Director: Christopher Petit
Screenplay: Christopher Petit
Starring: David Beams, Lisa Kreuzer, Sandy Ratcliff
BBFC Certification: 18
It would be fair to say, as the 1970s drew to a close across the UK, that the optimism that had fuelled the start of the decade had certainly petered out. Gone were the idealistic hopes and dreams of the 1960s sexual and cultural revolution. In their place were events that had an altogether more depressing and nihilistic air. The conflict in Northern Ireland showed no signs of abating and strikes had been crippling the country from top to bottom. Under Jim Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister, the country seemed to lack direction and focus. The UK was drifting towards an uncertain and certainly pessimistic future, a direction in which she had arguably been heading since the Suez crisis of the 1950s. Yet change was coming. The election of the first female Prime Minister in May 1979 would see Britain, for better or worse, dragged into the future and remoulded, leaving behind a past that felt as if it belonged to another world entirely.
The 1979 film Radio On, re-released on Blu Ray this May by the BFI, captures Britain at this moment of epochal change. Directed by Christopher Petit, a former film critic at Time Out and co-produced by Wim Wenders, Radio On was born out of a large melting pot of influences and creative aspirations. Inspired as much by the New German Cinema of Wenders, Herzog and Fassbinder as he was by films such as Get Carter and Two Lane Blacktop, Petit wanted to create a film that focused less on narrative and more on music, landscape and architecture. The result was one of the most unique British films of the 1970s that, when viewed today, hardly seems to have dated despite its preoccupation with landscapes and music from more than forty years ago.
The plot, or what constitutes as one, is extremely simple. After finding out that his brother has died, Robert (David Beames), a Radio DJ, sets out from London in order to find out more about his brother and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. This could easily be the premise of a pulpy thriller (one starring Michael Caine perhaps) but be warned if you are expecting Radio On to offer a strong narrative journey and clearly defined resolutions. This is a film that today would very much be lumped in the category of ‘slow cinema.’ Petit, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing, instead uses his premise as an excuse to document the English landscape and by doing so, to make a film that could become a record of a particular time and place.
Slow, introspective films are certainly not everyone’s cup of tea and can sometimes (quite rightly) be accused of being self indulgent and pretentious. I found that this certainly wasn’t the case with Radio On. As Petit rightly states in one of the extras on the disc, the English Landscape simply hadn’t been captured or documented that much in movies when Radio On was shot and there certainly wasn’t an English equivalent of the ‘Road Movie’ that dominated much of 70s American cinema. In attempting to combat this imbalance, Radio On occasionally turns into a road movie in the most literal sense. Petit quite happily allows many moments in his film to flow by with nothing to see but the landscape moving past and music playing in the background. Long, languid shots flow into one another; we see London tower blocks glide past, followed by endless stretches of motorway or misty country roads. These moments could have been incredibly dull but the combination of the stark black and white film stock, the angles used (the camera shoots as much from outside Robert’s car as it does from within) and the music result in a powerful, almost hypnotic experience.
This is not to suggest that Radio On is almost two hours of black and white travelogue footage. While there isn’t much of a plot, Robert meets and interacts with several different characters throughout his journey that reflect and deepen the sense of stark loneliness that is captured outside the car window. On his travels, Robert meets a soldier suffering from PTSD, a lonely German woman, a petrol station attendant (played by a very young looking pre-fame Sting!) as well as his brother’s girlfriend. These meetings and encounters, which are more a series of separate vignettes that anything else, are beautifully acted and permeate the film with a dreamy atmosphere of melancholy.
Much of the power of Radio On no doubt comes from its visuals but the music used throughout is absolutely vital to the whole experience. As with the film’s desire to break the mould by showing movie goers an England not often captured on film, so too did Petit want to play music that that had barely been used in cinema. Hence the film is filled with music from David Bowie, Kraftwork, Devo and Ian Dury (among many others). Right from the opening scene (a long steadicam shot scored to an almost complete rendition of a half English, half German version of Bowie’s Heroes) is it clear that music is going to be a vital part of this journey. While I didn’t find that the soundtrack dominated the film as much as the opening few minutes might suggest, it nevertheless crucially positions Radio On at a crossroads been the past and the future. By using music that at the time felt so modern, fresh and exciting, the soundtrack doesn’t trap Radio On in a certain time period and in fact allows the film to feel excitingly untethered, beholden to its own unique universe.
Much of the film feels this way. Radio On captures a Britain just before the start of what you might call the ‘modern era’. It at once feels like an authentic record of a specific time in history yet modern enough to feel strangely relevant to today. Its sights and sounds are both comfortingly familiar yet unnervingly alien.
