LONDON — Does the world want another film about a working-class girl from Liverpool seeking to better herself?
"Educating Rita," an international hit, was a breakthrough for the northern English city, more famous these days for its riots and high unemployment rate than as the hometown of the Beatles. Now Liverpool offers a new lighthearted comedy, the curiously named "Letter to Brezhnev." But instead using education as the way out of the working class as in "Rita," "Brezhnev's" heroine chooses immigration to the Soviet Union.
Made independent of a major distributor on a budget of a skimpy $700,000, "Letter to Brezhnev" has surprised the British film industry by pleasing local critics and audiences alike. Its star, Alexandra Pigg, was just nominated for a British Academy Award. The movie opened in New York May 2 and is set to open in Los Angeles June 11 through Circle Releasing.
The message of "Letter to Brezhnev" is that "You can have your dream," says writer Frank Clarke. "This film is our dream. We just had to reach out. There can't be anything worse than being poor. You can have what you want, although you pay a price for it."
In the case of the square-built, talkative Clarke and the film's slim, retiring director Chris Bernard, the price of getting what they want includes international press attention and drinking pina coladas.
"Sometimes fame is thrust upon you," Clarke says dryly. "We don't care about money, although I need some to look after me mum and dad and six sisters. We're sitting here in this relatively posh hotel, but I'd rather be home having beans on toast and a ciggie. I never will desert Liverpool for London and Hollywood."
Such denials may be a bit premature, but Clarke and Bernard have achieved success against enormous odds. Theirs is the first feature film to be organized, financed and filmed in Liverpool. "Educating Rita," set in Liverpool, was actually shot in Dublin.
The success of "Brezhnev" in Britain may encourage other local film makers to come out of the provinces. Bill Forsyth's gentle satires ("Gregory's Girl," "Comfort and Joy," "Local Hero") have put Glasgow on filmgoers' maps. And "No Surrender," another Liverpool-based film, won the critics' prize a few months ago at the Toronto Film Festival.
When "Letter to Brezhnev" received a prize in the youth section at the 1985 Venice Film Festival, the Times of London wrote, "In energy, originality and audacity ("Brezhnev") outclasses practically everything else in sight."
The film is about two wild Liverpool girls who pick up a pair of Russian sailors in a disco. One girl (Teresa) is simply out for a good time. The other (Elaine) is looking for more, and after a chaste night with her sailor (Peter), decides she's found it.
Weeks later and desperately lovesick, Elaine writes to the Russian premier (who she thinks is still Brezhnev) for permission to join Peter. When a one-way ticket arrives in the mail, the girl decides to use it, believing that life in Russia couldn't be any worse than her life on the dole in Liverpool.
"The script just popped out of my head and burst onto the paper," Clarke recalls of the film's origin in 1981. At the time, Clarke was building up such acting credits as playing the back end of a cow and jumping out of a jack-in-the-box into a bowl of tomato sauce. Bernard had directed some music videos and local theater productions. For cigarette money, they made contributions to a sperm bank.
"We're still poor," they emphasize, despite the unexpected success of "Brezhnev." They insist they are not jealous of their famous ex-roommates, the rock group Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
"Frankie went off and did pop music," Clarke says of his former mates. "We decided to move into the arts. They wanted to be stars. We wanted to be artists."
With his punkish crew cut, earring and general beefy appearance, Clarke lacks the delicate, sensitive, "artistic" look. However, "Brezhnev" director Bernard has it in abundance.
Clarke, the more outspoken of the pair, explains how the film actually got made. Ever an optimist, he sent his "Letter to Brezhnev" script to Channel Four, the British TV company most likely to finance such an idea. Eventually the script came back with a note saying, "Too expensive." In Clarke's view, "They meant, 'Too political.' "
However, his effort wasn't a total waste. He began writing scripts for Channel Four's soap opera "Brookside," set in Liverpool. But he didn't give up on "Brezhnev." If he couldn't get film backing, why not stage it as a play? He asked his close friend Bernard to direct. Chris is a brilliant director," Clarke brags.
"Letter to Brezhnev" ran for three nights in "Liverpool's answer to the Manhattan Theater Club," Bernard recalls. "It was a little hall we rented, full of battered chairs with nails in them."
"The first two nights were disasters," Clarke adds, "but on the third night everything came together like a dream and we knew it would work. We just had to go out and con a camera."