Tulsa TV Memories      

Philip Seymour Hoffman





GARY CHEW/Sacramento

You'd think a movie about rock 'n' roll radio wouldn't need a music passage on its soundtrack from Sir Edward Elgar's stiff-upper-lipped "Enigma Variations," but "Pirate Radio" does.

Familiar strains of this legendary work by Sir Edward are used to humorously underscore the determination a disheveled band of disc jockeys displays to keep pumping 24/7 broadcasts of 60's pop music into the rock-less ether of Great Britain from a ship in the North Sea. The reason this story must come from truth is because the broadcast phenomenon off England's coast was developed by an Irishman. How could it have happened any other way?

It's easy to understand why Elgar's heroic music works so well for the scene: the non-profit, government-run BBC was too far "above" it all to program rock 'n' rock and, as a disgruntled pirate jock says in the film, "governments loathe people having their freedom."

A neat concept for conflict in a pop music movie, don't you think (?): big government trying to bring down an entrepreneurial go at it to provide commercial rock radio to Her Majesty's loyal subjects just like the format radio Gordon McLendon and all those other fancy American broadcast executives started over in the Colonies.

Scheming to scuttle the vessel, Radio Rock---or more accurately, Radio Caroline or Britain Radio---is the twit of twits: a British bureaucrat called Sir Alistair Dormandy, done by the excellent Kenneth Branagh. Sir Alistair is outraged by anyone thumbing a nose at government authority. Besides, Sir Alistair is certain the music these blokes are playing on that bloody at-sea radio station of theirs is pure pornography. Hear, hear, Dormandy!

If you see "Pirates," notice how Branagh combs the hair on the back of his head. It says a lot about what kind of fellow, Sir Alistair is. You can also better understand Sir Alistair by paying attention to what the script names his assistant who carries out lower level efforts to sack Radio Rock. That Brit bureaucrat is named Dominic Twatt. It rhymes with cat.

A really fine English actor, Bill Nighy, has the part of Quentin. He's the station owner/manager and ship's captain. Quentin dresses much like one would think an English radio time salesman might, but certainly not like Sir Alistair; which brings me to what kind of attire the on-air staff wears.

Rhys Ifans and Bill Nighy
Rhys Ifans and Bill Nighy

No need to go into detail about that. Most people who've worked in radio or visited a radio station know what kinds of togs this echelon of creative broadcast geniuses comes to work in.

Radio Rock's jock squad is headed up by a Yank who's made a name for himself in the Colonies. He's called "The Count" and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman---just as you might imagine Mr. Hoffman would likely play the character. Some of Radio Rock's other personalities are: Doctor Dave, Thick Kevin, Angus "The Nut" Nutsford, "Simple" Simon Swafford, "Midnight" Mark, Gavin and news-reader, "On-The-Hour" John.

On board

These guys, like so many radio people I've known, excel at having a good time---if you know what I mean. A party is always going on, whether on deck, the bilge, a crew member's private quarters, the record library or Radio Rock's control room---from whence all music comes and is heard throughout the film. This bunch is a good deal more rowdy than the health providers on "M*A*S*H."

"Pirate Radio" is as reality-based as an Esther Williams swim film. That's okay, but, having been in the radio biz, I kept looking for a hint of "what's-real" broadcasting at an early screening of "Pirate Radio." There's not much of that in this picture, even though the broadcast equipment in the studio looks about right for 60s radio, and the music...ah... the music: it's just right, too, and so well-edited to what's happening on the screen. Bursts of Mick and the Stones, as well as The Who stood out for me. And if I wasn't in a trance at the time, I think I also heard Herb Alpert singing Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's In Love With You." Where's Lani Hall now that we really need her?

Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," Notting Hill," "Love Actually") has directed "Pirate Radio" with not much arc to his story. Segments of the film alternate between what's going on with the jocks aboard ship and the machinations being hatched against them by the bureaucrats ashore in London. Events in either locale give the film only sluggish forward motion.

I felt "Pirates" vamps too much with sitcom-like antics that don't take full advantage of the narrative's intrinsic conflict or how exigencies, such as...say, a transmitter melt down or Quentin closing the sale on a zoned-out, prospective, Radio Rock time-buyer might confound these rocking rogues of the sea.

The fact the entire Radio Rock bit is based on an idea launched in 1964 off the British Isles begs for the movie to be more of a loopy, quasi-documentary than the slapdash farce it is---allowing nary a note sung or strummed by the Beatles or an off beat soliloquy given by the legendary Peter Sellers. Budgets dictate.

Particularly: the ship scenes showing the jocks partying with their groupie guests get monotonous, even though there are moments when it's difficult to muzzle a guffaw at what's going down.

Like when Doctor Dave (Nick Frost) smuggles his groupie gal, Marianne (Talulah Riley), into his dark compartment, then exits, by himself, to the loo next door. "Young" Carl (Tom Sturridge) has already stowed himself in that loo. (Carl is Quentin's god son, and all the guys are trying to get the kid laid for the first time.) Carl then enters Dave's unlit quarters where Marianne is waiting and believing Doctor Dave is the bloke coming back to bed. It's the old Pirate Jock Bait-and-Switch, I guess. Classy stuff happens in this movie only when the cameras are rolling in the halls of Parliament.