Radio On won’t be a film for everyone. It can be accused as being too slow and too melancholy, where nothing ever really happens, succeeding only in capturing a UK that was run down, dilapidated and close to falling apart, where the physical decay of the landscape had bled into the lives of its lost, transient characters. Yet if you are willing to jump in Robert’s car and go along for the ride, you’ll discover one of the most unique and unusual British films of the 1970s. The ultimate destination may be unclear but it is absolutely a journey worth taking.
The BFI are releasing Radio On this May on Blu Ray (it has previously been released on DVD). This new Blu Ray edition has been sourced from a new restoration of the original camera negative and it looks glorious. Punchy and full of sharp, crystal clear detail, combined with a wonderful contrast boasting deep, inky blacks, the bleak, desolate England captured in Radio On has never looked more beautiful.
The BFI offer a rather stacked disc for this cult film:
- A Little bit Kitsch, But Ice Cold: Retro-futurism in Focus (2021, 52 mins, audio only): in conversation with BFI Video Publishing’s Vic Pratt, Chris Petit, writer and director of Radio On revisits the film, recalls key scenes in detail and reconsiders the film’s legacy and continued influence
- Cinematic Windscreen: Jason Wood on Radio On (2021, 54 mins): newly recorded interview with Creative Director of Film & Culture at Manchester’s HOME
- Interview with Chris Petit and producer Keith Griffiths (2008, 42 mins)
- radio on (remix), (1998, 24 mins): a stunning digital video essay with radical disruption of the original soundtrack by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert
- Coping with Cupid (1991, 18 mins): three blondes from another planet land on Earth in order to conduct research into romantic love in this short film directed by musician and author Viv Albertine
- On the Road (1972 + 1975, 47 mins): a pair of public information films including L For Logic providing a flashback to driving tests in the 70s and The Motorway File, directed by Ferdinand Fairfax (Jeeves and Wooster, Danger UXB) on the dangers of motorway driving
- Original trailer
- Image gallery
- **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Illustrated booklet featuring a new essay by Jason Wood, Jane Giles and Viv Albertine and archival essays by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Ian Penman, Chris Petit, Sukhdev Sandhu, and Rudy Wurlitzer
Retro-futurism in Focus: Vic Pratt interviews Chris Petit for over 50 minutes in this audio only interview, which plays out over the first 50 minutes of the film. It is not scene specific but the interview does cover a lot of background detail about how Radio On was conceived and developed, as well as providing a wealth of information about key aspects of the film. Chris Petit proves to be an entertaining and informative interviewee and offers lots of fascinating info about his creative decisions. A great listen.
Jason Wood on Radio On: Film writer Jason Wood provides almost an hour long discussion of Radio On. An absolutely huge fan of the film (he mentions having watched it every two weeks over a six year period!) he offers an absolute treasure trove of trivia and analysis, which really makes you appreciate quite how unique and remarkable Radio On is. This extra is only let down by the fact that it consists entirely of a Zoom like CU shot of Wood, which becomes rather monotonous to watch after almost an hour. It would have been nice to have painted his interview with clips from the film – or better yet, to have allowed him to record a commentary!
Interview with Chris Petit and Keith Griffiths: I believe this is an old extra ported over from the previous DVD release. These interviews take an almost chronological look through the making of Radio On. Some information is repeated from the previous extras but lots of new info is also offered (mainly consisting of additional throughs from Chris Petit on the film and interesting production notes from Keith Griffiths) so this is still worth a watch. There is also a small but interesting discussion on the radio on (remix) extra which adds some nice context and background info.
Radio On (remix): This is an arty visual remix of the film created by Chris Petit in the 1990s, with a bold audio remix of the soundtrack by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert. It is interesting seeing the 1998 colour locations contrasted with the 1979 film footage. It’s lovingly produced and in the spirit of the original film but for me, this felt too much like a piece of video installation art.
Coping with Cupid: This is a short 18 minute comedic film directed by Viv Albertine (the guitarist for punk rock band the Slits) about three blond female aliens landing on earth in order to conduct research into romantic love. Starring a young Sean Pertwee, this is very different in tone from Radio On but shares some DNA with its use of music and real locations. The Vox Pops peppered throughout the film are certainly interesting to watch but overall I didn’t find the film that amusing I’m afraid.
Public Information Films: The last key extras on the disc are two public information films from the 1970s. The first, Driving Test, offers new drivers advice about their (surprise surprise) driving test. It is an amusing and interesting watch – the test sure looked easier back in the 70s when the roads looked lot more empty! The real star here though (and possibly my favourite extra on the disc!) is the next film, Motorway. A tongue in cheek yet serious ‘who done it’ about a motorway accident with a dry, Rocky Horror esq narrator, this is both fun, tense and ultimately terrifying and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other infamous public information films such as Apaches or Lonely Water. This will make you think twice before going on the motorway again!!
The rest of the disc is rounded out with a trailer, image gallery and booklet (which I unfortunately did not get a copy of for this review).