Resistance and Hope in ‘Letter to Brezhnev’

Opportunities for happiness and betterment may be few and far between, but these Liverpudlians will grab them when they do come their way.

In mid-’80s Liverpool, Teresa (Margi Clarke) finishes her shift at a chicken processing factory and treats her unemployed friend Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) to a girls’ night out that neither of them can really afford. A chance encounter with two Russian sailors, Peter (Peter Firth) and Sergei (Alfred Molina), leads to Elaine and Peter falling in love.

When they subsequently try to keep in touch by post, they find that both the British and the Russian authorities are keen to scupper their long-distance relationship. In desperation, Elaine writes a letter to the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev asking for his help.

The cliché-cum-generally accepted given that all Liverpudlians somehow remain Beatle-esquely witty, upbeat and philosophically hopeful in the face of adversity made Liverpool the choice setting for a number of hard-hitting dramas — see Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff series (1982) for a prime example — that highlighted the severe economic and social problems that the UK faced during the ’80s. These shows succeeded in telegraphing the real feelings of desperation that the Northern working classes were experiencing, but their Scouse protagonists’ dogged refusal to just roll over and accept the hardships forced upon them engendered a welcome sense of resistance, while their ability to retain their sense of humour gave rise to an equally welcome sense of hope.

Letter to Brezhnev’s political aspects aren’t always as immediately obvious as those that were found in other British dramas at this time, but the film is nonetheless a real winner when it comes to employing tropes relating to resistance and hope. Elaine and Teresa may be down but they are by no means out. Opportunities for happiness and betterment may be few and far between but these girls will grab them when they do come their way. The at times gritty nature of the film’s subject matter — particularly those scenes that detail aspects of its characters’ day-to-day lives and struggles — allows parts of the film to claim a connection to the long-established strand of British cinema that has busied itself with presenting meaningful depictions of social realism onscreen.

By contrast, elements of its final act are just plain fanciful fantasy. But viewers at the time were fully aware of that. Nobody really believed that the Soviet premier would have bothered to involve himself in the workings of a trans-continental love affair in real life. But the very notion that an unemployed working-class girl from Liverpool could move a world leader — and defy the petty bureaucracy of the British government — by merely digging her heels in and refusing to give up on her simple-if-impossible dream, provided a welcome feel-good effect that British cinema-goers of the time were only too happy to embrace.

On the occasions that he does get overtly political, scriptwriter Frank Clarke pulls no punches with his wry observations. Elaine desperately wants to work but there simply isn’t any work for her. Having a job means that Teresa is viewed as “one of the lucky ones”, but this luck involves her working all week in a “dump doing a job that’s fuckin’ disgusting” just in order to survive on a pittance. When Peter explains that, in Russia, if you don’t work you don’t eat Elaine responds with “It’s a bit like that here as well.”

When an obnoxious journalist asks Elaine how she would cope with the food shortages in Russia, she advises him that he’d find food shortages in English kitchens too if he’d only care to look. Ultimately, Elaine comes to the conclusion that life in the Soviet Union really could be no worse than the life she presently has in the UK. The film’s melodramatic final scene is genuinely moving and it leaves us wanting to know how Elaine and Teresa’s lives panned out.

Letter to Brezhnev is a remarkable little feature. Made on a low budget and disarmingly simple in its basic premise and execution — much of its running time is taken up by the events of just one night and the following day — the film heralded the cinematic debuts of its director, its scriptwriter and most of its cast. Made up of mostly local faces, the cast and crews’ relative inexperience is evident in some sections, but the enthusiasm and self-belief projected by all concerned obscure most of the film’s minor shortcomings. It’s generally presumed that Firth and Molina (who were already established film actors) and Pigg (who had acted in the Liverpool-set television soap opera Brookside) were crucial in bringing a sense of professionalism to the production, but the first-timers and non-professionals all carry themselves well too.

Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) and Teresa (Margi Clarke)

The political aspects of Letter to Brezhnev — along with its pointed depictions of telling social realism — might suggest that the film was intended primarily for an “art house” audience. Indeed, the show was completely at home when it was subsequently screened on Channel Four in the UK (the channel, whose film division actually part-financed Letter to Brezhnev, featured much programming that was dedicated to the arts and culture at the time). But the film’s winning wit and natural charm — and the irrepressible Margi Clarke’s quite superb turn as Teresa — ensured that the feature found an eager and appreciative audience on the UK’s popular cinema circuits, too.

Thirty years on, the ’80s night club fashions have dated the film, but its excellent electro-symphonic soundtrack score has lost none of its emotional pull. Alan Gill, a former member of the cult Liverpool bands Dalek I Love You and the Teardrop Explodes, composed the score and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra performed its symphonic aspects. Produced at a time when the British film industry was in the doldrums, Letter to Brezhnev still manages to effortlessly project its own curious sense of magic and it remains a pleasing example of British independent filmmaking at its most resourceful.

The picture quality of the standard definition DVD of Letter to Brezhnev that I have reviewed here is excellent. Indeed, the BFI has used a new scan of the film’s original Super 16mm negative for this release, which presents Letter to Brezhnev in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. This edition of the film also features a raft of welcome extra features.

Two of the extra features found here are carried over from a 2003 DVD release of the film. The first is an audio commentary by Margi Clarke, which is by turns entertaining, informative, cheeky and lyrical. The second is a short making of documentary entitled From Liverpool with Love. Here Letter to Brezhnev’s director Chris Bernard tells the story of the film’s production by talking over a selection of behind-the-scenes footage. The documentary also features clips from the film and archival interviews with Margi Clarke, Frank Clarke and Charles Caselton (who part-financed Letter to Brezhnev).

Chief amongst the set’s newly commissioned extra features is a lengthy interview with Margi Clarke. Clarke’s exuberant nature and confident performance resulted in her stealing the show when Letter to Brezhnev was released in 1985. She does it again, 30-odd years on, with her contribution to this release’s extra features. Clarke has always been a witty, engaging and perceptive interview, and her memories of life in early ’80s Liverpool and her account of Letter to Brezhnev’s slow evolution (going from an idea for a song to a stage play to a feature film) and the film’s eventual production are really fascinating.

This release’s other newly commissioned extra features are a recent interview with Alexandra Pigg and Peter Firth, a chatty and context-laden audio commentary by Chris Bernard and Frank Clarke, an extensive image gallery, the film’s original theatrical trailer and an illustrated booklet that features an overview of the film by Julia Hallam, an affectionate and informative “making of” essay by Frank Clarke, a short piece by Charles Caselton that details his decision to finance the film and a contemporary review by Jill Forbes.

RATING 7 / 10