[The Cunning Tower by Wilfrid: February 8, 2011]
A review of the 2009 movie Pirate Radio, originally released under the lame title The Boat That Rocked would be forlornly belated. The few who saw it will recall a well-written and acted ensemble comedy based very loosely on events surrounding the British government's closure of the offshore pop pirates in 1967.
Writer Richard Curtis (Love Actually and countless british TV comedy hits) hits so close to the mark with his parody of offshore life and the disc-jockey characters involved that it's reasonable to assume his departures from the record, as it were, are deliberate. They're certainly effective. He collapses together the quite different styles of the 1960s and 1970s pirates, he places Bill Nighy's priceless character in residency on the boat, he elides the fact that the pirates were banned - in 1967, anyway - by a Labour government. And he credits the pirates with a transgressive tone which would certainly have lost them the huge popular audience they enjoyed.
A little background.
The United States flirted with pirate radio in the mid-twentieth century. With authorized stations limited to 50kw of power, all kinds of entrepreneurs, bandits and snake-oil salesmen set up massive transmitters just the other side of the Mexican border and blasted signals all the way to Canada. A commercial rather than an idealistic project.
British pirate radio was rooted in commercial reality too. By the early 1960s, British broadcasting had been in the hands of the establishment for some forty years. The BBC, nominally independent of the government, but nonetheless ultimately a state institution, was the sole legal radio broadcaster on U.K. soil.*
Some English language radio programs could be received from European stations, the most important of which by far was Radio Luxembourg.
There was no local radio. The BBC broadcast three national radio channels (and the World Service). They also controlled television as a monopoly for decades, and still owned two of the three available channels. Radio listeners could choose from news and spoken-word programs on The Home Service Mantovani-string-driven light music on The Light Programme, and classical music on the inspirationally named Third Programme. That was it (and believe me, it all closed down early).
Pop music fans - and post-Elvis, post-early Beatles there were a fair number, could enjoy one or two hours of carefully curated shows each week. A handful of records were played; otherwise, hits of the day were covered by studio bands, the Musicians' Union retaining very strict control of the proportion of pre-recorded music which could be aired. There is something emblematic in the fact that Brian Matthew, the "disc jockey" who presented the weekly Saturday pop music show, is essentially hosting the same show today.
It was possible to listen to uninterrupted pop on Radio Luxembourg, but only during the evening, and with horrible reception quality. And this is where the money comes in. Luxembourg played the hits the record companies paid them to play. The major labels - EMI, Parlophone, Decca - bought chunks of the limited air-time. Pirate radio began as a practical commercial matter for a young record-plugger named Ronan O'Rahilly.
Unable to get his clients' records played either by the BBC or Luxembourg, he somehow talked, blagged and bullied his way into creating his own radio station. There was a precedent for locating pirate stations on ships. A couple of Scandinavian pirates had sailed in the 1950s, and a Dutch station, Radio Veronica, had been well-established on a vessel off Scheveningen for several years - and was very popular. The simple reason for putting the station on a ship was that, anchored in international waters - only a few miles off the coast - it evaded national broadcasting regulations. It was a simple, if inconvenient, scheme.
Radio Caroline, O'Rahilly's station, began broadcasting in 1964 from off the Essex coast. Not long after, it set sail for the Irish Sea, where it became Radio Caroline North - broadcasting to the populous areas of Manchester and Liverpool - which a second vessel replaced it as Radio Caroline South - broadcasting to London and the south east. Over the next three years, another half dozen ship-based stations were created. The most important of these was Radio London, training ground for disc-jockeys who became household names in the U.K. and remained so for many years after the pirates vanished - John Peel, Kenny Everett, Tony Blackburn. Inheriting a ready-made audience of millions of Beatles fans alone, the stations were monumentally successful.
