How Liverpool has changed since Thatcher-era classic Letter to Brezhnev

One of the gems of 1980s British cinema, Letter to Brezhnev is the story of two Merseyside girls out on the town with two Russian sailors. How have its Liverpool locations changed in the last 30 years?

Oliver Lunn

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Letter to Brezhnev is a film about many things: a film about Thatcher’s Liverpool in the mid-1980s – a city of high unemployment and a downtrodden working class; a film about two Liverpool lasses who meet two Russian sailors, one girl keen to get laid, the other keen to fall in love; a film about nationalist prejudices, international politics, commies and capitalists. And yet, more than anything, it’s a love letter to Liverpool, a portrait of a city that, with the hindsight of 30-plus years, has changed a lot.

Penned by Frank Clarke and directed by Chris Bernard, Letter to Brezhnev was filmed on location in Liverpool in 1985. It opens with the camera peering over the smoggy city at twilight, filmed via heli-shot over Albert Dock. You’re ushered, from there, through dark back alleys, social clubs, nightclubs, chippies, hotels and other landmarks of the city. From its locations to its characters, you’d be hard-pressed to find another film that captures the city’s diversity at that time, one that serves as a perfect time capsule of what has and hasn’t been lost.

Watch the Letter to Brezhnev trailer

With a bit of detective work, you can see exactly how those locations have changed. Here are some of the memorable ones.

The State nightclub

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Letter to Brezhnev (1985) location shot

The State, on Dale Street, is the legendary nightclub where Elaine first eyes up the Russian sailors Peter and Sergei. She shoots glances across the bar as lasers pierce the darkness. The State was in fact Liverpool’s first Laser nightclub. The State Insurance Building, as it’s officially known, had a downstairs area that was a popular dancehall in the 1920s. After the Second World War it was closed and later reopened as a Debenhams department store. Then it transformed into a nightclub and became a rave hotspot. New Order played there. Then it closed down again. Now it’s used only four times a year as a special events venue, with the same marbled walls and gold painted ceiling that you see in the film. From the outside – a tired looking exterior with zero hints of what’s inside – you’d never guess its rich history.

Leather Lane

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

When the girls emerge from the nightclub, sailor-less, they stop a bus, literally yank the Russians off and end up here, on Leather Lane. It might as well be Lover’s Lane, the way Elaine walks with Peter, arm in arm, him pointing up at stars, her ushering him towards a chippy. The pub they pass is Thomas Rigby’s, an old boozer that still stands, a stone’s throw from Moorfields station. Its old ‘Rigby’s’ sign, too, still looms over the passage, but the neon ‘Tetley’s Ales’ sign, alas, no longer casts its glow over pissed punters.

Shaftesbury Hotel

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Letter to Brezhnev (1985) location shot

From the chippy, the girls take their sailors to the Shaftesbury Hotel, a hotel they can barely afford. In the film, you can see it’s a beautiful old building that hugs Roscoe Gardens and the Renshaw Street Chapel Memorial. In reality, some 32 years later, it’s a Tesco Express. The building was demolished and, yes, this is what replaced it. An improvement? Where you could once have a brief encounter in a hotel room, you can now earn points on your Tesco Clubcard. What you can’t see in the picture, though, is that directly opposite the memorial now stands a gargantuan multi-story car park, which no doubt elicits horror in the faces of everyone except those passionate fans of brutalist architecture.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Letter to Brezhnev (1985) location shot

The next morning, after a long night of nothing but talking, Peter and Elaine head out for a romantic stroll. Cue montage of the city. First stop: Liverpool Anglican Cathedral on St James’s Mount. They walk up the stairs of the west entrance, dwarfed by the epic gothic-style building. As you know, the thing about cathedrals is that not much changes about cathedrals. This one has been around since 1904 and looks the same as it did in the film, with the exception of the mossy steps and the lampposts that light up the building at night.

Lewis’s department store

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Letter to Brezhnev (1985) location shot

Also squeezed into that montage is the somewhat less romantic Lewis’s department store, on the junction of Renshaw Street and Ranelagh Street. That said, for a department store it’s actually an interesting building. This was their flagship branch and opened in 1856. It has a statue of a naked guy on a ship, waving his arms (this is just out of frame), with a Lewis’s logo carved into the wall. Today, Lewis’s doesn’t exist, having closed its doors in 2010. It’s definitely never looked as good, as scrubbed up, as it does in Letter to Brezhnev.

Elaine walks near the Kirkby chicken factory

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Letter to Brezhnev (1985) location shot

Towards the end of the film, when Elaine is mulling over her imminent trip to Russia, she walks by “the chicken factory” where Teresa works, past a timely sign that says “COAL NOT DOLE”. In the film it’s kind of a dismal area, but now it’s known as the heart of the city’s creative quarter. Yes, barbed wire still hangs over this building – it still has an edgy vibe – but you can see an artist has painted a sombre mural around its corner. In other words it’s obvious that this is a Liverpool Biennial hotspot (in fact the Biennial is actually listed as being on this very street).

Directly opposite this block is a creative start-up called As Creatives. And where Teresa’s factory was is now an arts café called Unit 51. It has indoor bunting. What better indicator is there of how times have changed since Thatcher’s Liverpool than arts cafés with indoor bunting?

The cast and crew of Letter to Brezhnev reunited in April 2017 for a special screening at BFI Southbank. Back row (L to R): Chris Bernard, director; Charles Caselton, executive producer; Frank Clarke, writer; Peter Firth, actor. Front row (L to R): Maureen Sinclair, Clapperboard UK/Q&A host; Margi Clarke, actor; Alexandra Pigg, actor; Janet Goddard, producer

The cast and crew of Letter to Brezhnev reunited in April 2017 for a special screening at BFI Southbank. Back row (L to R): Chris Bernard, director; Charles Caselton, executive producer; Frank Clarke, writer; Peter Firth, actor. Front row (L to R): Maureen Sinclair, Clapperboard UK/Q&A host; Margi Clarke, actor; Alexandra Pigg, actor; Janet Goddard, producer

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