Alan Bleasdale’s only work for the big screen finally makes its DVD debut.
No Surrender was Alan Bleasdale’s first and, to date, only screenplay for the cinema. Released in 1985 it came shortly after Scully, his seven-part comedy-drama series for Channel 4, and, most famously, the four-part Boys from the Blackstuff for the BBC, which first screened in 1982. Both started life as Play for Todays, Scully’s New Year from 1978 and the more simply titled The Black Stuff from 1980. The subsequent series served as both sequels to and extensions of their originals, allowing for a more heightened take on their subject matters (the dreams of a Liverpool FC-obsessed youth; unemployment in the North West) far beyond the possibilities of their more realism-grounded source plays. A dark humour invaded proceedings, at once hilarious and only vaguely cloaking a genuine anger, that occasionally broke into bouts of absurdity or even surrealism. The society reality was still there – and Boys from the Blackstuff remains one of the most fierce indictments of Thatcherism produced during the decade – but within it grew Bleasdale’s increasingly distinctive voice.
Understandably this tone and approach remains for No Surrender. Despite a return to a more focussed screentime as befitting a feature film, we don’t see a return to the more straightforward methods of the original Black Stuff, say. The setting is a contained one, both in terms of location and timeframe – the action takes place on New Year’s Eve and almost entirely within a working men’s club in Liverpool – which allows Bleasdale to create a dense multi-character, multi-event piece. Of course this doesn’t make a quick summation the easiest of jobs, but one should at least contain the following. The club in question is the Chameleon Club and Michael Angelis is turning up for his first day as its new manager. This being New Year’s Eve there is to be a private party that night for the local old folk. Except a mix-up has resulted in two parties being simultaneously and, to make matters worse, they’re on either side of the Protestant-Catholic divide. The night’s entertainment is also likely to cause problems with the acts including an unfunny comedian, Elvis Costello’s magician on the verge of a nervous breakdown and an entirely inappropriate post-punk CND band. It turns out that the various problems are the cause of the exiting manager, which doesn’t go down too well with the criminally active club owner Tom Georgeson. Also present are Bernard Hill as one of the bouncers and Joanne Whalley as an aspiring singer who works behind the bar.
The presence of Hill and Angelis – the two main players in Boys from the Blackstuff – immediately marks this as a Bleasdale work. Indeed, both would work with the writer again, as would a number of No Surrender’s cast. Georgeson appeared in G.B.H. as did Andrew Schofield (playing the guitarist in the post-punk band). Some, such as Avis Bunnage (one of the partying old folk), had previously worked with him, as was the case when she had a supporting role in Scully’s New Year. Plus we have the likes of Whalley and Ray McAnally, both of whom remain best known for their television work (in The Singing Detective and A Very British Coup, respectively). Even director Peter Smith did his most prominent work on the small screen (A Perfect Spy, episodes of A Touch of Frost and Midsomer Murders), despite starting out in industrial films and having made the little-seen BFI Production Board feature A Private Enterprise (1974). Furthering the televisual aspects are the fact that No Surrender, as seen nowadays, doesn’t seem that far removed from the likes of Shameless or Phoenix Nights – with regards to the latter Peter Kay has regularly named the film as a favourite, which perhaps makes it all the more surprising that it is only recently that a DVD has materialised.
All we have, essentially, to remove No Surrender from the small screen are its widescreen frame and some splendid production design from Andrew Mollo (the club is situated in a dystopian middle-of-nowhere that’s somewhat unnerving – much the same as Alex Cox’s more science fiction-minded Death and the Compass achieved in Liverpool a few years later). Otherwise this is business as usual for Bleasdale complete with dour one-liners delivered with deadpan perfection from Angelis (“I don’t have to do this – I could be unemployed right now.”) and a darkly comic outlook that has little regard for political correctness. He also isn’t afraid to go overboard, which sometimes pays off (the post-punk band singing about how we’re all about to die to a group of pensioners) but occasionally veers a little too heavy-handedly towards the silly. Costello, for example, telling Angelis he can do everything but sing feels a little too forced, though I’ll admit his cameo here is more controlled than the one in Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell, another cult-ish ramshackle British comedy from the mid-eighties.
I’m tempted to think that such flaws are the result of Bleasdale trying to accommodate too much into the 100-minute running time. The likes of Boys from the Blackstuff and G.B.H., owing to their greater length, were far more receptive to his more surreal and outthere impulses. When placed within a more confined space, however, the waywardness of tone can seem a little ill-focused. As such No Surrender is quite the forgotten gem I was hoping for, though it must be said that the likes of Blackstuff and G.B.H. can hardly be the easiest of works to live up to. Nevertheless, there remains much to enjoy and savour – Angelis is terrific throughout and there are plenty of laughs throughout – whilst I’ve no doubts that there must be a cult-ish audience of a reasonable size out there who have been awaiting this disc for some time. Like I said, I’m surprised it didn’t come sooner.
Second Sight released No Surrender onto DVD a couple of months ago so forgive the tardiness of this review. The film comes on a single-layered disc encoded for region 2 and is accompanied by a 19-minute featurette that interviews producer Mamoun Hassan and director Peter Smith. Presentation-wise there is little to complain about or take issue with. We get a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced, and the original mono soundtrack, both of which are mostly crisp and stable with only intermittent signs of age or damage. Colours and contrast levels are strong, though note that we are dealing with mostly darkened interiors for the majority of the duration. Certainly an improvement over any VHS copies that fans have held onto over the years is undoubtedly going to be the case. Optional subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are not available. As for the additional featurette, this is a more than welcome piece especially when it branches out beyond the immediate concerns of No Surrender. Hassan had been involved in the film industry for a number of years prior to this film, most notably as head of the BFI Production Board during the early seventies (he green-lit Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley among others), and so comes with valuable insights into the state of British film production at the time. Smith sticks more to the task at hand but nonetheless offers up plenty of anecdotes and provides a strong portrait of No Surrender’s making and working with Bleasdale. Surprisingly, the hardest part was having to deal with an aged cast and the various medical emergencies they prompted.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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