Radio On Review
The opening sequence of Radio On is a long Steadicam shot around a Bristol flat. David Bowie’s “Heroes” (which halfway through morphs into the German-language version “Helden” then back to English again) plays on the soundtrack. The shot ends with the sight of a man’s body in a bath. The man’s brother, Robert (David Beames), is a London DJ. When he hears of his brother’s death, he gets in his car and travels down to Bristol to find out what had happened.
It’s commonplace to think of 1970s British cinema as something of a wasteland. After American financing, which had sustained much of the production boom the previous decade, had been withdrawn, there wasn’t much left. There were the James Bond films, a lot of soft porn, the dying years of Hammer horror and the rise of the lower-budgeted, grittier kind exemplified by the works of Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren. Meanwhile, directors such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears spent most of the decade working for TV. But that neglects an experimental side to British cinema, often made on microscopic budgets. In retrospect, some significant filmmakers started out during the decade: Bill Douglas made his trilogy and Terence Davies began his, while Derek Jarman shot his first features. To say that Radio On, made in 1979, is unlike any other British film of its time is probably true, though it’s not true to say that it’s completely devoid of influence. In this film, Petit is clearly looking back to previous road movies, such as Two-Lane Blacktop and the work of Wim Wenders.
Christopher Petit (born 1949) had been the film editor of Time Out before making Radio On, his first feature, jointly financed by the BFI and Wim Wenders’s production company Road Movies. Wenders who had met Petit as an interview subject, had seen Petit’s screenplay and had liked it. As well as additional financing, which enabled Petit to shoot in 35mm black and white, Wenders donated the services of some of his regular crew (such as DP Martin Schäfer) and his then wife, Lisa Kreuzer, played a major role in the film. (Kreuzer was to appear in Petit’s third feature, Flight to Berlin.)
Radio On is a film that makes quite a few demands on its viewers. Anyone out of sympathy with its aims will last about twenty minutes. If you’re inclined to take potshots at the pretentious, this film presents you with a barn-door-sized target. Leaving aside the use of black and white, it’s very slowly paced and emphasises atmnosphere and mood rather than plot. (We left to imply the reasons for the brother’s death – probably suicide. It’s hinted he could be involved in the porn bust mentioned now again on Robert’s car radio. At one point, Robert looks through a hardcore slideshow in his brother’s flat – a surprisingly explicit sequence for the BBFC to pass in 1979, but they did.) There are scenes in unsubtitled German – and no, the hard-of-hearing subtitles render them in German so that won’t help you much. Nothing is resolved, and the ending is completely open.
I’m not suggesting that Petit is the equal of Wenders. Wenders’s road movies may be just as slow as Radio On but their leading actors are charismatic and despite the lack of plot in the conventional sense they are quite absorbing – even Kings of the Road, which is nearly three hours long. Radio On could certainly do with a sense of humour and it tends to be emotionally one-note. The exceptions to this are the encounters with people Robert meets on his trip: a soldier gone AWOL from Northern Ireland (Andrew Byatt) and a petrol-station attendant with a guitar (Sting) who plays a version of Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven”.
Yet somehow, if you have the patience, Radio On does cast a spell of its own. It’s a combination of Schäfer’s moody camerawork, capturing a down-at-heel, rather depressed southern England, and a very well chosen selection of songs. (As well as Bowie, there are Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, Robert Fripp, Wreckless Eric, Devo and Lene Lovich.)
Radio On is something of a one-off in British cinema. It soon picked up a cult following, though one affected by the difficulty of seeing the film for many years. (It’s not had a TV screening that I’m aware of.) Petit followed it with a dark and moody adaptation of P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in 1982, a well-reviewed film that’s somewhat disappeared in the two and a half decades since. Flight to Berlin, which I found tedious to the point of unwatchability, followed in 1984, and in the same year he made Chinese Boxes, which I have not seen. Presumably financing for such British arthouse fare ran out, and by the end of the decade Petit was directing a Miss Marple mystery for the BBC. He hasn’t made a fictional cinema feature since. Leaving aside novels (and book reviewing), Petit’s film work in the following years has been experimental video work, some of it (like 2002’s London Orbital) in collaboration with the writer and London psychogeographer Iain Sinclair.
Radio On is released on DVD by the BFI in a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. The transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced and copes well with what is a frequently darkly-lit film.
The soundtrack is mono, as per the original, and is clear and well-balanced, with the songs on the soundtrack coming over well. As mentioned above, the English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, transcribe but don’t translate the German-language dialogue.
In 1988, Petit made Radio On (Remix) (24:15), a video essay where he revisited some of the original locations of the film. This is more an experimental piece than a conventional documentary: while presented in 4:3, the picture changes shape and size continually, and the footage is “disrupted” by video effects and a soundtrack from Bruce Gilbert of Wire. Twenty-four minutes of this will try many viewers’ patience.
Also included on the disc are interviews with Petit and producer Keith Griffiths (42:15), conducted by Jason Wood at the BFI in London in January 2008. Divided into sections, this is a thorough run-through of the film from conception to release, critical reception and afterlife, with a particular discussion of the soundtrack. The extras are concluded by the theatrical trailer (3:07).
A 28-page booklet contains several short essays: “Radio On and the British cinematic landscape” by Jason Wood, “A melancholy requiem” by Rudy Wurlitzer (writer of Two-Lane Blacktop and subject of a Petit documentary), “Radio On” by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (reprinted from Screen), “Border Zones” by Sukhdev Sandhu (from the liner notes of a 2006 DVD release), “’A Film Without a Cinema’” by John Patterson (from The Guardian) and “A Seriously Good Soundtrack” by Ian Penman. Rounding off the booklet are a profile of Petit and a list of credits.
Radio On is unlike almost any other British film of its time, and as such is worth a look, if only once. I’m not as big a fan of it as some, who should adjust my rating upwards. Whatever your reaction to the film itself, there’s no doubt of the quality of the BFI’s presentation of it.