Peter Firth and Alexandra Pigg filming Letter to Brezhnev (Photo by Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Letter to Brezhnev: a lesson for today?

The 1985 film directed by Frank Clarke is a homage not only to Liverpool, but to hope, risk, and love

Artillery Row

Frank Clarke’s Letter to Brezhnev was released in 1985 as a cinematic homage to his home city of Liverpool. It is a bittersweet comedy set in a specific cultural and historical context. The film was brought in on a budget of less than £75,000 and starred Clarke’s sister, Margi, Alexandra Pigg, Alfred Molina, and Peter Firth, and subsequently secured an international release.

Despite its historicity, it offers insight into the nature of human hope and the importance of risk in a life well lived — lessons we would do well to acknowledge in our current economic and moral crises.

Clarke was an established playwright when he wrote the screenplay and this shows in the lyricism of his script which, as you’d expect, beautifully exploits the uniqueness of the Merseyside vernacular. Some of the dialogue is beautifully coarse (“I went with your boyfriend, and you know what? He was useless. I’d have been better off sitting on my little finger” being my own favourite).

The plot is not complex. Two working-class friends — Elaine and Teresa — meet for a drink in the Liverpool suburb of Kirkby. They decide to make a night of it. There is an acceleration of mischief as drinks, a wallet, and then a car are stolen.

The action shifts to the city centre where they meet up with two Russian sailors — Peter and Sergei — who are on 24-hour shore leave. There is a negotiation in a chip shop and the four decide to end the evening as couples were once permitted to do.

Although not quite. Elaine and Peter consummate the evening in chaste and spiritual ways and become engaged. Teresa and Sergei end the encounter in a more orthodox, and sexually energetic, fashion (which Clarke conveys through suggestion and dialogue, and not graphically).

Despite their “engagement” we don’t expect Elaine and Peter ever to see each other again. The second part of the film describes her attempts to come to terms with this, which she can’t. In desperation she writes a letter to the “President of Russia” asking that Peter be allowed to return to Liverpool.

She receives a reply. Although not the one you might expect. And certainly not the one she expected.

The lyricism of the script beautifully exploits the uniqueness of Merseyside vernacular

I was living in Liverpool when Letter to Brezhnev was released. Our city was still getting over the economic shockwaves which followed the death of the port industry. There was a sort of suppressed creativity about the Liverpool of that time and Clarke’s narrative brings that out. Teresa and Elaine have no money but improvise a night on the town. They take chances, usually spur of the moment, and for the most part are rewarded for their cheekiness. Their “victims”, such as they are, do not elicit much sympathy from the viewer, being for the most part either leeches or lechers.

Clarke’s politics are very much on display. He invites us to entertain the idea that it is not Peter who is being held captive in Soviet Russia, but Elaine who is imprisoned by the poverty, tedium, and prejudices of her domestic situation. In the end it is Elaine who breaks free by taking the risk to leave Liverpool and seek whatever awaits her in Russia. She gambles on her heart, against all advice.

Actresses Margi Clarke and Alexandra Pigg pose for the movie Letter to Brezhnev, circa 1985. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Letter to Brezhnev is in a way a letter to us, written from a time in which people were able to drink, hook up, and find joy in the normal transactions of human life. This letter is addressed to a society which has become compliant, joyless and, above all, scared. It is a letter of appropriate reproach. Teresa and Elaine may be poor, but they are spiritually rich. I’m not sure that we can say the same.

In just a few months our society has become transformed into one which assumes that the elimination of risk is both achievable and, more outrageously, desirable. But risk is not something to be avoided; it is to be welcomed and even embraced. The recognition that some things are beyond our control is a necessary condition of our physical, intellectual, and emotional wellbeing. We need to take risks in all areas of our life, and if we are reluctant to do so then we are doing violence to our essential moral nature.

Risk is not something to be avoided; it is to be welcomed and embraced

Liverpool is a deeply religious city. The Anglican and Catholic cathedrals look at each other from opposite ends of Hope Street. The willingness of its citizens to take creative risks might not be unconnected to an underlying religious sensibility. The Jesus of the canonical Gospels sent his followers on Mission. He instructed them not to “take care”, but to take risks (see Luke 12:11). Clarke is a from a deeply Catholic family and there is a timeless moral and religious element to the story of Teresa and Elaine’s night out and to Elaine’s subsequent decision to abandon her life in Liverpool.

Does Elaine find happiness? We never find out. Which implies either (or both) of two things: that the viewer gets to decide, or that the point of the film lies in her decision rather than its consequences.

Margi Clarke told me that she’s up for making a sequel in which her character, Teresa, discovers she’s “up the duff” with twins and follows Elaine to Russia to seek out Sergei (for child support purposes, not romance). I think she was joking – with Margi you can never be sure.

But there already has been a sequel, in a way. On Christmas Eve 2017, 32 years after the film’s release, the actors Peter Firth (Peter) and Alexandra Pigg (Elaine) got married for real. It would be nice to think that this was a case of life imitating art.

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