The Boat That Rocked

Radio Caroline meant a lot to me as a teenager. Few people seem to remember that just as the radio station brought pop to the masses in the sixties when no legal station was broadcasting it, in the seventies it was the only radio station broadcasting rock music. It might have been the decade of Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis, but apart from Caroline, you wouldn’t have found any of their music on the air outside of two hours a week with Tommy Vance on Friday nights.

Caroline was also stationed offshore just out from our house in Harwich. It was too small to see on the horizon from my bedroom window, but I probably imagined I could. And when one stormy night the local lifeboat had to go out and rescue the crew, it was my Dad who (heroically) drew criticism for not arresting them when they came ashore. I must ask him more about that story. And the connections continued when, in the late eighties, a mate of mine from university (hi Steve!) went out to work there, and I could listen to him while commuting to work across London every day.

So yes, Radio Caroline means a lot to me.

Anyway, this film isn’t about Caroline, it’s about a totally different pirate radio station, called “Radio Rock” (mmm, right). And it’s all set back in the swinging sixties, not in the seventies. But I still felt a bit proprietorial about it. I needn’t have worried: it’s all just such absurdist fantasy that it bears very little relation to what things must have been like, both on the boat (the North Sea looked calmer than the Stour at Dedham) and as a listener (all those clips of groups of people gathered around transistor radios to listen to the Rolling Stones as if a war was being announced!).

So, bearing in mind that the film is just a bit of whimsy, was it any good? Well, the cast and script were great, and you’ll love it if you like films where you spend half the time thinking “Oh it’s him off such-and-such, isn’t it?” Kenneth Branagh was terrific, as was Emma Thompson, although she was criminally underused. Yet the film is a mess narratively – or at least, it wandered around far too much getting to where it ended up going. But it made me laugh several times, which I guess was the point. Just as with Richard Curtis’ last effort, Love Actually, there was a good story hidden in there which could have been expanded out to a great movie, but it was buried with loads of other stuff you just didn’t care about (in this case, the main character’s sexual exploits) or conversely were important but weren’t explored (his relationship with his Dad). It’s certainly not Four Weddings or Notting Hill, and although the sex and language weren’t crude, there was enough there that the film won’t become a Christmas TV staple either. But if it begins to explain the importance of pirate radio to a wider audience, it’ll achieve a lot more than most of the depressingly disposable stuff which tops the movie charts each week at the moment.