Liverpool on Film

By David Parkinson | November 11, 2009
Jimmy Aubrey Liverpudlian silent comedian Jimmy Aubrey

As part of Movie City Liverpool, David Parkinson provides a fascinating and thorough history of Merseyside’s multifaceted relationship with the movies.

Part 1: Silent Beginnings

For the last half century, Liverpool has been synonymous with pop music and football. Yet it's been quite some time since a Mersey beat band has dominated the charts, while rival teams Liverpool and Everton are currently going through a trophyless phase. In the midst of this decline, however, Liverpool has emerged as Britain's second busiest film location after London.

Indeed, the cityscape has been a familiar sight for moviegoers since 1896 when Lumière cameraman Alexandre Promio filmed milling pedestrians and horse-drawn trams beside St George's Hall. The following year, a travelling shot taken aboard the Overhead Railway (nicknamed “The Docker's Umbrella”) depicted tall-masted ships at anchor and the port's comings and goings captured the public imagination.

Many landmark images around this period were recorded by documentary cameramen, including several visits by King George V. But Liverpool was also responsible for fostering screen royalty. The 11 year-old Charlie Chaplin attended St Francis Xavier's primary school from October 1900, while his family was playing the region's music halls that would later be the proving ground for both Chaplin and Stan Laurel, as members of the Fred Karno comedy troupe that also launched the career of Jimmy Aubrey.

This pugnacious character became such a key figure in the nascent slapstick community that not only did he get his wish to be paid in gold coins, but he also persuaded Vitagraph's star clown Larry Semon to fire sidekick Oliver Hardy for hogging his limelight. Stan Laurel supervised several Aubrey shorts before his fortunes dipped in the mid-1920s and he ended his career taking bit parts in B movies.

One of the founders of Hollywood also had Liverpudlian roots, as Cecil B. DeMille's mother, Beatrice, was born here in 1853. She was 18 when the Samuel family sailed for New York and was making her name on the stage when she married playwright Henry De Mille in 1876. Her first son, William, became an actor of some note. But Cecil struggled to find a niche before she encouraged him to try his hand at motion pictures and within his first two years on the West Coast he had directed 20 films. Beatrice followed in his wake and, having penned scenarios for directors George Melford and Frank Reicher, produced the storyline for Cecil's 1917 melodrama, The Devil-Stone.

Another exile who made good at this time was Al Hart, who ranked among the stalwarts of the fledgling Western. And outlaws were also beginning to figure in some innovative thrillers back on Merseyside, including The Arrest of Goudie (1901), a prototype crime reconstruction that was screened just three days after Thomas Goudie was apprehended for embezzling £170,000. A decade later, George Pearson demonstrated the growing sophistication of British cinema with the Sherlock Holmes case, A Study in Scarlet (1914), and the Fantômas-like serial, Ultus, the Man from the Dead (1916).

Liverpool's famous waterfront featured even more prominently in A.V. Bramble's take on Silas Hocking's bestselling Dickensian yarn, Her Benny (1920), as Victorian waifs Sydney Wood and Babs Reynolds sold matches and carried luggage at the Pier Head to support their work shy parents. But the most valuable screen record of the period is Anson Dyer's travelogue, A Day in Liverpool (1929), which adopted the `city symphony' style perfected by Walter Ruttmann in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Dziga Vertov in The Man With a Movie Camera (1929).

Dame May Whittys's finest hour in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes

Dame May Whittys's finest hour in
Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes

Part 2: Hollywood on the Mersey


Several low-budget British pictures boasted Scouse settings as silents gave way to talkies, among them Arthur Rooke's The Blue Peter (1928) and Carol Reed's Penny Paradise (1938). But Hollywood also exploited Merseyside's maritime heritage in Alfred E. Green's George Arliss melodrama, Old English (1930), and Henry Hathaway's slave-trading adventure Souls at Sea (1937), which teamed Gary Cooper and George Raft.

The Swiss thinker Carl Jung once described Liverpool as “the pool of life.” But the city's unique ambience depends as much on the personality of the people, as much its exceptional architecture and erstwhile status as the gateway to the British Empire. Given the natural wit and ebullience of the average Wacker, it's hardly surprising that so many have become celebrated screen actors since sound transformed cinema in 1927.

