Know your past live your future

Frank Clarke by Paul Flynn

Frank Clarke by Paul Flynn

Illustration by Elena Durey based on the poster by Jamie Reid

Paul Flynn is an author and journalist. He is Senior Contributing Editor at Love magazine and a columnist at Grazia and Attitude. His first book, Good As You, a personal and pop-cultural mapping of the thirty years preceding British legal gay equality in the UK came out in 2017, published by Ebury.

When two plucky young Liverpool lasses go for a night out to The State ballroom, one of their lives changes forever. They cop for a pair of Russian sailors whose ship has landed on the dockyards of the Mersey. Booked into a pair of adjacent rooms at a cheap city motel, one couple stay up all night stirring every noisy flavour of sex they can into their brief encounter. The other barely kiss but fall deep into the satisfying shape of one another. It’s love at first sight. 

I saw Letter to Brezhnev at The Tatton cinema, South Manchester first in 1985. I was 14. I’ve seen it scores of times since. It’s my favourite film. Going to the pictures was a treat back then. The seats were covered in crushed velveteen, with a smoking section up the back. Frolicking couples could book a double. It was a lively, shared experience, one that might mean a conversation with a stranger outside about what you’d just seen. There was sometimes an alchy who the usherettes politely ignored keeping warm from the Manchester wind with a bottle of barely-concealed Thunderbird. 

Nobody spoke during Letter to Brezhnev. There was barely the rustle from the opening of a family pack of Maltezers. This was the first time we’d seen ourselves, or versions of ourselves painted into a big screen fairy-tale. It was like Hollywood had decided to up sticks and move in next door.    

By the time the credits rolled, I was cast under the spell of the film’s writer, Frank Clarke. I thought, one day I want to be him, to do something like that. His name stuck. His ear for a particular, pointed, biting wit unique to Scouse gay men was transposed into the mouths of Teresa and Elaine, the brilliant girls who borrow one of their mum’s rent money, earned lucklessly at the local chicken-stuffing factory to go out on the pull. By the time Elaine gets an audience with the Russian President, in response to the letter of the title you could hear a pin drop in The Tatton. We left, not a dry eye in the house. 

Like Tennessee Williams at his most imploringly desperate, Capote his most winningly forensic and Coronation Street on a particularly spruce day, there is something heroic about the language of gay fictionalists who understand how to parlay their dialect into inarguable mainstream hits. With his love letter to Liverpool and masterly critique of what the Thatcher years were doing to it, Frank Clarke became an honorary member of that elite. 

I knew a bit about masterful Liverpudlian writers at the time, stuff I’d picked up and warmed to in the ether. Like everyone, I loved Liverpool’s new soap opera, Brookside, where Frank Clarke cut his writing teeth. The frontmen of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Dead or Alive had sponged up punk’s chaos and married it to something appealingly both poetic and pop. My big brother moved to the city and I liked the chatter at The Everyman theatre bar when I caught the National Express bus over to see him. 

A year earlier, I’d acted in a professional production of Willy Russell’s wonderful errant comprehensive school drama, Our Day Out, when Manchester’s Library Theatre Company came casting round the tatty schools in our neighbourhood for that proper authentic feel. One of Ken Barlow’s girlfriends played the sexy teacher, the first person I ever met off the telly. True to local Catholic form, a girl from my year became the first of a short procession of gym-slip mums parading the corridors after getting impregnated in a store cupboard by a handsome young lad called Des during the last night party. That same night was the first time I ever got properly drunk and kissed anyone. Both tasted delicious. 

The verbiage of Letter to Brezhnev, understood through a night on the tiles with Elaine and Teresa was something else entirely, though. Frank understood the implicit fabulosity of being common and revelling in it, of enjoying and maximising your own small space in the world. That alchemical, regal majesty of having nothing, not so much as a pot to piss in and turning it into something big and bright and blousy and wild, because if you don’t, nobody else is going to do it for you. He gives his beautiful stars the hopefulness of a Friday night in all its neon splendour and gratification; of painting a glossy coat of lippy on, throwing a pint back, kicking a heel off for a dance before grabbing a gallant grope down a dimly-lit ginnel and wondering how that might play out in the midst of tomorrow’s hangover. 

Watching Letter to Brezhnev anywhere in the world is a thrilling experience. It’s alive with the vitality of love-bites and hairspray, the blind faith and redemptive promise of finding someone who might love you back while dancing to the percussive thump of a disco beat. Watching it at The Tatton was particularly gratifying in retrospect, if only because that cinema at that time was full of Teresa and Elaines. God knows what it felt like in Liverpool. These are the folk who make Britain great. I love them now as I loved them then. They are exuberance and joy, hard as nails, soft to the touch. No-one will ever take care of you like they will. They clack and bounce. You never forget them. Frank Clarke revels in every caustic, thrilling bone in their bodies (I’ve been friends with many Teresa and Elaines over the years since seeing them first immortalised on screen and should be clear here: not all are women).   

The story of Letter to Brezhnev is not per se a happy one, but it would make its own great screenplay one day, too. The closest I ever got to hearing it first-hand was from the retelling of Frank’s sister, Margi Clarke, who famously plays Teresa in his film, rollicking the sidekick character into three glorious dimensions. I was deposited up to Liverpool to interview her for a magazine one amazing afternoon in 2012. She’d always been on my wish-list. Watching her waltz across the forecourt of Lime Street station, just like Teresa, still rocking that Diana Dors-blonde bob and the size of a door-mouse, was as exciting for a gay man my age as meeting Madonna. I told her so. Margi is everything Northern glamour contains; self-made, raw, exquisite, a touch scary, like a finely-chiselled little emerald. 

