The Boat That Rocked, Richard Curtis’s celebration of the world of 1960s pirate radio, is a hit and myth affair. For Curtis, the outlaw spirit of the pirates didn’t just shake up the nation’s airwaves. In his film’s version of history, the anarchic, cock-snooking pirate radio stations shook up stuffy, drab, deferential Britain and made the country a sexier and more liberated place. Yet Curtis’s myth making is dodgy to say the least.
The film is Curtis’s first gig as both writer and director since Love Actually, but he clearly hasn’t spent the intervening years slaving over the screenplay of The Boat That Rocked: the script is the flimsiest he’s written.
What little plot there is revolves around the laddish antics of the motley crew of DJs on board pirate radio station Radio Rock, which broadcasts from a leaky boat floating in the North Sea to the delight of the nation (cue endless montages showing everyone from school kids to nurses, housewives and shopkeepers grooving round their radio sets) but to the fury of the government of the day.
Kenneth Branagh’s po-faced minister, Dormandy, is determined to shut down Radio Rock and orders one of his minions to discover a way. The underling, played by Jack Davenport, is called Twatt, a name that Curtis appears to find hilarious and has repeated at every opportunity (which gives you an idea of the script’s poverty). Branagh’s killjoy politician is plainly a Conservative, but the actual government that went after the pirates, and passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, was a Labour one. The Twatt in real life was none other than Tony Benn.
Meanwhile, on board Radio Rock (loosely based on Radio Caroline), callow 18-year-old Carl (Tom Sturridge), whose louche godfather (Bill Nighy) runs the station, is learning lessons in love and sex from the DJs, including Philip Seymour Hoffman’s laid-back American, The Count, Rhys Ifans’s cool hipster Gavin, Chris O’Dowd’s sad cuckold Simon and Nick Frost’s lecherous swinger Dave.
Curtis obviously wants us to be charmed by the DJs’ hi-jinks, but many of their exploits are just plain sleazy. In one scene, Frost’s Dave tries to help Carl lose his virginity and sets up one of his own conquests to be the unwitting woman (it’s in the dark) who will pop Carl’s cherry. Here and elsewhere, the film’s casual misogyny leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
The Boat That Rocked just about manages to stay afloat thanks to its soundtrack of buoyant 60s Pop, and the cast are such old salts that they can’t help but raise smiles and even the odd belly laugh, but the film’s sexual politics will leave many viewers queasier than a sailor in a force 10 gale.
Released on DVD on 7th September.
A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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