Radio On

Director: Chris Petit

U.K.-W. Germany| 1979. Black and white. 102 min.

Another welcome reissue in a new print, Chris Petit’s 1979 feature debut seemed at the time to herald a new kind of British cinema but now looks like a singular, one-off achievement. Petit was a film critic for London’s Time Out magazine in the 1970s, a position that allowed him access to Wim Wenders, a filmmaker he admired and whose company co-produced Radio On with the British Film Institute. The film’s debt to Wenders is obvious from its road-movie format and its evocative black and white cinematography, but what’s fascinating about it is how Petit uses a ‘foreign’ sensibility to explore some of the less obvious features of English culture in the late 1970s.
Although decked out with a hip soundtrack (Bowie, Kraftwerk, Lene Lovich, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric), Radio On paints a downbeat picture of faltering communication and lurking disenchantment in a country uncertain of its place and future. This, after all, was an England stalled between failed hopes of cultural and social change and the imminent upheavals of Thatcherism. The film’s protagonist, Robert B (David Beames), is a classic outsider who drives his old two-tone Rover from London to Bristol following news of his brother’s mysterious death. Robert never even reaches his destination, and the film is taken up with his experience of driving and drifting. Travelling through a grey landscape, he encounters characters as rootless as himself: an army deserter from Northern Ireland, a German woman looking for her lost child, and a garage mechanic (Sting in an cameo role). As one critic put it, the film’s portrait of England evokes ‘a narcotic, anaesthetised country that seems to be weighted down not just by a winter but by a decade of murmured discontent.’ This is one of the most sombre, contemplative and haunting of post-war British movies

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