Oh, but she can talk. In a café on the other side of town, Margi explained that Frank had written the film on holiday in the Isle of Man. He’d signed a lousy deal with the producers which basically gave his rights away. The upside of Brezhnev’s off-screen life, it turned out, is that Alexandra Pigg, who plays Elaine, eventually got together with Peter Firth, who plays her Russian heartthrob, in real life. The down is that not ten years ago, the producers signed a deal to give away a free DVD of it in a cheap paper jacket sellotaped to the front cover of The Daily Mail, an act of absolute artistic blasphemy in such oppositional contrast to the clean, pure heart of Letter to Brezhnev they might just as well have burned the original reels in front of Frank Clarke’s face. Obviously, nobody was going to buy it, granting him the paltry sums he could add up from his shares of the retail hard copy after that.

So the film was a true labour of love in every sense of the expression, one that barely earned the family a penny (another Clarke sibling, Angela, is momentarily unforgettable in it). Frank wrote two further, excellent films; Fruit Machine, about a couple of rent boys on the run; then Blond Fist, in which Margi plays a champion boxer with sound, fury and all the rest. Advertising hoarding posters ripped down of his work were little badges of discernment I learned to gauge from the bedrooms of the boys I visited in my first fully gay years during my late teens. Watching Brezhnev became, for me as I suspect many others a sort of unofficial good-boyfriend test. They either got it (keeper) or they didn’t (bin). If they could quote particularly epic, gobstopper lines scripted by Frank’s hand, sight unseen? Bingo. 

Frank’s films were all so wildly ahead of their time, rooted in their historic moment by the force of his voice singing out in each whip-smart turn of phrase, parsed to perfection. He made sitting in a cinema feel like overhearing a succession of brilliant conversations on a bus. Yet he didn’t follow in the grand North-Western lineage of a writer like Willy Russell, who later won an Oscar for Educating Rita or Mike Leigh, whose favoured British class demotic was always Lower-Middle. No-one found a place as an unusual, exceptional oddity, one of those needle in a haystack truth-tellers in the heartland British cinema establishment for Frank Clarke as they did Ken Loach. He wasn’t littered with awards like that other master of the vernacular who schooled himself as a Brookside scriptwriter, Jimmy McGovern. In the end, I can’t help but feel that this is because all of Frank Clarke’s peers and contemporaries were straight and wrote in discernibly straight tongues. Still, none of them wrote Letter to Brezhnev either. 

Being gay was considered front-page news back then. You’d probably die of it. To be straight was thought of as unequivocally the better course to walk through life, even if dishonestly. These pervasive, rotten little discriminations filter down onto the street. It is culture’s job to defy them, a job which Frank took on, robustly. The fussy establishment homosexual of the BBC may have been fully conversant with the rough trade of their occasional employment but they certainly didn’t want to read film scripts of rent boys telling their side of the story.  

You can feel Frank Clarke’s influence everywhere. The exceptional Midlands film-maker Shane Meadows’ open, proud, honest love of his regionalism is pure Frank. Anyone who’s seen and loved Moonlight will recognise something of the sad restraint of Fruit Machine in its sombre tonality, pricked by bravery. The painful similarity of Gavin and Stacey’s opening sequence to the story set-up of Letter to Brezhnev felt close enough to me when I first saw it to warrant a law suit. Conversely, Jonathan Harvey’s work as a scriptwriter always feels like it’s come from the exceptional imagination of someone who didn’t just come out of a cinema after seeing Frank’s work saying I want to do something like that, but actually did it and did it his own way. There is a whole bucket-load of that tartly devastating Clarke family genealogy in first Lily Savage, then Paul O’Grady’s stage and screen demeanour. There’s a trace of the Clarkes’ no-nonsense singularity, that love of standing alone from the crowd in a bold figure like Joey Barton, even. 

That afternoon in Liverpool, I planted a sort of idea with Margi Clarke that maybe I’d like to speak to Frank sometime, perhaps. I mean, never meet your heroes and all that but the conversation would only really have to consist of two words: thank you. She said he was living quietly, semi-reclusively near to where the family grew up at the time. It never happened. 

Last year, he appeared at a screening celebrating some anniversary or another of Brezhnev’s in Liverpool, the first time he’s been publicly associated with his fantastic feature film in a long, long while. Perhaps the sting of being fleeced for his masterwork is beginning to soften. Perhaps it’s nice to know that his finely tuned local heroism reverberates still in unusual corners, embedding itself in all the new Teresa and Elaine’s that still want to believe in the simple but never repeated enough truism that love, in the end, will win. 

This is why I love the work of Frank Clarke so much. Supplanting the potency of love’s raw force in a young gay mind felt like a personal gift from him to me. I wasn’t hearing it from the school, the church or the government at the time. It wasn’t in the papers, unless surrounded by incumbent disaster, shame, illness, crime or personal misfortune. Pop music was getting usefully voluble on the subject and the odd hairdresser passed on a bit of buoyant inspiration but really, that was about it. So the centrally coded message of overcoming an obstacle to find love reverberated with particular poignancy, an intimacy that couldn’t have felt closer if the writer had whispered it directly in my ear. The story was never really about writing a letter to a communist leader to get your mittens back on a hot sailor. Its essence was much closer to home than that. I’ve since devoured every one of its vital lessons.        

Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.

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