The clipped tones of Leslie Banks might only have been heard from a pulpit if he hadn't become involved with amateur dramatics. The Great War disrupted his stage career and left him with the facial injury that prevented him from becoming a matinee idol. But he excelled on his Hollywood debut, as the demented hunter Count Zaroff in Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel's horror classic, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and returned to Britain to work with Alfred Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Jamaica Inn (1939). In 1937, he co-starred with Henry Fonda in the UK's first Technicolor feature, Harold Schuster's Wings of the Morning, and held his own against Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in William K. Howard's Tudor flagwaver, Fire Over England. Banks reunited with Olivier as The Chorus in the epic colour adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V (1945). But his finest role was as the quisling squire in Alberto Cavalcanti's wartime thriller, Went the Day Well? (1942), which was based on a short story by Graham Greene.

Dame May Whitty was another character player of genuine prowess. The daughter of the editor of the Liverpool Post, she earned plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic for her stage work. Yet despite making her screen debut in Christy Cabanne's Enoch Arden in 1915, the 72 year-old only returned to the screen in 1937 to receive a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for her performance as the testy hypochondriac being menaced by Robert Montgomery in Richard Thorpe's Night Must Fall. She also shone as the eponymous spy in Alfred Hitchcock's train-board classic, The Lady Vanishes (1938), before being nominated for a second time as Teresa Wright's blue-blooded grandmother in William Wyler's Home Front soap, Mrs Miniver (1942). However, Whitty was never wildly impressed by the Hollywood fame game and when asked about glamour by one reporter, she replied, `I've got everything Betty Grable has...only I've had it longer.'

Three Liverpudlian directors also made their mark during cinema's Golden Age.

Charles J. Brabin started out as an actor, but he proved himself a cine-innovator by producing America's first serial, the 12-part What Happened to Mary (1912). Having scored a hit with his Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, The Raven (1915), Brabin met and married Theda Bara, whose performances as an exotic vamp had made her one of the biggest stars in the world. In 1923, he invested his own money in Driven, an experiment in social realism that drew rave reviews, but so alienated studio moguls suspicious of independent production that Louis B. Mayer had him fired from MGM's version of Lew Wallace's Roman blockbuster Ben-Hur (1925) for supposedly losing control of the Italian shoot. Undeterred, Brabin sued for damages and so successfully restored his reputation during the late silent era that Mayer rehired him and he proved himself a master of malevolent morbidity with the Boris Karloff vehicle, The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). MGM had the last word, however, as wünderkind producer Irving G. Thalberg removed Brabin from Rasputin and the Empress (1932) for failing to bring the best out of its stars, Ethel, John and Lionel Barrymore.

Leslie Fenton arrived Stateside as a child and began acting as a teenager. He had a penchant for playing charming lowlifes like Shakespeare in Josef von Sternberg's prototype gangster picture, The Dragnet (1928), Samuel `Nails' Nathan opposite James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) and Harry En Hai alongside Edward G. Robinson in The Hatchet Man (1932), which were both directed by William A. Wellman. But, by the end of the decade, Fenton had retreated behind the camera for the tense MGM programmers, Tell No Tales and Stronger Than Desire (both 1939). However, he was soon relegated to series entries like The Saint's Vacation (1943) for RKO, although he made more of an impression with the Third Reich drama, Tomorrow the World (1944), and the 1948 Alan Ladd outings, Saigon and Whispering Smith.

The last of this triumvirate had the most talent. Arthur B. Woods quit his Cambridge medical studies to work in repertory theatre. Having cut his teeth as an editor with a documentary unit, he became the youngest director at British International Pictures with On Secret Service (1933). Over the next eight years, he made 27 features across the generic range. But he came into his own with They Drive By Night (1938), a quota quickie made for Warner Bros. at Teddington Studios that presaged both social realism and film noir with its brooding tale of a recently released criminal who is wrongly accused of murder. Co-directed with Tim Whelan and starring Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, the espionage gem Q Planes (1939) further bolstered Woods's growing reputation, as did Busman's Holiday (1940), which paired Robert Montgomery and Constance Cummings as Dorothy L. Sayers's sleuths Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. However, it proved to be his last assignment, as Woods became the only British director to volunteer for active duty during the Second World War and he was killed while serving as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force.

