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Well, since it’s incredibly hot outside, I’ve been hiding indoors a lot and binge-watching rubbish on the television. Sci-fi, whodunnits, Western soaps, tru-life mysteries (whatever that means), docu-dramas, bio-pics, rom-coms and many other grotesque abbreviations have populated my preferred selections (okay, probably not the soaps) for several weeks now, and this past weekend I decided I’d had enough.
I scrolled and scrolled and realized I was just peering more and more desperately into deeper and deeper layers of rubbish, a bit like a paleontologist showing up thirty million years too early at a landfill, and then, quite suddenly, as though finally bursting through that last warehouse door into the brilliant light of day, I found myself in the realm of the “oldies but goodies,” none of which appeared to be either.
And then I saw a title I hadn’t seen in a very, very long time.
You see, many years ago, when I was young and foolish and a lot thinner and an awful lot trendier, I lived in the middle of London, and my friends and I would sometimes step out on the town to do something extravagant such as going to a new film, a nightclub or a concert. These were our paltry luxuries, since university students even then were on a tight budget. On one such night, we trotted down to the West End in our finest togs and bought some of the last tickets to the opening night of “Letter to Brezhnev,” a drama set in the poverty-stricken city of Liverpool.
Although made on a shoestring budget, directed as though written for the stage, shot in some dreadful lighting, and sometimes barely audible, the film nonetheless lay close to our hearts because it represented a snapshot of our time. In my case, it brought back little memories of my early childhood; in others among us it was a jarring reflection of the place they still called home.
I’ve never claimed to be a Liverpudlian or a Scouse, as those born in Liverpool are wont to do, but I was born in Lancashire, only a stone’s throw (if you’re quite good at throwing stones) from the Mersey and its frightful ferry, from Mathew Street and its Cavern Club, and from the ghastly docklands that had gone into spiraling decline in the decades after World War II. These were the places where the songwriters of our age were inspired to pen the anthems that remain with us today, from the Beatles to Echo and the Bunnymen, and these were the places featured in the film we now saw.
Released in 1985, “Letter to Brezhnev” tells the story of an unemployed Liverpool girl and her friend, who works in a chicken processing plant, having a night out in the city’s grimy clubland. They steal a wallet full of cash from a lecherous bar customer and buy their way into The State, which was the hottest nightclub in Liverpool at the time. It’s there that they meet a pair of Russian sailors on shore leave and pursue them until they can persuade them to share a meal of fish and chips. Eventually, and probably predictably, they all end up in a sleazy hotel, at which point I should probably stop giving you any further details.
Escaping from the desperately poor conditions of Liverpool, finding adventure and pursuing some imagined fantasy life in the allegedly beautiful Soviet Union becomes an all-or-nothing mission for our protagonist, who resorts to writing a letter to “the president of Russia,” Leonid Brezhnev at the time, with a plea to be allowed over the Iron Curtain to live with her boyfriend.
Surprisingly, the Soviet government replies. Honestly, if it hadn’t, there wouldn’t be much to make a film about, but there you go.
Rich in Scouse dialect (you’re going to have a very hard time understanding the language) and occasionally funny, “Letter to Brezhnev” is still chilling. This was what life was like for the unemployed, the downtrodden, the hopeless, the forgotten, the under-educated and the working class in the north of England at the height of the Thatcher era.
It was the life that many wished they could leave behind, but one that few ever truly fled.