The year was 1966 and the only radio station to officially play pop music in the United Kingdom was on the BBC, which gave over forty-five minutes a day to it. Obviously with such a vibrant culture being missed out on by the mass media, there was a gap in the market, so the pirate radio stations were dreamt up to fill it, situated on ships anchored in the North Sea who would play pop and rock twenty-four hours a day. This did not endear them to the government, who acted to close them down, but while the likes of Radio Rock were on the air, it was a golden age...
Although you'd be forgiven for not noticing it here, in comedy screenwriter Richard Curtis's second movie in the director's chair. The fact it was not as huge a success as his previous work could have been down to how obnoxious a bunch the characters came across as, the men in particular, as it was very hard to warm to the disc jockeys on the ship, which could have been eased by making the women likeable except Curtis didn't seem much interested in them as anything but sexual playthings. But that was OK, because the sole woman onboard is a lesbian, her single defining characteristic which was mentioned every time she showed up on screen.
Oh, wait, that's not OK, and not much about this was as it even went as far as making you dislike Nick Frost, seemingly an impossible task judging by the star's previous appearances but Curtis managed it here. Even when the sentiment levels were amped up, such was the ill-feeling the storyline had bred in the viewer that by the end and the boat's similar fate to Radio Caroline's you might have been tempted to say let them drown (as the crew apparently did - where were they at the end?). What was most galling about this was the story behind the pirates is a fascinating one, full of personalities, chancers and a deep love of the music, but you'd never know that on the strength of this.
According to the way things played out here, the sole reason to spin the discs in the sixties was to get women, as boatloads of them are shipped in to the station for recreational purposes, rendering what could have been a celebration of broadcasting the top pop of the day something far seedier. Curtis recruited a cast of similarly high calibre as his other films, and got them to act out highly resistable sketches which tested your patience for their levels of smugness, none of them bringing out the importance of the tunes and all of them looking to be a vehicle for showbiz monsters, with the odd (very odd) exception. Even the banter we hear is nothing like as authentic as it should have been.
Therefore when they did open the mic, the station's biggest names regaled their audience with crude sex talk, an attempt by Curtis to take the 21st Century's idea of edgy and transplant it to the sixties, without a thought for how just plain wrong it sounded. As for the plot, in amongst the references to actual pirate radio history (though oddly in the role of a Tony Benn stand-in, the man who actually closed them down, Kenneth Branagh portrays him not as a crusading Labour minister but as a buttoned down Tory one) was some meandering half-formed narrative about a teenage boy (Tom Sturridge) finding his father onboard, a rivalry between two of the biggest arseholes (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans), and one DJ (Chris O'Dowd) getting married only to see his new wife (January Jones) using him as an excuse to stay with one of the aforementioned arseholes. My aching sides. Not even the cynically applied oldies on the soundtrack could save this one from sinking with all hands: seriously, after the billionth montage you could feel very tired.