‘lt’s Divine Timing actually: it’s as if God’s done the press release.’
Even as Margi Clarke speaks, God’s agents on earth, President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev are doing their bit in Geneva to publicize the latest evidence that Liverpool is artistically alive.The timing is all the more remarkable given the fact that the low budget Letter to Brezhnev - breaking box ofﬁce records in London — has taken ten years to reach the cinema.
‘We started off as a big gang of friends who knew each other, but we weren’t just a group of people who sat and dreamed over a cup of tea about how we would do something - we had just enough confidence and just enough leg stretch to get up on stage and perform. . ..
Had Margi Clarke been one for just dreaming she might have toyed with the notion of being chosen , with precious little in the way of qualiﬁcations, to star in a hit television comedy show - Not the Nine o’CIock News perhaps. She might have dreamed of having her own punk band and the sort of success that Liverpool’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood achieved. She might even have dreamed of making it in Paris. Such dreams wouldn‘t have been so very far off the mark. . . .She was chosen for the role in Not the Nine o’Clock News which was finally taken by Pamela Stephenson. Unfortunately at the time Margi had already been put under contract by Granada. They refused to release her, instead offering her her own show. A pilot was made, declared a ‘flawed masterpiece’ and allowed to disappear amidst the ITV strike. Margi did also have her own band, but it was Frankie who hit the big time — along with Echo and the Bunnymen and a host of others who played in Liverpool’s Eric’s as Punk exploded in Britain.
Paris too has its reality; ‘I was in Paris trying to be famous -— the traditionally romantically crazy thing to do — when my brother rang and told me that he had written this brilliant script and there was a part in it for me . “You’re a chicken stuffer” . ’ This was the dream come true.
Letter to Brezhnev, which began life on stage in Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, tells the story of two Liverpool girls. The one , a little older than the other, is trapped by the drudgery of her employment and by her only form of escape: wild
nights of drink and casual sex. The second, however, is a dreamer who, when they pick up two Russian sailors falls apparently hopelessly in love. But these star-crossed lovers are destined to get the better of bureaucratic cosmology in a wonderfully romantic comedy drama, where the often hilarious reality of grey Kirby life is juxtaposed with what might be if individuals were allowed to act as individuals.
‘I think Brezhnev touches a pulse at the moment; the whole world wants peace,’ Margi Clarke explained to me when I met her together with Alexandra Pigg, the fellow star of
When they set out to make Letter to Brezhnev (opening Glasgow and Edinburgh ABCs this week) on a shoestring budget, Margi Clarke and Alexandra Pigg never expected the box office success it has become. Here the two stars talk to Nigel Billen about what the film means to them and to their native Liverpool.
W4 ‘ '
Above. Alexandra Pigg with Peter Firth in a scene tram Letter to Brezhnev
the ﬁlm and a close friend. It was Alexandra that Frank Clarke, Margi’s brother, chose to play the romantic lead - despite pleadings from his sister Margi. But both were adamant that Brezhnev isn’t a ‘political film’. ‘People often say it’s about politics, but it isn't. It’s a film about Liverpool and our lives. It’s politically aware, that’s all.’ When Alexandra Pigg suggests that the film is about their lives, you believe her, despite Margi Clarke’s warning ‘we’re actors and that’s the bottom line.’
In conversation, Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke are just the lively Liverpudlians that the film leads you to expect. Even the relationship between the girls matches that of the relationship between the actresses. Alexandra is recovering from a gruelling round of auditions which have punctuated the somewhat hastily got-together publicity tour for the ﬁlm, and she apologises for being so quiet. Margi makes up for any deﬁciency, but all the time gently refers to Alexandra, as if by
tacit agreement, telling her story too.
‘Frank was writing his first
full-length script and you tend to write about the things you know most about. Frank naturally drew on us. . .’But Alexandra’s remarks are qualiﬁed by Margi’s— for clearly, however much of the personalities of the girls have been drawn on, this is not an autobiography.
‘It is an amalgamation of a lot of women who believe in themselves, but there are little touches which he drew from me personally. For instance, we both read hands.’
What isn’t drawn specifically from the girls is still faithful to their background. ‘Somebody asked me if girls in Kirby actually go to the pub in their overalls — well they do. Scots have maybe forgotten about the ten thirty closing, but if you don’t go to the pub straight from the late shift, you don’t get a drink. You don‘t go home to get dolled up; you take your clothes with you.’
Were Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke’s own backgrounds working class? ‘Even more than that — poor,‘ says Margi emphatically - she actually comes from a family of ten children.‘0ne sister died of pneumonia and then Cathleen died
of cancer aged sixteen and a brother was killed. It’s like being steel in a ﬁre, you come out hardened by it. Brezhnev is the movie where the working class speak in their own tongue. We’re quite used in Liverpool to watching bastardised versions - like The Liver Birds, where they vampire our class.’
‘They take your culture,’Alexandra adds.‘But you’re not allowed to play it yourself. They take middle-class actresses and train them for months - Polly James had to learn the Liverpool accent, and she did it really well, but there are Liverpool actresses around who could do that.’
Alexandra left the Channel 4 soap Brookside, where she played the neurotic Petra, because it wasn‘t giving her enough scope, rather than because it was, to use her own words, an ‘SDP soap’. Similarly Frank Clarke stopped writing for it to concentrate on his own projects — he was originally taken on as a script writer for the show on the strength of an early draft of Brezhnev which had been rejected by Channel 4. They managed to find enough funding to get Brezhnev started from an unlikely sounding source: the family that owns the Baxi Fire Factory. ‘Thatcher was never behind what we did — but we banged on every Tory door. We weren’t worried who we begged off, but we’ve done it!’
Margi and Alexandra are justly proud oftheir joint achievements - compared to the disappointments of television, they have been ‘doing’ things. ‘The biggest crime that television commits is that it is the modern door bolt. Video is the modern lock-up. You don’t need keys when everybody’s got a video. Look at the streets, they have become more and more lonely. What’s left except for ghosts to haunt them?’
‘What they should have done with Liverpool is made it the Hollywood back lot of Britain. it is so handsome and now the media industry is the new factory, not ICI or Hoover. I was brought up on “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”. Everyone in Britain has been breast fed Hollywood movies and pissed spaghetti Westerns. In the thirties you had people like Frank Randall and George Formby who were from the poor who were making films just like Brezhnev. If there is any movie Brezhnev ought to be compared with it is Love On the Dole— a socially aware picture you don’t even see any more. But it was done in Britain then and a whole generation emerged with the attitude let’s do it now and ‘F’ the expense. And Hollywood was even more powerful then than it is now.’
The team that produced Brezhnev really hope that they are at the beginnings ofa new rebirth in British cinema. Whatever else they achieve, they have ensured that Liverpool is in the news for something other than a rate crisis. Margi sums it up,‘With Frankie Goes to Hollywood, people thought, O.K., Liverpool has pulled it off musically once again, but what happens next? No-one thought it would be a movie. . .
The List 29 Nov - 12 Dec 9