Alan Bleasdale’s black comedy is a rare jewel from the worst era of British cinema.
The 1980s were a grim time for British cinema, with the collapse of the commercial industry leading to a world where all we had were turgid Merchant-Ivory costume dramas, interesting but often indulgent arthouse fare from Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway – and mostly lots and lots of ferociously earnest productions from broadcasters like Film 4 that all followed the same template, be they drama or comedy, offering up furious left-wing polemics reminding people how bad it was to live in Thatcher’s Britain, with all the production values of a TV play – which is effectively what most of them should have been. Determinedly parochial and desperately worthy, truly awful stuff like Letter to Brezhnev, My Beautiful Launderette and British cinema’s absolute nadir, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire delighted the sort of critics who felt that ‘commercial’ was a dirty word, and found small but vocal middle-class metropolitan audiences, but they were each a stab in the heart of British cinema. It’s remarkable that it ever recovered.
In the middle of all this came No Surrender, which – on the face of it – was very much a part of this depressing movement. Set in Liverpool, from the writer (and stars) of bleak TV hit The Boys from the Blackstuff, it didn’t promise much. And yes, it looks like a television production that has somehow managed to get a theatrical release. Yet surprisingly, the film avoided the pitfalls of its contemporaries, instead offering up a satire on religious bigotry and gangland crime that still holds up very well today.
Michael Angelis plays the new manager of the astonishingly grim-looking nightclub The Charleston (it resembles the mutant offspring of an industrial factory and a nuclear bunker, located in the middle of nowhere), who starts work on New Year’s Eve to find his gangster boss torturing the former manager in a back room, and then has to cope with that departing manager’s final acts of defiance – an unscheduled fancy dress party with a cruise as first prize, a godawful band, a lousy comedian and incompetent magician, all booked to entertain the two coach parties expected that evening. The fact that the two parties are a hardline protestant Orange Lodge and an equally fanatical Catholic club – both spoiling for a fight and continually antagonising each other throughout the evening – is just the icing on the cake. Add to this an Irish loyalist terrorist hiding out at the club and a blind boxer with a grudge to settle, and things are going to get very uncomfortable for Angelis, bouncer Bernard Hill and waitress-cum-singer Joanne Whalley.
No Surrender is the blackest of comedies – from the grim, rundown Liverpool locations and the brutality of the violence to the murderous threats from the terrorist, it could easily be a thoroughly depressing movie. But writer Alan Bleasdale (who, in TV style, gets his name on screen before anyone else, with director Peter Smith very much seen as the less important contributor – and indeed, given that the rest of his career consists of anonymous TV shows, he probably was) mixes the darkness with a lot of humour, managing to stop short of ever going over the top with the absurdity. Angelis’ laconic style is perfect for the film, and the dialogue sparkles with sharp one-liners (and a lot of swearing!). Whalley is a charmingly sexy rough diamond, and the supporting cast of familiar faces who you can’t quite name all seem perfectly cast. The result is a film that is sharply biting, but also full of laugh-out-loud moments. It’s not remotely cinematic, but watching it on TV makes that less of an issue than it might have been on original release.
It’s probable that on the original release, No Surrender suffered from what people thought it would be. Given a quarter of a century’s distance, it now feels remarkably fresh and deserves to be given another chance.