Call me a sentimental old northerner, but the opening to Letter to Brezhnev remains one of my favourite moments of celluloid. Whilst budgetary constraints mean that it may not be as epic as it clearly wants to be, it nevertheless understands that Liverpool is a British city to be mythologised; we see Peter Firth and Alfred Molina’s Russian sailors on deck in the last stretches of the Irish Sea, excited to clap eyes on the wondrous Three Graces of Liverpool by the evening light. Accompanied by Alan Gill’s (of Teardrop Explodes and Dalek I Love You pop music fame) soaring score, the camera sweeps across the remaining stretch of water to rise up across the city skyline.
It’s the perfect love letter to the city.
And overall, Chris Bernard’s film, from a script by Frank Clarke (adapted from his own stage play), continues to be the almost perfect love letter to Liverpool. Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke (Frank’s sister) star as two salt of the earth Kirkby girls, Elaine and Teresa – the former a dreamer and the latter a realist – who optimistically head out into Liverpool one night whereupon they meet Peter (Firth) and Sergei (Molina) on shore leave. Whilst the brassy Teresa enjoys a simple night of orgiastic pleasure with Sergei, Elaine finds something deeper with the more sensitive Firth. Like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, come the next day the Russians have to reboard their ship and head back beyond the iron curtain, leaving Elaine heartbroken and love sick, her only option to fix matters being the titular ‘letter to Brezhnev’; a plea to be reunited with the man she loves.
It’s a far from perfect film, it’s rather naive and all too often it betrays its shoddy budget (Margi Clarke famously announced it was made for the equivalent of “the cocaine budget on Rambo”) but its heart is always in the right place. It’s a film about daring to dream and having the courage to break out from the doldrums of Thatcher’s Britain for love – even if that love just so happens to be in Soviet Russia. What helps Letter to Brezhnev is the vibrant, energetic and exuberant performances from the cast which belie the brittle nature of the characters they portray. It’s a film blessed with tough, rough charm and perhaps an unexpected rom-com sweetness that has proven to be deeply influential in the years that followed (that first episode of Gavin and Stacey anyone?) Margi Clarke was never better than she was here and Peter Firth and Alexandra Pigg make the most affecting of star-crossed lovers.
And the film’s real happy ending? Firth and Pigg enjoyed an on-set romance whilst making the film before going their separate ways. However, they reunited in 2010 and remain together to this very day.