There’s an old joke to the effect that when an Irishman gets Alzheimer’s Disease, he forgets everything except his grudges. No Surrender, a pitch-black U.K. comedy from the late Eighties that’s crying out for a DVD release on this side of the pond, is tailor-made to illustrate that line. The story takes place in the Thatcher era, while the Troubles were still tearing Northern Ireland apart, but the mood and tone are strangely prophetic of the Good Friday Agreement that was still more than a decade off.
The script — the first and so far only film written by playwright and television scenarist Alan Bleasdale — centers on a nightclub that rises like a penitentiary cellblock in a particularly grotty part of Liverpool. The new manager (Michael Angelis) arrives to find that his predecessor has skipped out after booking a New Year’s Eve party for two feuding groups of Irish emigres, one devoutly Catholic and the other hardline Protestant, as well as a busload of pensioners with senile dementia, a punk band whose members can barely finish a song without getting into fistfights onstage, and an inept stage magician (Elvis Costello, in his first movie role) whose rabbit is on its last legs. Meanwhile, the club’s gangster owner is giving somebody the back-room treatment, and police are busting down so many doors in their search for terrorists that carpenters are kept on standby for repairs.
The new manager’s only allies are Bernard, a bouncer whose mental energy is used up in the maintenance of his pompadour (Bernard Hill in his pre-Theoden days, and hilarious), and Cheryl, the club’s sole waitress, played by Joanne Whalley, whose status as the thinking-man’s bombshell would be cemented with her roles in Scandal and The Singing Detective. It all builds to a gratifyingly chaotic conclusion, and a line of dialogue — “I’m know I’m a nobody, but I’m nobody else’s nobody” — that could serve as the motto of beleaguered commen men everywhere.
“Auld Lang Syne” provides an ironic background for the movie’s other plotline, which follows Bill McRacken (Ray McAnally), a onetime Unionist thug known as “Billy the Beast,” who has turned away from his violent past and found a measure of peace as a Liverpool businessman, though he still refuses even to speak to his Catholic son-in-law. On this night, looking for nothing more than a night out with his friends, he finds himself with too many auld acquaintances to deal with. One, a gun-runner from the old days, is threatening reprisals against McRacken’s family unless he gets help hiding from the police. Another, Paddy Burke (James Ellis), is a Catholic bruiser spoiling for one last round with Billy the Beast. Though blind, Paddy is an ex-boxer still tough enough to beat the daylights out of a pair of would-be muggers, and he has a nasty surprise planned for McRacken.
Bleasdale is known for what used to be called kitchen-sink realism: he made his name in 1980 with The Black Stuff, a television play about some Liverpudlian workmen who land a choice job laying tarmac at a new housing development, only to lose their savings and their jobs after trying to do a little business on the side. The show aired on BBC One and proved popular enough to spawn a sequel, The Boys from the Black Stuff. The cast of No Surrender is studded with Black Stuff alumni, notably Angelis and Hill, and the story showcases the deft blending of politics and gallows humor that remain Bleasdale’s trademark as a writer. No Surrender is angry but not despairing: the diehard fighters on both sides are viewed as bloody minded clowns, and when Cheryl, a Catholic, defuses a situation by singing a hymn and getting the others to join in, there’s a sense that both sides can find a way past the violence if they use a little ingenuity.
For me and a lot of other American viewers, the biggest revelation in No Surrender was Ray McAnally, an Irish actor well known for his stage and television work in the U.K. After No Surrender, McAnally enjoyed a late explosion of high-profile roles in big ticket films like The Mission, We’re No Angels, and especially My Left Foot, in which he played Christie Brown’s roughneck father. When death took him too early in 1989, McAnally was set to play Bull McCabe in Jim Sheridan’s film version of The Field. The role went instead to Richard Harris, a gluttonous scenery chewer, and one can only imagine how much better the movie would have played with McAnally’s more reserved approach at the center. His Billy McRacken is outwardly easygoing and ready to laugh things off — when his old gunrunning buddy shouts “No surrender! No foooking surrender!” McRacken shrugs and says, “I surrender. In fact, I give up.” But the old steel is still there, not too far from the surface, and when McRacken gets pushed too far the results are pretty spectacular.
There was a time back in the late Eighties when American filmmaking had become effectively brain dead, and it seemed the theaters had nothing to offer that wasn’t big, loud, and stupid: Stallone movies, each one worse than the last; John Hughes teen-worship flicks; formulaic fodder from the Jim Cash-Jack Epps hack stack (Top Gun, Legal Eagles, etc.); special effects extravaganzas from the Spielberg-Lucas production plant.
What saved the latter half of the decade was the appearance of a string of low budget, high talent films from the U.K., most of them black comedies with terrific character actors and scripts that were, if not overtly political, then certainly politically aware. At the time it was simply a relief to be able to see a movie that was about something real, instead of the umpteenth retread of the go-for-it formula. My Beautiful Laundrette is probably the best known of these semi-cult films: it helped launch the career of Daniel Day-Lewis, just as Withnail and I turned Richard E. Grant into a cult hero. Among the others were Letter to Brezhnev, A Private Function, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Not all of them were great, but most of them were at the least very good, and now that I’ve been able to find a VHS copy of No Surrender, I can confirm it’s one of the best of the bunch. Won’t the nice people at Criterion give this one a little buffing up (the soundtrack desperately needs remixing) and put it back into the spotlight?