A still from Western Approaches (1944)

A still from Western Approaches (1944)

Part 3: Wartime Liverpool

Some of Hollywood's finest were billeted at the RAF base at Burtonwood on the outskirts of Liverpool between 1942-45, chief among them James Stewart, who flew B-24 Liberation bombers on missions over occupied Europe. At various times during this period, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin and Glenn Miller dropped in to entertain the enlisted personnel. Yet because Merseyside was so frequently targeted by the Luftwaffe, location shooting all-but ceased. Nevertheless, John Paddy Carstairs' George Formby farce Spare a Copper (1940), Walter Forde's penny dreadful Atlantic Ferry (1941) and Carl Lamac's domestic drama It Happened One Sunday (1944) all had Liverpool connections.

More significantly, Pat Jackson recruited local seamen for his adrift in the Atlantic masterpiece, Western Approaches (1944), in which the crew of a lifeboat attempts to warn the vessel coming to its rescue of the proximity of the U-boat that torpedoed its convoy supply ship. Commissioned by the Crown Film Unit and photographed in Technicolor in often hazardous conditions by Jack Cardiff, this audacious blend of human drama and combat thriller proved much more effective propaganda than the more gung-ho actioners produced in wartime Hollywood. Moreover, Jackson (who is now in his 90s) anticipated neo-realism in his insistence on authentic situations and the use of non-professional performers and it's high time that this remarkable achievement was recognised as one of the most important British films ever made.

While Western Approaches aroused patriotic pride in domestic audiences, the comedies of Liverpudlian funnymen Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley helped maintain spirits during some of the darkest days of the conflict. In tandem with Richard “Stinker” Murdoch, “Big-Hearted Arthur” enjoyed his biggest success with Val Guest's 1939 screen version of the hit radio show, Band Waggon, while Handley also reprised his airwaves success as the mayor of Foaming-at-the-Mouth in Walter Forde's It's That Man Again (1943). Handley reunited with Forde for Time Flies (1944), in which he travelled back to the Elizabethan era in inventor Felix Aylmer's time machine. But although he died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1949, the genius of ITMA will be forever commemorated on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), as Handley is the man in the flat cap next to Marilyn Monroe.

Diane Cilento and Susan Hayward in I Thank a Fool

Diane Cilento and Susan Hayward in I
Thank a Fool

Part 4: Wit and Grit

The tone of British comedy changed after the war and one of the prime movers was born a ferry ride across the water in Wallasey. On leaving Oxford, Charles Crichton worked as an editor on several prestigious Alexander Korda productions before joining Ealing Studios in 1940. His directorial debut, For Those in Peril (1944), was a docudramatic tribute to the Fleet Air Arm's air-sea rescue teams. But its scenarist, TEB Clarke, was an even keener observer of the foibles of the British character and, together with Crichton, he developed the Ealing Comedy template with Hue and Cry (1947), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). Although he went on to prove a versatile filmmaker, Crichton was always associated with lighter entertainments. So, having made several business training videos with John Cleese, he signed up for the Ealingesque A Fish Called Wanda (1988), which earned Crichton Oscar nods as both director and co-writer.

Tibby Clarke continued to alternate between gentle farce and gritty realism and his script for Charles Frend's The Magnet (1950) combines comic-strip fantasy with rough verism, as 10 year-old James Fox (billed here as William) cons a boy into swapping his prized magnet for an invisible watch. This is essentially a bourgeois parable. But it bears a passing resemblance to the `rubble films' being made at the time in the divided Germany and not only were Scouse accents audible, but Chinese kid Geoffrey Yin provided a rare screen example of Britain's growing multiculturalism.

As a thriving port, Liverpool was exposed to overseas influence more consistently than the remainder of the rather insular island. But the peripatetic lifestyle of the mercantile crews led to much domestic instability, as Michael Anderson revealed in Waterfront (1950), in which embittered mariner Robert Newton returns home 14 years after abandoning wife Kathleen Harrison to find himself ostracised by daughters Avis Scott and Susan Shaw.

Despite Newton's grandstanding as the soused salt who winds up behind bars for killing a shipmate, this slum saga brought an edge to Liverpool movies that has since become their leitmotif. The influence of American problem pictures and rock 'n' roll also impinged upon Mersey movies as post-war conformity and consensus began to crumble.

In Herbert Wilcox's These Dangerous Years (1957), gang leader and wannabe rocker Frankie Vaughan kicks against army discipline when he is called up for National Service. And just as George Baker's padre tries to help Vaughan, so priest Peter Cushing and juvenile liaison officer Stanley Baker seek to put pyromaniac David McCallum back on the straight and narrow in Basil Dearden's Violent Playground (1958).

