Memories of Merseyside:
Revisiting Letter to Brezhnev

Posted on May 12, 2022 by Jonathan Keane

Categories: The Cinema of Ideas

Spanning a chicken giblets factory in Kirkby, a downtown Liverpool disco and the Kremlin, Letter to Brezhnev is a tale of love, friendship, sex and a letter to the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. We’re streaming it on the Cinema of Ideas until 19 May, alongside a live Q&A on the making of the film with editor Lesley Walker, producer Janet Goddard and season curator Pamela Hutchinson on Wednesday 18 May. Book your ticket here.

In this blog, writer, curator and actor Jonathan Keane reflects on his memories of growing up around Liverpool, discovering Letter to Brezhnev as a teenager, and watching the film again today.

Letters from Liverpool

Letter to Brezhnev opens with a night shot of the Liverpool Waterfront, it’s so grand and beautiful you wonder why we don’t make films with this backdrop all the time. The Liver Building outlines the night, it’s two birds forever set to fly. Peter, a Russian sailor, his ship coming into port, looks on in excitement:

‘Look! Liverpool! Beatles!’

The film is a love letter, to Liverpool, a city cast in fading light, its grand old buildings echoing still with the wealth and pride that made them. It is a love letter to a ‘straight girl from Kirkby with no imagination’ who loves her Russian sailor boy, believing there’s a better life, that it’s possible to lose your heart over one, long night. It’s also a film that honours the love between two friends, a bond as deep and as strong and wide as the Mersey.

Two ordinary young women. Out on the razz. One working in a chicken factory, her red dress stuffed in her bag, the other without a job. One platinum blonde, red lippy, beautiful, a sharp mouth, the other dark brunette, softer, tightish curly perm. Eighties looks with a nod to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. They cop off with two Russian sailors at the State nightclub, spending the night in a shabby hotel in Toxteth. One of them has sex all night, but the other just wants to talk.

Liverpool holds an almost mythic quality for me. My nan used to take me on the ferry across the Mersey, my hands tightly clutching a little cone of white paper stacked with pear drops, as she and my Aunty Lil stood at the prow of the boat in their headscarves, like the Queen and Princess Margaret, looking out to sea. Liverpool has always been a gateway. My family grew up in Everton, close to the centre. As a kid, my mum, her brother, my nan, grandad, used to dress up every Friday night, she tells me, and trip out to The Lido cinema, one of the many movie theatres in the city. She loved the pictures. Chris Bernard (the director of Brezhnev) tells similar stories, of going to see The Sound of Music on eleven consecutive nights. He talks of the rapture of the cinema: how the lights and the curtains, the sweets and drinks, the excitement made him feel otherworldly. His mum called him Christopher after Elizabeth Taylor’s son, telling him when he grew up she wanted him to be a film director. Letter to Brezhnev is also a love letter to the romance a city and its people had with the movies.

A black and white photo of a young man and woman kissing each other through a wire fence.
Alexandra Pigg and Peter Firth in Letter to Brezhnev.
Thank God for Channel 4

Brezhnev was made in 1985. I would have been 14. It was adapted and written from a play by Frank Clarke, a well-known Liverpool playwright of the time. Chris Bernard also came from a theatre background, he helped set up the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, who staged Ken Campbell’s infamous sci-fi epic Illuminatus! For Brezhnev, Margi Clarke (Frank’s sister) reprised her stage role as Teresa, playing opposite Alexandra Pigg’s Elaine. Frank and Chris were both gay men, and they, like Alexandra, had both cut their teeth working on Channel 4’s radical new local soap, Brookside.

Brookside was filmed close to the flats where my nan went to live after their roads were demolished. I lived in Widnes. My parents moved out there in the 60s. It’s a town only twenty minutes out from the centre of Liverpool. But in the 80s our sense of time and space changed. For us kids anyway. Thatcherism sucked so much money and life out of the area, it was difficult to get anywhere. The landscape altered. Places shut. My cinema in Widnes was razed to the ground almost overnight. Thank God for Channel 4. I first saw Letter to Brezhnev in 1987 in a season of 14 films the channel aired that year. It was a remarkable season. Just imagine today if you turned on the TV to see new films from Peter Greenaway (The Draftsman’s Contract), Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette), Derek Jarman (Caravaggio), Neil Jordan (Company of Wolves) and Letter to Brezhnev – all in the course of one year. To watch these films was like opening a magical box.

Brezhnev was made for just £50,000, peanuts really. Channel 4 came in, the story goes, to give the film a screen life, this their first partnership of many with Palace Pictures, and the film became a surprise international hit. Five million people watched it on the channel. But Frank Clarke, Margi, the director and actors didn’t see any money to speak of from it. That’s sad isn’t it? Still, I’m glad they gave the film to us, that it’s out in the world. These films made me feel there was some tie, like a secret, between me and the telly. I didn’t know they were ‘art films’. I knew they made me feel a little dreamy. But they opened my eyes to a world of love, queerness, politics, sex. There was always something slightly illicit, dangerous about them.