Pirate Radio, while not a film à clef, wickedly parodies some representative characters. A cheerfully dim breakfast-show disc-jockey's marriage lasts only seventeen hours. Imagine a real-life DJ, same time-slot, mourning the break-up of his marriage, week after week, by dedicated records to his departured wife on the show. Couldn't happen, right? And as for the gay Australian drive-time jock, well...
Branagh's furiously authoritarian politican, however, plays a slightly unfair trick on the audience. The image of radical right-winger Enoch Powell, a Conservative politician of the time, Branagh's character would be happy to see the degenerate pirates in jail - dead, even. Ironically, the legislation which closed down the ships in 1967 was steered by mild-mannered Roy Jenkins, long pilloried by the right for his liberalism. The Labour government of the time was left-leaning, distinctly blue collar in comparison to the toffee-nosed twits of the movie, but suspicious of the American-style commercialism of the stations.
The movie correctly depicts one of the issues raised by the government in an attempt to sway opinion against the pirates - the baseless claim that they were interfering with the transmission of distress signals. A killing related to an ownership dispute over one of the stations didn't help. The legislation passed in 1967 was ingenious, certainly. Unable to prevent vessels outside British jurisdiction broadcasting anything they pleased, the government simply made it an offence for British citizens to staff or service the stations.
The richer stations could afford to move their offices abroad, and certainly their were broadcasters willing to relocate - not to mention a constant supply of American, Canadian and Australian disc-jockeys. In the end, the problem lay in servicing the vessels. Tenders sailed the few miles from shore several times a week, bringing food and provisions, new records, pre-recorded programs, replacement staff and - importantly - fan mail. Immense difficulties would arise in providing this kind of service from foreign ports.
Radio Caroline, like Rock Radio in the movie, threatened to continue - and did so for several months, supplied from the Netherlands. Then, as The Clash sang "all the stations were silent."
But not for long. Curtis slyly picks elements of the second period of pirate radio (early to mid 1970s), and re-inserts them in his swinging Sixties movie. Bob, the hippy vinyl junkie, is a precise replica of the disc jockeys who broadcast in the small hours on Radio Seagull. The mast climbing scene recalls the dangerous attempts of later Caroline engineers like Dick Palmer and Peter Chicago to keep the tall, unwieldy aerial of the Mi Amigo in one piece.
With the closure of the pirates, the BBC produced a sop to public opinion, launching "Radio 1" - a national pop station - in August, 1967. Tellingly, most of its disc jockeys were former pirates: Blackburn, Peel and Everett, Dave Cash, Keith Skues, Dave Lee Travis, Emperor Rosko and - before he became a TV star - Radio Caroline's first presenter, Simon Dee.
An audience for pirate radio remained, however, and by 1970 Radio North Sea International had solved the supply problem by anchoring off Scheveningen, broadcasting commercial Dutch programmes during the day, and English programmes in the evening. The company was Swiss, the revenue stream. Dutch and Belgian advertising also fueled the reappearance of Radio Caroline, in 1972, with some former pirates like Andy Archer and Roger Day on board. For a memorable period it broadcast late night shows as Radio Seagull - this was the station which played experimental rock music, often entire albums at a time, and espoused a hippy philosophy to which O'Rahilly had now become a convert.
This part of the story ends with the Netherlands passing its own legislation in 1974, effectively copying the British government's strategy. But the monopolies were over. The veteran Dutch pirate, Radio Veronica, became a legal land-based station - a status for which Radio Caroline is still campaigning today. In Britain, the BBC had launched a series of local stations, which for the most part focused on local news and sports, padding their schedules with cheap phone-in shows. But in 1975, the first independent, commercial pop music station on the British mainland - Capital Radio - began broadcasting; to be followed, for better or worse, by many others.
The Capital Radio line-up? Kenny Everett, Dave Cash (Radio London), Tommy Vance (Radio Caroline South). But it has never been quite the same.
* There is one curious exception, Manx Radio, which began broadcasting an independent commercial service on the Isle of Man in 1964.