Even Hollywood stars were tempted to Liverpool in the 1950s, with Abbott and Costello, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Laurel and Hardy, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Betty Hutton, Donald O'Connor and Jimmy Durante among those to play the famous Empire Theatre.

In 1959, Van Johnson headlined Jack Cardiff's 1959 adaptation of the AJ Cronin novel, Beyond This Place (known as Web of Evidence in the U.S.), as a wartime evacuee who returns from the States for the first time in 20 years to discover that the father he thought died a war hero is actually languishing in prison for murder. And Susan Hayward similarly endures injustice in Robert Stevens' I Thank a Fool (1962), as her Canadian medic is jailed for the mercy killing of her married lover and then framed by prosecuting attorney Peter Finch for the death of his mentally unstable wife, Diane Cilento.

Rex Harrison with his Oscar (and My Fair Lady co-star Audrey Hepburn)

Rex Harrison with his Oscar (and
My Fair Lady co-star Audrey

Part 5: Scouse Oscar Winners

Few Liverpudlian performers made a commensurate impact on Tinseltown during the 40s and 50s, although Patricia Medina co-starred with Gene Kelly in George Sidney's The Three Musketeers (1948) before forging swashbuckling partnerships with Louis Hayward and Alan Ladd. Yet while she remained in demand, the likes of Orson Welles' Mr Arkadin (1955) were outnumbered by such B-Hive fodder as Walter Lang's Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961).

Medina briefly made a comeback alongside Beryl Reid and Susannah York in Robert Aldrich's lesbian drama, The Killing of Sister George (1968). But there were no second chances for Gia Scala. Born in Liverpool, but raised in Sicily, Scala studied at the Actors Studio and made such a solid impression opposite Robert Mitchum in Robert Aldrich's The Angry Hills (1959) that she was cast as a Greek resistance fighter beside Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn in J. Lee Thompson's The Guns of Navarone (1961). However, a combination of alcohol and deep-rooted insecurity made her increasingly erratic. With the studios unwilling to risk her unpredictability after a series of arrests, Scala tried her luck in television and gaudy European actioners before committing suicide in April 1972.

John Gregson's big-screen career had ended the previous year in Peter Collison's chiller, Fright. However, he left an enduring legacy, whose undoubted high point was Henry Cornelius's vintage car classic, Genevieve (1953), in which Gregson and wife Dinah Sheridan raced from Brighton to London against spiky Kenneth More and his trumpet-playing girlfriend, Kay Kendall. But while Gregson occasionally returned to comedy, it tended to be in minor outings like Ken Annakin's Value for Money (1955) and Jack Lee's The Captain's Table (1959), as he alternated between military types in George More O'Ferrall's Angels One Five (1952) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Battle of the River Plate (1956), and rough diamonds in Roy Ward Baker's Jacqueline (1956) and George Pollock's Rooney (1958). However, Gregson's easy-going style felt from favour in an age of angry young men.

Glenda Jackson won her second Academy Award opposite George Segal in A Touch of Class

Glenda Jackson won her second Academy
Award opposite George Segal in A Touch
of Class

By contrast, Rex Harrison didn't just manage to survive the rise of kitchen sink realism, it heralded an upturn in his filmic fortunes. He had become something of a matinee idol in such diverse features as King Vidor's medical drama The Citadel (1938), Carol Reed's thriller Night Train to Munich (1940), David Lean's take on Noël Coward's spectral romance Blithe Spirit and Sidney Gilliat's class comedy, The Rake's Progress (both 1945). But his seven-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox was cancelled after John Cromwell's Anna and the King of Siam (1946), Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours (1948) disappointed at the box-office. Worse still, Harrison became mired in scandal when actress lover Carole Landis killed herself.

Licking his wounds on Broadway, he was cast as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady and when George Cukor came to film the show, producer Jack Warner wanted Cary Grant to co-star with Audrey Hepburn. However, he refused saying, `not only will I not play in it, but if Rex Harrison doesn't do it, I won't even go to see it'.

Harrison won the Academy Award for Best Actor and was hurriedly signed to play Pope Julius II to Charlton Heston's Michelangelo in Carol Reed's Sistine Chapel epic The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and the veterinarian who could talk to the animals in Richard Fleischer's musical, Doctor Dolittle (1967). However, this misfire came as close to bankrupting Fox as Joe Mankiewicz's Cleopatra (1963), in which Harrison had played Caesar, and he largely devoted himself to the stage after shocking fans and critics alike by essaying a gay Brixton hairdresser opposite Richard Burton in Stanley Donen's Staircase (1969).

