When reading initial comments about Peter Smith’s 1985 No Surrender, written by Alan Bleasdale, all signs seemed to point to promising; hilarious premise, politically edgy content and a smattering of dark undertones captured amongst grainy Liverpudlian backdrops.
The foot of the blurb hails it as “One of the great British comedies of the 80s”, with the Sunday Mail exclaiming it is “Brutally funny” on the cover. If it had the potential it seemed to have, why isn’t it considered a cult British classic? If it is, why so lesser known? All became clear upon watching it unfortunately, as despite a valiant effort from the artists involved, this jumbled mess of a movie fell totally flat.
The film centres around The Charleston on New Year’s Eve, a run-down nightclub hours away from opening for the first night under new management in the form of Mike (Michael Angelis). After a frustrating exchange with doorman Bernard (Bernard Hill) and witnessing an apparent kidnap victim being bundled through the building, he eventually discovers the business is controlled by the local gangland boss as he is confronted with his predecessor, tied to a chair and covered in blood. It isn’t until the coach loads of OAPs start arriving that he realises a torture chamber is the least of his worries.
In response to his own replacement, the previous manager exerts revenge by having booked a hideous array of bad acts, including a young Elvis Costello as insecure magician Rosco de Ville. To top it all off, his invites found themselves in the hands of two aged rival Christian sects and a group of dementia sufferers all under the impression the best fancy dress costume will reward them a ten-day cruise for two.
The main problem with No Surrender is the lack of cohesion between script and screen – no one seems to be in agreement as to what type of film this is. Bleasdale’s script (on paper) isn’t too bad, and some of the dry one-liners from Mike and Bernard have the potential to stir a snigger from the viewer. The shame of it is these go unnoticed, as Smith’s direction seems to squash any genuine comedy with ridiculous farce that becomes exhausting to watch.
It’s interesting that in the interview with the film’s producer (Mamoun Hassan), he claims the intention was always to remain faithful to realism in this film. Hassan comments,“If you have a lot of people dressed in all sorts of funny clothes, it is very easy for it to deteriorate into pantomime, and I wanted this to feel real.” What I can’t understand is how the comment could have been made in retrospect when No Surrender clearly did fall into these very trappings, unless it was Smith’s direction that led the film widely off course.
Performance-wise, no one stands out as exceptional and a lot of the decent jokes are under-delivered, but again I can’t help but blame Smith’s direction for this. Perhaps the handful of droll one-liners like, “The only orders I listen to are last orders” would gain a laugh if the audience were aware they were watching a comedy. Hill displays good comic timing and Angelis is pleasingly deadpan but are over-shadowed by the chaos. Joanne Whalley is relatively endearing as club worker Cheryl, but totally lacks chemistry with Michael Angelis making for a very unconvincing romance between the two. The commitment from the extras is actually the highlight, which considering their ages (and costumes) is laudable.
As with most low budget picture, it’s reasonable to make allowances for sub-par production quality but No Surrender is made even more difficult to watch due to its terrible sound mixing. The levels are so unbalanced you’ll be cranking the volume up to maximum to hear a conversation and then hurriedly turning it down from the ruckus of the elderly audience trying to out-scream each other. Hardly any music is included which is standard in the realism genre but in this case I think a little bit of soundtrack might have helped move the action on.
Smith claims receiving Bleasdale’s script was one of the highlights of his career, and yet No Surrender was the first and last feature film that he ever directed, subsequently sticking (wisely) to television. As a fan of realist cinema, particularly British-made with a comical streak, I really thought No Surrender would be right up my street. As it turns out, only a very specific audience would be inclined to watch it which makes me doubt the success of its DVD release.