British Beaches in the Movies: No Bette Midler, we promise

By Liz Mannion of the Ritz Cinema, Thirsk.

When you think of beaches and films what do you think of? Probably Bette Midler and, consequently, that girl who used to star in the hit TV show Blossom. But the newly-released British film Third Star (2011) has got me thinking about beaches as locations and the tempestuousness and romanticism the coastline can inject into a picture.

Third Star is a small, poignant film directed by Hattie Dalton. Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is dying of cancer and he and three friends return to the Pembrokeshire coast of their youth to reminisce, review and generally bond.  I don’t mean to knock the acting performances, as they’re very polished, but there is a sense throughout that the real star of Third Star is Barafundle Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in Wales. Wales itself is no stranger to film crews. Up the coast, Cardigan boasts the idyllic mile-long sandy Penbryn Beach which was used as a location in Die Another Day (2002), where it stood in for North Korea (and somehow got away with it).

Freshwater West, Pembrokeshire came under the spotlight last year when it was chosen as a set for Robin Hood (2010). This Russell Crowe vehicle attempted, in vain, to re-establish his Gladiator (2000) persona and was really last year’s recycler movie with nods to 300 (2006), Lords of the Rings and even Saving Private Ryan (1998) thrown in.  It’s not a film to change your life but the wonderful, beachy expanse does offer it a breathtaking backdrop. Freshwater West was also used as a location for the final film in the Harry Potter series. We have, obviously, yet to see the footage but locals have reported a giant cottage made out of shells built on the sands.

Another beach very much on the movie map is Pennan, which was chosen for the set of Local Hero (1983). This 1980s gem crops up time and again on lists of all-time favourite films. A classic fish-out-of-water tale, Local Hero highlights the differences, and similarities, between a big city American capitalist and small town Scottish villagers. With cinematography by Chris Menges and a soundtrack by Mark Knopfler this film is a real treat. The red phone box where Mac saw the Northern Lights was, disappointingly, a movie prop but many people still journey to Pennan to have their photographs taken next to the actual phone box in the village.

Chariots of Fire (1981) used West Sands, St Andrews to great effect. So much has been written about this film and many a pilgrimage has been made by movie lovers wanting to run along the beach in their heroes’ footsteps. I’m not ashamed to admit that I still cry when that flag goes up – gets me every time. Chariots of Fire ended up with four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score (Vangelis).  When he accepted his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay Colin Welland famously (and ominously) announced “The British are coming”.

Atonement (2007), much to the delight of northerners everywhere, was filmed, in part, at Redcar beach. Who would have thought that a shoreline of North East England could stand in so admirably for Dunkirk? Of course people familiar with the area were easily able to pick out recognisable features of the Redcar coast; local cinema The Regent makes a nice little cameo. In regional terms the shooting of this film was big news for the area and around 1,000 extras from the North East appeared in the film.  The highpoint and emotional heart of this film was undoubtedly the stirring rendition of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” which was played out in the bandstand.

The Dorset coastline had its time in the sun when The Cobb at Lyme Regis appeared in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).  This picture starred Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, big names for such a small, sleepy location, and was adapted from the John Fowles novel by Harold Pinter. The film interweaves two storylines: the book’s original story of Sarah Woodruff and Charles Smithson set in Victorian England and the story of the two actors who portray them in the 1980s. Fowles wrote two endings for the book— one happy, one not so happy. In a typically Pinter twist, he added the storyline of the actors in order to dramatise the unhappy ending.

Blackpool Beach is famous for many things: Blackpool Tower, ‘The Big One’, and hen parties to name but a few. Perhaps a more artistically admirable thing to remember Blackpool for, however, is the film Bhaji on the Beach (1993) in which three generations of Asian women take a day trip from Birmingham to Blackpool learning some home truths about themselves and their relationships along the way. Gurinder Chadha’s film won numerous international awards and served as springboard for her next film Bend it like Beckham (2002).

What could pack more of an emotional punch than a 1970s movie with Michael Caine seeking revenge for his brother? Get Carter (1971) is a cult classic inspired by a real-life murder in the North East of England. Fitting then that the notorious final scene was filmed at Dawden Beach in County Durham, a few miles from Seaham. Unfortunately Get Carter was remade in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone playing Jack Carter. Dawden Beach did not make a return to the franchise but Michael Caine did put in a cameo. To be honest, the less said about the remake the better.

“Betty Grable!!”  The austere post-war world was brought to life by newcomer Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here (1987). In a 1950s seaside town, which was actually Worthing Promenade in West Sussex, flighty teenager Lynda cycles along the promenade flashing a smile – and more besides – to the passing boys. In her dreams she’s Betty Grable, in reality she sells chips from a van on the seafront. Fantasies are soon all but forgotten, however, as Lynda has a heavy price to pay when she gets involved with one of her father’s friends (the brilliant Tom Bell).  The film was loosely based on the memoirs of Cynthia Payne.

The world discovered one of the Britain’s best kept secrets when John Madden shot Shakespeare in Love (1998). Holkham Bay near Sandringham boasts a sheer vastness that made the final tracking shot of Paltrow truly magical. The film won numerous awards, as if we could ever forget after Paltrow’s acceptance ‘speech’, including a Best Supporting Actress award for Judi Dench in her droll and understated performance as Queen Elizabeth I, quite impressive considering she was only on screen for eight minutes.

Brighton Beach, in cinematic terms, is impossible to ignore and it difficult to select one film that best portrays this much-loved tourist destination with titles such as Quadrophenia (1979), Brighton Rock (both times) and London to Brighton (2006) in the running. In the film world, Brighton is generally seen as a place to visit – or getaway to – from London; a bolt hole. It also is steeped in a cinematic history which goes back to the era of silent movies. The film of choice, however, has to be Mona Lisa, a classic from 1986 which saw Bob Hoskins develop as an unlikely romantic hero. Working as the driver for a high-class prostitute named Simone (Cathy Tyson), he develops a deep and unprecedented friendship. Everything about this film works. Even, somewhat bizarrely the Phil Collins’ track “In Too Deep” as Hoskins mooches around Soho. And let’s not forget that amazing chase scene along the pier at Brighton, or those sunglasses.  An undeniably bold film from the 1980s back catalogue.

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