Sexy Rexy wasn't Merseyside's only Oscar winner in this period, as Birkenhead-born Glenda Jackson won the Best Actress statuette twice, for Ken Russell's Women in Love (1969) and Melvin Frank's A Touch of Class (1973). She was also nominated for John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) and Trevor Nunn's Hedda (1975). But Jackson was never one to court approval or take easy options and, having returned to Merseyside to play a boutique owner fighting for her rights in Lezli-An Barrett's anti-Thatcherite drama Business As Usual (1987), she was elected to parliament as a Labour MP in 1992.

John Lennon during the filming of How I Won the War

John Lennon during the filming of
How I Won the War

Part 6: The Swinging Sixties

Tom Bell, Rita Tushingham, Leonard Rossiter, Norman Rossington and scream queen Barbara Steele all made their mark during the 1960s, as the world's attention was focused on Liverpool by the cultural phenomenon that was The Beatles. But while Merseybeat rivals like Gerry and the Pacemakers laboured in Jerry Summers's Ferry Cross the Mersey (1964), the Fab Four acted naturally in the Richard Lester showcases A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), appeared in cartoon form in George Dunning's psychedelic Yellow Submarine (1968) and allowed their break-up to be chronicled by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in the documentary Let It Be (1970). The latter won the band the Oscar for Best Song. But each Beatle has made a separate contribution to the moving image.

Having become the first Fab to go solo in order to take a supporting role in Dick Lester's How I Won the War (1966), John Lennon produced a series of avant-garde shorts with Yoko Ono, with Rape (1969) shockingly exposing the objectification of women by having a cameraman relentlessly pursue Eva Majlata through a city's streets before assaulting her. Paul McCartney composed the charming score for Roy Boulting's The Family Way (1966) and earned Best Song nominations for Live and Let Die (1973) and Vanilla Sky (2001). He has also shown a keen interest in animation, writing the song that inspired Oscar Grillo's Palme d'or-winning short Seaside Woman (1980) and voicing the part of Rumpelstiltskin in DreamWorks's forthcoming Shrek Forever After.

Despite an indifferent display in McCartney's vanity vehicle, Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), Ringo Starr has proved himself to be a more than competent actor, most notably opposite Peter Sellers in Joseph McGrath's The Magic Christian (1969) and David Essex in Claude Whatham's rite of 50s passage, That'll Be the Day (1973). However, it was George Harrison who turned out to be the combo's movie mogul, as his HandMade Films not only rescued the cash-strapped production of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), but also helped revive the British film industry by sponsoring such modern classics as John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday (1980), Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986) and Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I (1987).

The Swinging Sixties took their toll on Liverpool, as the city went into serious social, economic and cultural decline. Of the few films to be made on Merseyside over the next 15 years, the only standouts were Jack Gold's The Reckoning (1969), in which Nicol Williamson returns home to avenge his father's death at the hands of some local thugs, and Stephen Frears's Gumshoe (1971), in which Albert Finney excels as the bingo caller whose love of pulp fiction prompts him to set up a detective agency.

Although Alan Bridges twice won the Palme d'or at Cannes with The Hireling (1973) and The Shooting Party (1985), other established directors like Peter Whitehead (Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, 1967) and Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968) discovered their best days were behind them. Indeed, just as producer Phil Redmond was putting Liverpool back on the dramatic map with the Channel 4 soap opera Brookside (1982-2003) and Chris Barnard was drawing plaudits for the Cold War romcom Letter to Brezhnev (1985), the balance of creative power was shifting decisively towards the city's writers.

Frank Cottrell Boyce is one of the best writers to emerge recently from Merseyside

Frank Cottrell Boyce is one of the best
writers to emerge recently from Merseyside

Part 7: Scouse Scribes

Identical twins Anthony and Peter Shaffer each had their moments of triumph, with the former enjoying a run of hits that included Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1971), Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Sleuth (1972) and Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973), as well as the Agatha Christie whodunits Death on the Nile (1978), Evil Under the Sun (1982) and Appointment with Death (1988). By the release of the latter, however, Peter had followed an Oscar nomination for adapting his theatrical succès de scandale Equus (1977) by winning the Academy Award for Milos Forman's Amadeus (1984).

