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Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Courtesy of Charlie Caselton and Chris Bernard

Main image of Letter to Brezhnev (1985)
35mm, 94 mins, colour
DirectorChris Bernard
Production CompaniesYeardream, Film Four International
ProducerJanet Goddard
ScreenplayFrank Clarke
CinematographyBruce McGowan
MusicAlan Gill

Cast: Alexandra Pigg (Elaine Spencer); Margi Clarke (Teresa King); Peter Firth (Peter); Molina, Alfred (Sergei)

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Two Merseyside girls escape their humdrum lives for a night on the town, where they meet two Russian sailors on shore leave. For Teresa, it's a welcome bit of fun. But for Elaine it turns into much more.

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The circumstances surrounding Letter to Brezhnev's production, and the resourcefulness demanded of its makers, speak as much of the time and place from which it was sprung (a 1980s Liverpool blighted by unemployment and industrial decline) as the characterisation of the city represented in the film itself. The film was made on a shoestring budget in less than three weeks, calling on the unpaid services of family and friends; the filmmakers borrowed equipment for the shoot, with cast and crew agreeing to work on the promise of deferred pay. It had its world premiere in October 1985 in the distinctly un-showbiz environs of Knowsley council's offices.

The film's unexpected success, coupled with its unembellished and unflinching portrayal of a post-industrial city on the margins of Thatcher's Britain, has meant that Letter to Brezhnev has done more than perhaps any other film before or since in putting Liverpool on the cinematic map. On its home turf, part of this success can be attributed to its articulation - in the form of a cinematic postcard to the nation - of a self-consciously critical local voice ("Just look at this city," says a taxi-driver at one point, "whoever did the planning for all this wants his balls roasted").

Set against the backdrop of Thatcherism, new romanticism, and a Europe still in the grip of the Cold War, the film is politically and culturally very much of its time. Its sympathetic portrayal of the Russians offered the prospect of a thaw in East-West relations, an approach that was little evident in the British media in 1985. As Elaine asks, can Russia really be any worse than Liverpool?

For the film's Moscow sequences, the budget constraints demanded a certain resourcefulness when it came to location shooting, with the skyline of Birkenhead providing an admirable stand in for the Russian capital. This was to be the first of many occasions on which Liverpool was to serve as a double for other cities. Indeed, the success of Letter to Brezhnev was instrumental in the development of initiatives which sought to promote Liverpool as a leading centre of film production, exploiting the city's locations and architectural heritage. Liverpool is now the second most filmed city in the UK, after London.

Les Roberts

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Video Clips
1. On the make (3:30)
2. Fun and romance (2:24)
3. Torn apart (2:43)
4. Doorstepped (3:22)
Original poster
Clarke, Margi (1954-)
Firth, Peter (1953-)
Molina, Alfred (1953-)
Walker, Lesley
Palace Pictures
Liverpool: Across the Mersey