparently they hated the name too and dreamed of being taken seriously.

radio-on-chris-petit-1.jpgRadio On, 1980

The geography of the Rover’s arrival in Bristol is puzzling as we first see it heading Northwards onto the sliproad of what most locals now call the IKEA roundabout. No doubt Petit was keen to have fun with the word Rover as the old Eastville Stadium can clearly be seen in the background, and this shot would probably bring tears to the eyes of some of the older ‘gas heads’ as Bristol Rovers’ loyal supporters are known locally. Equally lost but significantly less-lamented is the fly-over by the Grosvenor Hotel in Temple Gate which used to take traffic in a rollercoaster style curve into Redcliffe Way. The hotel and flyover become the main Bristol locations in the film in shots which the writer and film maker Iain Sinclair, later a Petit collaborator, has described ‘as unparalleled in British cinema’. In the first windscreen shots from the car as it travels over the flyover the soundtrack football results seriously date the film, none more so than Norwich 2 Chelsea 0. Lisa Kreuser’s character is staying in the hotel with a friend as some intrigue involving her child quietly unfolds; this theme in the plot requires a trip to Weston-super-Mare but with clever use of soundtrack seagulls and crashing waves Petit uses No.49 Brislington Hill on the A4 in Bristol as his seaside location, with the Girton House flats featuring impressively in the background as the car pulls up outside the house. The film crew did however go to Weston with the wonderful but now derelict Birnbeck Pier being the location for a prolonged conversation between the two leading characters. At the time of writing in early 2008 Birnbeck Island and Pier is the subject of an architectural regeneration competition.

radio-on-chris-petit-3.jpgRadio On, 1980

Earlier Beames has encountered Kreuser and her friend on his first night in Bristol after he has been refused entry at a nightclub in what is now the Roo bar at Clifton Down Station. He has received a tip-off about the nightclub in an amusing earlier scene by a hotdog stand close to the Hippodrome. The German women are waiting for a train back to Temple Meads when Beames, now at a lose end, offers them a lift instead. The shots around their accommodation at the Grosvenor Hotel also show what is now the Holiday Inn and the now defunct petrol station next to it and the Temple Gate Garage, part of the sign of which can still be seen today. The Grosvenor itself is seen inside as well as out; as one of Central Bristol’s most distinctive buildings it surely deserves better than its current rundown state. There are also scenes later by some wooden buildings, one of which is serving as a café, which have proved, as yet, difficult to locate. After this, by the harbour-side in Anchor Square, Beames and Kreuzer crank the Rover to life; there are no long shots in these sequences but Bristol cathedral and the distinctive Cabot Tower in the background are useful reference points in the latter.

In the final Bristol scenes, when the German characters have moved on, Beames walks to his car across Dings Park just NE of Temple Meads station as an Inter City 125 growls slowly past behind him. The park is now a landscaped playground and the skeleton gas silos which we see in the background near the present recycling centre have now gone. And in one of the film’s more sinister scenes Beames has his stool kicked from under him by an irate pool player whose arm he has jogged in a pub. Petit said that the pub was ‘around the Gloucester Road’ area but so far it remains untraced.

radio-on-chris-petit-4.jpgRadio On, 1980

In the closing scenes of Radio On the central character finally abandons his car in a quarry with Kraftwerk’s ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ playing loudly, and wittily, on the stereo. He eventually ends up at Blue Anchor Bay Station on the North Somerset Railway where he crosses the track on foot to catch a train back Eastwards. The end credits roll past over a shot of the traffic in motion over the level crossing. None of the narrative threads have been tied and only the music and the movement East provide any sense of resolution; the journey is the story and, as Wenders said of his own films, ‘the emotion is in the motion.’

In the late 1990s, after his feature career had stalled after three more features – including the P.D. James adaptation An Unsuitable Job For a Woman (1982) – and he had both worked in television and launched his career as a novelist, Petit made Radio On Remix, a twenty-five minute film which revisits locations from the original film twenty years on. By this time Petit’s film making style had moved in the opposite direction to most directors and become more radical and experimental, and the film, the result of two journeys West, is fragmented and fast-paced. He did return to road movies in 2002 in his brilliant feature length film essay collaboration with Iain Sinclair London Orbital. But radical film making is a risky business on these shores, as shown by directors like Derek Jarman and Jane Arden, and Petit is now at least as well known now for his fiction and journalism as for his films. However the reissuing of Radio On in 2005 was a critical triumph as the film finally received the degree of acclaim it was due, and the city of Bristol is now an integral part of what is now regarded as a British cinema classic.

The stills from Radio On in this article are reproduced with the kind permission of Plexifilm. The updated images are by Sam Brooks, Course Leader and lecturer in Art and Design at Filton College.

Sean Kaye-Smith teaches Media Studies and English at Ashton Park School in Bristol.