Having become a familiar face in the TV cop show Z Cars (1962-65) and made an estimable screenwriting bow with John Schlesinger's Yanks (1979), Colin Welland also won an Oscar for Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire (1981). He famously closed his acceptance speech by averring that the British were coming. But it proved to be a false boast, with Welland's own career lurching between Bud Yorkin's Twice in a Lifetime (1985), Euzhan Palcy's A Dry White Season (1989) and John Roberts's War of the Buttons (1994).

Like many before him, horror specialist Clive Barker (Hellraiser, 1987 & Candyman, 1992) left Liverpool as his star rose. But Alan Bleasdale set such epochal teleplays as The Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) in his own backyard and caught the mood of a nation suffering the consequences of Margaret Thatcher's draconian economic reforms. Bleasdale ventured on to the big screen for No Surrender (1985), but his niche remained disconcerting armchair audiences with his incisive social critique and genius for street argot.

While Bleasdale started out writing for the Liverpool Playhouse, Willy Russell found his voice at the nearby Everyman Theatre before making his small-screen mark with Our Day Out (1978). His great strength has always been penning memorable roles for women and he earned both Julie Walters and Pauline Collins Oscar nominations in Lewis Gilbert's respective adaptations of Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989).

Even more combative than Bleasdale, Jimmy McGovern has also done his best work for television. Unable to speak until he was seven years old, McGovern job hopped before joining the Brookside writing team in 1982. Having learned his craft, he scripted acclaimed series like Cracker (1993-95), as well as such powerful and politically committed TV-movies as Hillsborough (1996), Dockers (1999) and Sunday (2002). However, his inability to rein in a tendency towards emotional excess has undermined such feature efforts as Antonia Bird's Priest (1994), Charles McDougall's Heart (1998) and Stephen Frears's Liam (2000), which was particularly frustrating in the latter instance, as it explored the potentially fascinating subject of anti-Semitism in Depression-era Liverpool.

Another Brookside alumnus, Frank Cottrell Boyce, has made a much smoother transition to cinema. His partnership with director Michael Winterbottom has been particularly fruitful, with original features like Butterfly Kiss (1995), Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) and 24 Hour Party People (2002) being complemented by The Claim (2000) and A Cock and Bull Story (2005), which were respectively based on Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Cottrell Boyce's Jacqueline du Pré biopic, Hilary and Jackie (1998), was also admired, as was his adaptation of his own children's novel, Millions (2004), which was charmingly directed by Danny Boyle.

There have been brickbats, however, with both Pandaemonium (2000), Julien Temple's revisionist take on Wordsworth's friendship with Coleridge, and Richard Laxton's Liverpool allotments comedy Grow Your Own (2007) being coolly received. Cottrell Boyce similarly stumbled with his 2002 reworking of Thomas Middleton's Revengers Tragedy for Alex Cox. However, the maverick auteur has bounced back from bigger setbacks than this.

Alex Cox

Alex Cox

Part 8: Contrasting Auteurs

Cox began impressively, debuting with Repo Man (1984), whose mix of sci-fi, social satire and punk attitude made it an instant cult classic. He was also commended for Sid and Nancy (1986), which charted Sex Pistol Sid Vicious's tempestuous relationship with groupie Nancy Spungen. But he rejected offers to direct ¡Three Amigos! (1986), Robocop and The Running Man (both 1987) and his stock dipped sharply after the pseudo-spaghetti Western Straight to Hell and the self-consciously anachronistic biopic Walker (both 1987) were trashed in the US press.

Struggling to greenlight another project, Cox eventually made the Spanish-language docudrama Highway Patrolman (1991). But his adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges's Death and the Compass (1992) drew mixed notices and his well-publicised creative differences with the suits producing Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) led to his replacement by Terry Gilliam.

Cox returned to Liverpool for both Three Businessmen (1998), a Buñuelian satire in which he also co-starred, and his aforementioned dystopic update of Middleton's Jacobean melodrama. But, even though neither was particularly admired, Cox continues to go his own sweet way, following the Western road movie Searchers 2.0 (2007), which was co-financed by Roger Corman, with Repo Chick (2009), in which disinherited heiress Jaclyn Jonet falls in with a gang of golf-hating vegan terrorists.

