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Film Talk: Looking Back – Radio renegades in The Boat That Rocked

Bill Nighy on a boat, belting tunes, and Nick Frost ready to rock. Let’s do this...

The Boat That Rocked
The Boat That Rocked

Written and directed by rom-com regent Richard Curtis, 2009’s The Boat That Rocked is a noughties comedy treat that has lost none of its irresistible charm. Exploring the world of 60s pirate radio, the film has an ensemble cast including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nighy, Frost, Rhys Ifans, and Kenneth Branagh.

With some of Britain’s finest actors on board – along with the ever-brilliant trans-Atlantic talent of Hoffman – it tells the tale of the fictional pirate radio station ‘Radio Rock’ and its team of eclectic disc jockeys, who broadcast rock and pop music to the UK from a ship anchored in the North Sea.

Produced by Working Title Films for Universal Pictures, The Boat That Rocked was one of the finest feel-good entries of its decade, and in my opinion represents some of Curtis’s best work to date...

In the mid 1960s, the BBC plays little pop music, even though the genre is growing in power and appeal. Luckily for fans however, there is an alternative on the airwaves, and one that is causing a stir.

To the irritation of the UK Government, a pirate radio station is operating on a ship off the coast, capturing half of the English audience, and bringing ‘Radio Rock’ to the people. Run by a rag-tag band of fun-loving, free-wheeling DJs, Radio Rock is leading the charge against conformity, and aboard its mighty boat, life is one big party.

Young Carl (Tom Sturridge), thrown out of school for smoking, is remanded by his unconventional mother (Emma Thompson) to the ship, where leader of the pack Quentin (Nighy) takes him under his wing and introduces him to the rest of the motley crew.

Star of the Radio Rock team is ‘The Count’ (Hoffman), a middle-aged American rocker determined to keep his youth and party spirit alive by any means necessary. Backing him up are ‘Doctor Dave’ (Frost), a charming and tubby lover of the ladies, and a gaggle of other airwaves libertines including the kind and sensitive ‘Simple Simon’ (Chris O’Dowd) and ship’s fool, Angus ‘The Nut’ Nutsford (Rhys Darby).

Life on the boat for Carl is good, but as the youngster is finding his place among the merry band, trouble is building for Radio Rock behind the scenes. Uptight Government minister Sir Alistair Dormandy (Branagh) has made it his mission to bring pirate radio down, and our boat of heroes is his main target.

Meanwhile, tensions aboard the ship itself arise as legendary DJ and womaniser Gavin Kavanagh (Ifans) returns to the boat, and a rivalry with The Count ensues. Will Sir Alistair succeed in sinking the ship, or will the boat be rocked of its own accord?

Sadly, The Boat That Rocked was a commercial failure at the UK box office, making only $10.1 million in its first three months – just a fifth of its $50 million production cost. It also fared poorly in the US, earning only $8 million. When the worldwide theatrical run was finished in January 2010, the flick had grossed only $36.56 million.

For me this is a great shame, as I believe that time has judged this film to have a certain everlasting magic, and I find it one of the most enjoyable entries of Richard Curtis’s back catalogue.

Ifans, Frost, Hoffman and Nighy are superb throughout, and as with last week’s classic, A Knight’s Tale, this flick always looks like one that was a great joy to be involved in.

If for nothing else, The Boat That Rocked provides a bit of escapism to a world without care, which many of us could still probably do with right now. Packed with wonderfully British humour and – as you’d expect – supported by a rather exceptional soundtrack, it remains one of my all-time favourite comfort choices, and may be just the barge you need to board for a bit of a laugh.

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