Bait... ...and switch

Tom Sturridge and Talulah Riley

Talulah Riley and Nick Frost

"Young" Carl's mother, who briefly comes aboard Radio Rock to rollick, is played (without credit) by Emma Thompson ("Angels in America"). In real life, Mr. Branagh and Ms. Thompson were husband and wife for a time.

A second bit reverses the joke and has another lovely groupie coming aboard to wed another DJ. The on-board wedding takes place and after the couple's first night together, the bride tells the groom, as they're about to go to breakfast, that she's really in love with Gavin (Rhys Ifans, "The Informers"), the coolest jock on board. Seems Gavin has told the young lady to marry his mate, then move into Gavin's quarters. This is not heady stuff.

Gender blurring gets in gear when a new arrival on Radio Rock says to Felicity (Katherine Parkinson of BBC's "The IT Crowd"), the ship's cook, "I thought women weren't allowed on a ship." To which Felicity counters, "Oh, it's all right, I'm a lesbian."

I don't know much about the reality of what happened on Radio Caroline or Britain Radio in the North Sea or English Channel, but I once worked with someone who does. Actually, it was three times. At KWGS, KCMA and KXXO I had the pleasure of being on staff with Garry Kemp, probably better known to Tulsans as the host of "Limey Country" on KVOO and as a stage actor in theater productions in Tulsa.

Garry did time as a pirate jock years ago on Britain Radio. Once in a while, he shared tales about how it was walking the plank with his listeners. None, however, could be described as anything like what I saw in "Pirate Radio," a nutty picture of loose facts on an interesting broadcast first with a neat conflict concept. Too bad the issue isn't taken as far as it could've been for milking more and better laughs.

Those poor blokes (on-air and on-board) struggling to get good commercial rock radio into Mother England reminds me of the mid 70s when Tulsa's successful effort was just cranking-up to bring good, noncommercial, public radio to northeastern Oklahoma---well before anyone had ever heard of "All Things Considered" or even "A Prairie Home Companion."

Going strong and so expeditious...just like Radio Caroline is, still.


Webmaster: Via a 10/21/2009 email requested by me, here is the veteran of pirate ships Radio Caroline and Britain Radio, the BBC, KWGS, KVOO, and former colleague of reviewer Gary Chew:

Mr. Garry Kemp.

Dear Mike,

Ah, yes, well, Britain Radio was but a staging post in my stellar career. I went there under the name of Gordon Bennett (which in Britain is the equivalent of "Omigawd.") I had originally been with the BBC, but was frustrated by the "establishment" of it all - though, to be fair, it gave an unknown a start. So I went to Radio Caroline (yes, THAT Radio Caroline) and was fired a year later for making fun of a cigarette commercial. Today, of course, tobacco is anathema. Ah, well.

That's when I went to Britain Radio as Gordon Bennett, moonlighting under my own name at the BBC on a "Live from the..." show in London. Thence to Luxembourg for a few months. Luxembourg was commercial, and the British government had no control over its broadcasts.

Personal problems intervened, I married a lovely American girl, and came to Oklahoma. There I got a job with KXXO, where Gary Chew was, then went to KVOO as America's only English C&W DJ - the Limey Country Gary mentioned. Later I worked for TU at KWGS, again with Gary, and KCMA (Greater Tulsa's Fine Arts Station, with Gary AGAIN!) and eventually, in the '90's the BBC once more.

Back to the film - and the facts. There were no parties, period. Occasionally (remember, we weren't entirely legal at the time) an artist would come out to the boat - quite an undertaking, given the Customs requirements and the sheer logistics - and now and again the curious would sail the few miles from shore to have a look at us. Once we played a game of (pathetic) cricket on a sandbank at low tide. And that, dear boy, was about as wild as it got. Late in the game a couple of girls were seconded to the ship to try to instill some sense of order, but I don't remember it working very well. Certainly they were unmolested.

Oh, I almost forgot. Once I mentioned a renowned brand of champagne as being the thing to break out for some glorious occasion - the only champagne I knew by name - and a few days later we got a crate of the stuff, with a note of thanks for plugging them. We never mentioned any product again, except for paid commercials. But we drank the champagne.

It's not very exciting, I realize, but that's the truth.

Eventually, the establishment put a stop to it all: a big storm drove the "Pirate" ship ashore, and just about everyone became respectable.

Britain Radio was on a depressing ex-Navy vessel, smelling permanentlly of diesel oil, and with few creature comforts. Unlike Caroline (and the, by now, numerous copies) many of the DJs were imported from the US. I remember such names as Boom-Boom Brannigan and Jack Curtis.

Then the company stopped paying, and we all went home.

Years later, when I was with KVOO, I had a call from Texas from a big wheel in radio who remembered the glory days, but nothing came of it.


Webmaster: Read more about Garry Kemp and other pirates of the U.K., see a photo of him, and hear him speak at The Pirate Radio Hall Of Fame.

Also see Colin Nicol's Radio Caroline photo album on that same excellent site.

I previously solicited autobiography from  Mr. Kemp in GroupBlog 185.

Opens wide 11/13.

"Pirate Radio" official site.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2009, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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