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The great rock’n’roll swindle

This boorish romp does a disservice to the memory of 1960s pirate radio

Pirate stations of the mid-1960s such as Radio Caroline and Radio London broadcast from ships anchored in the North Sea, and catered to an appetite for pop music that the parsimonious BBC was in no danger of sating. The DJs, including John Peel, introduced listeners to unconventional, life-changing music – not that you would know it from The Boat That Rocked, which uses the fictional station Radio Rock to document the rise of the pirates, and their demise under the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act 1967. With the exception of the hippie Bob (Ralph Brown), the broadcasters here are misogynistic braggarts who wouldn’t notice if there was a haggis on their turntable instead of a disc. Richard Curtis’s film, simultaneously vulgar and sentimental, asks that we wring out a tear for their passing, but most handkerchiefs are likely to remain undampened.

Hugh Grant has always been Curtis’s leading man of choice, so the one shock in this film is that there is no role for that poster-boy of English self-deprecation. Curtis instead demonstrates his range as a dramatist by taking as his hero 18-year-old Carl (Tom Sturridge, a good egg with an RP accent, who is given to nervousness around women. Any resemblance to Grant’s persona is probably coincidental.

Carl joins the ship under the auspices of his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy), the station owner, and falls in with the DJs, each one a comic trait masquerading as a character. The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the anarchic top dog. Angus (Rhys Darby) is a comic who thinks he’s funnier than he is. (You might say he’s the embodiment of the film.) Katherine Parkinson, who has killer timing, plays Felicity, the sole woman on the ship, whose every line of dialogue refers to the fact that she is a lesbian, just in case we should stop defining her by her sexuality for a moment. It’s the same for Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), whose name is corroborated with each wearisome appearance. Curtis can’t see that not all running jokes are cut out for marathons.

For a film that crosses the two-hour mark, surprisingly little happens. There’s a promise, half-reneged on, of rivalry between the Count and Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a supposedly legendary broadcaster whose appeal seems to rest on unzipping his trousers on air and telling listeners: “I can see up your skirt.” The movie’s ugliest point comes when another DJ, Dave (Nick Frost), offers to help Carl lose his virginity. Dave pops out to the bathroom just before having sex with a groupie, and altruistically entreats Carl to take his place back in the darkened cabin. The physical disparity – Carl is a slip of a thing, Dave a sturdy XXL – makes the scenario intentionally ridiculous, but no less an attempt to show the lighter side of attempted sexual assault.

With its montages of ordinary folk huddled around transistors, busting a gut at those wacky DJs, or weeping over the station’s future, the picture recalls Good Morning, Vietnam, and will delight anyone who believed that that film was let down by its focus on just one smarmy, egotistical DJ, rather than an entire gang. It is hard, under the circumstances, not to root for Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), the spoilsport minister trying to close the station down. Certainly, my heart went out to Branagh himself, forced to grovel for laughs by saying “Twatt” repeatedly. Twatt (Jack Davenport) is Dormandy’s sidekick. Can you imagine the hilarity when Curtis came up with that? The man must keep a vigil at his radio, waiting on tenterhooks for the merest mention of Ed Balls.

The failings of The Boat That Rocked are not restricted to a lack of wit. It has roughly as much period authenticity as an Austin Powers movie, and is suspect at the basic level of detail. No one used the phrase “thinking outside the box” in 1966, and Sixties teenagers would be more likely to say “Durex” or “rubber Johnny” than “condom”. Radio Rock also has access to a time machine, if the inclusion on its playlist of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, a full year before the song was recorded, is any indication. (The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, from 1971, is also heard.)

More insulting is the supreme disservice Curtis does the real pirate stations. His film makes the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act seem like a smart idea that should have come sooner.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue