Liverpool's rich history on screen
Distant Voices, Still Lives by Liverpool auteur Terence Davies
From the first filmed crime re-enactment to Beatles stories to Terence Davies’ personal dramas, Liverpool has a rich cinematic history. Rhiannon Wain investigates how Liverpool has been portrayed on screen throughout the years.
Apart from London, there is no city in the Britain that is as instantly recognisable around the word as Liverpool. Just a mention of the word and one is instantly transported into a word of iconography; whether it's Matthew Street and the Beatles or Anfield and Liverpool Football Club or even the docks. A city so rich with culture and history, with architecture spanning a plethora of different times and styles, it is obvious why Liverpool is also synonymous with cinema and has been since a Lumière Brothers' cameraman stepped off a train at Lime Street in 1897, set up his camera, and began to film.
Back in 1901 an employee of the Bank of Liverpool, Thomas Goode, was arrested for the embezzlement of £170,000. Early film-making pioneers Mitchell and Kenyon decided to capitalise on this and the public interest in the case and reconstruct the arrest in their film Arrest of Goudie (1901), which not only is considered to be one of Liverpool's first films, but also regarded by many to be the first crime reconstruction on film. Arrest of Goudie drummed up a lot of popularity when first exhibited at Liverpool’s own Prince of Wales theatre just three days after the arrest had happened, down to the sheer notoriety of the case but also down to spectacle. This would be the first time audiences would see their city (Berry Street, Church Street, Bootle Town Hall) on screen. (The four minute film can be viewed for free at BFI Player.)
Fifty years later, and crime was yet again at the forefront of another landmark Liverpool film, Basil Dearden’s Violent Playground (1958). Dealing with street gangs, youth crime, economic squalor and depravity, Violent Playground features scenes filmed in the now demolished Gerard Gardens. However, rather than the habitants of the Gardens celebrating seeing their home on the big screen, they revolted, criticising the negative representation of their home and their city. This prompted a call for Liverpool cinema to portray something other than crime, which it did. In its diversity, Liverpool cinema did also continue to portray urban decay and working class living in films such as Dockers (1999) and even in The 51st State (2001).
One of the more famous cinematic portrayals of working-class life in Liverpool is Letter to Brezhnev (1985) – the story of Elaine, an unemployed Liverpudlian girl who falls in love with a Russian sailor who's on 24-hour leave in the city. The ending scene features one of Liverpool's most iconic landmarks, the Albert Dock. The docks were synonymous with the social and economic problems that the city faced during the ‘70s and ‘80s; Elaine's future and transformation is extremely similar to that of the docks. Much like when Elaine realises there is more to her life, the Albert Dock was redeveloped as a tourist attraction in 1988 and is now home to Tate Liverpool.
The voices and songs of Liverpool
If there was such a thing as the definitive “Liverpool auteur” then that mantle will always be held by Terence Davies. Growing up in Liverpool’s Kensington district in the 1950s and early ‘60s, he was raised by working class and deeply religious parents. Davies' early films all had a strong biographical element. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) – a prizewinner at the prestigious Cannes, Toronto and Locarno film festivals – is perhaps Davies most personal work, based on his memories of family life, particularly his relationship with his mother and two older sisters. His later Liverpool trilogy (1976-83) and The Long Day Closes (1992) were also critical hits and popular amongst European art-house audiences. Davies' success helped put Liverpool cinema on the map, and he later explored his nostalgia and love for the city in Of Time And City (2006) – a documentary looking at the city’s history and transformation, timed for the city's European Capital of Culture celebrations that year.
Apart from working-class life, one of the most prominent themes of Liverpool cinema is music. The first Liverpool film set around the booming music scene in the city was a fiction film about Gerry and the Pacemakers, Ferry Across the Mersey (1965). Since then the music themed films of Liverpool had one thing in common: the Beatles. Though none of the actual Beatles films were filmed in their home city, Yellow Submarine (1968) featured an animated Hope Street. There's also been Across The Universe (2007), an American-produced musical featuring the songs of the Beatles that featured scenes filmed at both the iconic Cavern Club and the docks and also Nowhere Boy (2009), the story of young John Lennon that was partially filmed in Liverpool.
One of the more successful and well-known films focused around the Liverpool music scene is Backbeat (1994) which tells the story of "fifth Beatle" Stuart Sutcliffe. Backbeat features scenes filmed outside the old legendary Hessy's music shop on Stanley Street, where John Lennon bought his first guitar.
A very different film from 1994 was Priest, about one pastor’s struggle between religion and homosexuality. A pivotal scene in the film, between the pastor and his partner, takes place on Crosby Beach (now home to Antony Gormley's Another Place). Though Liverpool is still considered a strongly religious city (mainly Catholic), it is also now a city that celebrates the LGBT community, celebrating Pride and hosting arts festivals such as Homotopia (where Terence Davies has been a speaker).
As much as Liverpool is famous for its music scene, it is equally as famous for its sport. So much so that in the early 2000s, it attracted a well known star to a little local project about the drug trade and football. Written by a graduate of Liverpool John Moore's University, 2001’s The 51st State (aka Formula 51) managed to cast Hollywood star Samuel L Jackson in one its leading roles, and he later attached himself to the film as one of the producers. He turned a £1 million budget film into a £27 million one and the film managed to make half that budget back at the global box office. This helped Liverpool to be noticed as a global film location and a global cinematic marketing tool.
Hollywood's attraction to Liverpool since then has been booming, attracting huge box offices smashes for location shooting such as Sherlock Holmes (2009), Captain America (2011), Fast & Furious 6 (2013), and big homegrown hits such as Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), and the soon to be released Harry Potter spin off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Though these productions are great for the city’s economy, these films are showing the versatility of the city’s locations rather than examining the city itself. Yet there is another upcoming production, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, starring Jamie Bell and Annette Bening, that is currently shooting and will show Liverpool in a starring role as a romantic city. And there are studios now being built in the old Littlewood's warehouse, so the future of Liverpool cinema again looks bright.
Rhiannon Wain is studying Film Studies at Liverpool John Moore’s University, she writes blogs for Liverpool’s FACT and the 5C project, a film literacy programme.