A plea for fantasy

There’s lots of sex in Brezhnev. Teresa has sex all night with Sergei, the Russian she pulls. He can’t speak a word of English so she tells him she’s a secretary so that she can travel the world: New York, Paris, Amsterdam, the moon. But it’s not, I think, a racy film. There is no shame in the sex. It feels innocent somehow. Sex is just how Teresa communicates. It’s what, she says, girls do on a night out, they get ‘mits on their tits’. Elaine doesn’t want to have sex with Peter, she’s only just met him, she’d be taking a big risk. Neither does he. But when Peter leaves for Russia, there’s this wonderful scene where we see Elaine as she stows away in his cabin. They undress. Peter’s head moves across and down her body slowly in soft focus, and then we see her breast. It’s a shock and the film snaps us awake to see Elaine in her bedroom, shouted out of a daydream by her mouthy mum.

The film is known as a working-class drama, in the realist tradition, influenced by the French New Wave. But if we judge it as this, we might say it lacks grit, maybe too theatrical. There’s a too quick tendency to put Liverpool, working-class and realism together as if they are all the same things. For me, this is (new) romantic expressionist cinema, if this had become a thing, with a queer aesthetic in line with Derek Jarman (if a little less gilded). Brezhnev is a piece of fantastical dreaming about the lives of ordinary women. A plea for fantasy, anchored in the nuts and bolts of the lives that, around me, most people lived.

From Kirkby to the Kremlin

The city is the noir-like backdrop, dark allies, water, the grandeur of Lewis’s department store, the sheer gothic sandstone enormity of the Anglican Cathedral, Leather Lane, the docks: the city is there for these girls. It is theirs. Peter and Elaine look up at a bright star, like the star of Bethlehem – this is a city full of religiosity – and Peter tells her he will think of her every time he looks at it. Elaine writes to the president of Russia Leonid Brezhnev so that she can go and be with Peter. The girls own the city but there is nothing for them here. ‘I haven’t got anything to give up,’ Elaine says, when asked how she’ll cope with living in Russia. The film captures a Liverpool between states. It’s the Liverpool I remember, one whose fabric is starting to unpick, we hear of people being made redundant ticking through the story like a metronome, and there’s a sadness to the tone, as if it marks the passing of a rich and textured way of life, one grounded in love and care but now faced with a more uncertain world. It’s a city enclosed, under attack.

Much of the early action is filmed in The State Ballroom. A nightclub where Pete Burns, and Holly Johnson of Frankie fame, are said to have been regulars. The video for Relax was filmed here. And it is in the State that Elaine first casts an eye over Peter, she cruises him across dance floor to the tune of Hit that Perfect Beat Boy, by Bronski Beat. It’s been said that this film is in some ways a retelling of a story of how director and writer met two gay sailors on the docks and had a night out. But this is a too easy reading of the film, even if there’s some truth to it. Elaine and Teresa are real women, not ciphers. The northwest is full of these amazing, funny, tough and yet soft, romantic young women who want something out of life. The best scenes are between these girls, chatting on the loo – ‘my one’s just kissed the gob off of me, and I don’t know about you, but I’m getting in there for another slice of the cake’ – on the hotel bed, at the bar. The men somehow are just for the chat.

A black and white photo of a young man and woman wearing winter jackets huddling together on a street corner.
Alexandra Pigg and Peter Firth in Letter to Brezhnev.

Pretty much every Saturday morning my friend Elaine and I used to trip up to Liverpool to go St John’s market and buy new romantic clothes. Elaine was wonderful. She had huge back-combed hair, smudged kohl eyeliner, long candy-coloured trench coats. She took me to Probe records and we used to follow Pete Burns around town cos he worked there on a Saturday. I always felt like a little kid, and Elaine was the grown up. She was only two months older than me, but she was strong, kind. She was my friend. Brezhnev was perhaps the nearest we got to seeing ourselves on screen.

It is Frank Clarke’s sharp, comic writing that really stands a queer reading. There are such brilliant musical, cutting lines. When the film’s Elaine is set on going to Russia, she says to her mum, ‘Why don’t you just sit down, get your wool out and knit yourself an iron curtain.’ Laugh out loud brilliance. This is queer, Liverpudlian – ‘wacker’ as my mum calls it – humour. And then there’s the romance next to the realism, such pathos: ‘I love you,’ Peter says, as they sail on the ferry across the Mersey. ‘No you don’t,’ Elaine replies, ‘You love the seagulls.’

As Elaine goes to fly out to Russia, she thanks Teresa cos she wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for her. ‘I am lucky,’ she says. She turns back once but this is a statement of fact that needs no acknowledgement. Margi Clarke stands there for a moment, and in an astonishing piece of acting, her whole life, the city, the past, the future, kind of comes and fills her chest, her throat, she chokes she wants to go, to move, but she’s stuck there. Suddenly she falls forward, too late, she comes towards the camera,

‘Tell Igor I love him’, she says to herself.

Igor’s not even his name.

Jonathan Keane is a writer, curator and actor who lives in London but in his heart is forever crossing the Mersey.

Letter to Brezhnev is available to stream on the Cinema of Ideas until Thursday 19 May. Join us on Wednesday 18 May for a live conversation on the making of the film with editor Lesley Walker, producer Janet Goddard and season curator Pamela Hutchinson.

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