Terence Davies

Terence Davies

Despite being markedly less nonconformist and much more a darling of the critics, Terence Davies has also had difficulty funding films. Abandoning a fitful acting career, Davies established himself as a directorial talent with a shorts trilogy comprising Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983). He drew again on his childhood experiences within a working-class family for Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), which expertly combined nostalgia for the communality of Liverpudlian life in the 1940s and 50s with fear of belligerent masculinity and guilt at burgeoning homosexuality. The latter was lauded at Cannes, as was The Neon Bible (1994), Davies's adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's teenage account of growing up among doughty women and violent men in the southern state of Georgia in the immediate post-war era.

However, Davies departed from previous preoccupations with The House of Mirth (2000), Edith Wharton's study of conformity, hypocrisy, passion and regret amidst polite New York society at the turn of the last century. Yet, despite it garnering international acclaim, Davies failed to find funding for further projects until he embarked upon the mellifluous memoir Of Time and the City (2008) under the auspices of the Digital Departures initiative that was established to mark Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture. With its blend of found footage and waspish commentary, this bittersweet paean to a bygone age restored Davies to the British screen pantheon and it will be interesting to see what this irrepressible sixtysomething does next.

David Morrisey’s Don’t Worry About Me (2009) is a sign of a promising future for Liverpool movies

David Morrisey’s Don’t Worry About Me
(2009) is a sign of a promising future for
Liverpool movies

Part 9: The Mersey Boom

As for Liverpool itself, the movie boom that began in the early 1990s continues to gather momentum. Local actors like Alison Steadman, Paul McGann, Ian Hart, Jason Isaacs, Pete Postlethwaite, David Morrissey and Daniel Craig remain very much in demand for local and major studio pictures alike, while the city's landscape keeps decorating titles as diverse as Yentl (1983), The Hunt For Red October (1989), In The Name of the Father (1993), The Dark Knight (2008) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (2010).

Recognisable Liverpool genres are also starting to emerge, with Jim Doyle's Going Off Big Time (2000), Ronny Yu's Formula 51, Don Boyd's My Kingdom (both 2001) and James Marquand's Dead Man's Cards (2005) providing northern variations on the BritCrime formula, while Lawrence Gough's Salvage and Pat Holden's Awaydays (both 2009) chimed in with the current UK vogues for movies about zombies and football hooligans.

With Scousers being famed for their sense of humour, there has been no shortage of feel-good offerings like James Cellan Jones's Married 2 Malcolm (1998), Lee Donaldson's The Virgin of Liverpool (2003) and Sol Papadopoulos's Under the Mud (2006). Celebrations of the city's cultural heritage have also abounded, among them Mike Newell's An Awfully Big Adventure (1995), Bryan Izzard's Julie and the Cadillacs (1997) and Nick Mead's Swing (1999).

The most bankable standby, however, is the Beatle biopic. The finest examples to date are Christopher Munch's The Hours and Times (1991) and Iain Softley's Backbeat (1994). But Sam Taylor Wood's reconstruction of John Lennon's adolescence, Nowhere Boy (2009), is soon to be followed by Tony Gittelson's Brian Epstein tribute, A Life in the Day, and there are even rumours that Robert Zemeckis will supervise a 3-D reworking of Yellow Submarine.

Despite what the tabloid press might say, there's much more to Liverpool than scallies, soft lads and singers although Peter Chelsom managed to shoehorn all three into Hear My Song (1992). Strong women are one of the city's specialities, as can be seen from Jim O'Brien's The Dressmaker (1988), Frank Clarke's Blonde Fist (1991), Carine Adler's Under the Skin and Frances-Anne Solomon's Peggy Su! (both 1996).

The latter was set in the bustling Chinatown district and it would be good to see more movies embracing Liverpool's ethnic diversity. A few more dramas reflecting its passionate political past, like Ken Loach's Land and Freedom (1995), would also be welcome. And it's high time somebody examined the shameful profiteering from the slave trade that underwrote the city's architectural glories.

For now, however, let's just be grateful that Liverpool is producing such imaginative, if imperfect pictures as Nicola Scott's Fated (2004), Lindy Heymann's Kicks and David Morrissey's Don't Worry About Me (both 2009) – although there's no harm in hoping that Mike Myers (whose father Eric was a Scouser) can find the cash to adapt Nicky Allt's play, One Night in Istanbul, and further immortalise Liverpool's against-all-odds victory over AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final.

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