The late 1970s was a time of contrasts for British filmmaking. On the one hand, many of the major studios that had held together the industry disintegrated, some disappearing entirely and others moving to more lucrative television production; on the other, independent film with support from the national production board allowed more avant-garde aspects of the nation’s cinema to flourish, with early projects for the likes of Bill Douglas, Terence Davies and Peter Greenaway. One of the more unusual examples of this daring spirit came in the form of the feature debut of Chris Petit, Radio On (1979). Unique in its atmosphere, the film mapped a psychogeography of the country at the end of the decade. With the film turning 40 this year, we tracked down its director to discuss the film’s production and how exactly he organised that soundtrack.

By the end of the 1970s, the British film industry was in a tough place. Yet out of this backdrop, it’s surprising to find a film as distinctly unconcerned with commercial storytelling as Radio On being produced. What was the story behind its production?

There was a loophole then within the British film industry known as the BFI Production Board, specifically for funding low budget, non-commercial projects for new filmmakers, including a deal with the film unions, which allowed for reduced crewing and pay rates. From what I remember, we were all paid £35 a week. The budget was something like £80,000 with 30 of that coming from the German production company Road Movies. I wasn’t particularly looking to direct it, and there was no career plan, but I knew that Peter Sainsbury, the head of the board, was also looking for co-production opportunities. 

I was Film Editor of Time Out and in a position to approach Wim Wenders, who was finishing The American Friend. By then I had a title, Radio On, nicked from Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner single, and a rough idea for a soundtrack. I wouldn’t say it was a chancer’s opportunity, but I was aware of angles that could be worked.

Radio On (1979)

Radio On certainly looks like no other British film of its era, and its cinematography by Martin Schäfer is inky and moody. Were there any visual references or works that you looked to or was it simply responding to the locations in an intuitive way?

I was an army brat so grew up in lots of different places, which gave me a skewed eye on everything. Garrison life, army quarters, square bashing – a regimented sense of order and the idea of moving on have probably remained with me. Journeys became mysterious and important. Stuck in the back of a car, these offered new and undreamed of kinds of boredom. When I returned to England my cinema references were fortnightly screenings at the ramshackle and rather feral boarding school I attended, which offered a combination of the lurid and the prosaic: Scotland Yard, introduced by Edgar Lustgarten, and the documentary series Look at Life (1959-69), which served as an introduction to basic British landscapes and was probably responsible for my queasy fascination with suburbia.

I was often bored as a child and made up for that by looking at things and wondering at them. After [living in] Hong Kong and Germany, England puzzled me and, with Radio On, the formal exercise was to distinguish between what was there and what I saw. In this I had a perfect collaborator in Martin Schäfer who saw with an outsider’s eye. I showed him a field with a pylon in it and asked how he would frame the shot. “With the pylon in the middle of the frame,” he said, and I knew I could trust him to see what I saw, only better.

One of the film’s most discussed features is its soundtrack. Such an array of talent would undoubtedly cost a whole independent film’s budget nowadays, so how did the soundtrack come about? 

The idea of a soundtrack drove the film from the beginning. Music rights were incredibly expensive if you went through official channels. German filmmakers, having grown up with rock and roll, in a way that the French New Wave hadn’t, started using it in their films in a way that British films didn’t either, often citing the source – record players and jukeboxes – rather than laying it down as atmosphere. There was a sense of selection to each piece of music beyond the usual packaging. 

When Radio On became an official German co-production the choice selected itself in terms of who was representative and contactable. The German version of Heroes/Helden was obvious. David Bowie was theoretically reachable because Radio On’s BFI producer, Keith Griffiths, had managed a Bromley band that Bowie, then still Davy Jones, was in. I became a rather bad music journalist for Melody Maker with the express intention of meeting Kraftwerk. This achieved, I gave them a folder with the script for Radio On. Ralph Hütter mistook the name of the folder for the title of the film and thereafter it was referred to between us as The Digby Wallet. We completed the package by going to Dave Robinson at Stiff Records and offered the film as a way of promoting Stiff’s material. The specific track wanted was Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World, but we were given the run of its catalogue. 

All parties agreed to £50 a track, use as much as you like, whereas the usual rates were metered every 30 seconds. Sting had a pushy acting agent who wanted him for the lead. Friends of rigorous musical taste told me the band was suspect and the man advertised Brutus jeans, for God’s sake. He wasn’t a star then, but I could see he was going to be one – though I miscalculated what kind of star – so came up with the idea of the Eddie Cochran scene, which previously had been just a passing reference. I had no interest in him singing Three Steps to Heaven. That was the idea of the two German Martins, Schäfer and sound recordist Müller. It was such a miserably cold day and we’d had to go back on our day off to finish the scene, so I thought, ‘Shoot the thing if it makes them happy; I can always not put it in the edit.’

Radio On (1979)

With Wim Wenders as a co-producer, his influence on the film is present. But I wondered what aspects you felt were built on his influence but also where you ultimately differed from him?

What interested me about Fassbinder and Wenders was a documentary sense of rediscovery of a lost or frozen landscape. Alice in the Cities (1974) I particularly liked because it took me back to my German childhood, which I had largely forgotten. I knew I wasn’t interested in characters and relationships and class – all the usual preoccupations of English cinema – more in weather, landscape and soundtrack, and how driving and cinema are both forms of forward projection. It was the era of the portable cassette, which marked the start of being able to create one’s own soundtracks and play them while driving: windscreen as cinema.

I was more concerned with a solitary cinema that wasn’t autobiographical. David Beames was not a surrogate in the way Rudiger Vögler was for Wenders. Wenders asked if there was a part for Lisa Kreuzer in Radio On. There wasn’t, so I made one up. I thought she could play a continuation of her part in Alice in the Cities and, because she wasn’t confident with her English, the scene was written mainly in German. I had to put up with quite a lot of the English Wenders tag, but Wenders himself graciously said of Radio On, “Same roots, different direction.”

Radio On (1979)

In the film, we see stretches of long motorways and high-rises. It can’t help but bring to mind the work of J.G. Ballard and his novels, in particular Concrete Island and Crash. How much did Ballard influence the project?

I didn’t come to Ballard until after Radio On, apart from reading some of the early science fiction. So in that respect, it was a landscape invented in parallel to Ballard’s. I think in both our cases, the similarities lie in colonial childhoods. The one thing most of us growing up in England after the war used to think: “But it’s not America”. Ballard’s huge achievement was in imposing an American-type landscape on to what was in essence a 19th-century city. As a kid, I was always stunned into a state of depression about what one saw from suburban train windows. Anything remotely modern would be greeted with a lift of the heart. I can only have been about two or three at the time, but I remember being impressed by the Festival of Britain and the Skylon, thinking “At least it looks modern.” Years later, I was struggling to adjust to living in London until a friend took me down the Westway at 70 in her Mini and I found my first personal London landmark.

Many of the characters in Radio On are dispossessed or blunted by the hard reality of urban living in the period. Was the script and film designed to document this or was it a theme that simply felt true to reflecting the real world of the period?

At its simplest, Radio On is about what we wore and how we looked and what we listened to, and, in terms of the electronic reality (as quoted by Kraftwerk at the beginning the film), it was also about technology. In 1979, compared to West Germany, which had a more comprehensive building programme, the UK was still very colourless, hence the monochrome of Radio On. 

A turning point for me was a Sight & Sound article circa 1972 about Alain Resnais’ intention to film the Belgian writer Jean Ray’s Harry Dixon stories, which were set in London. Resnais declared London a surreal city by definition, and photographs of the East End accompanying the article suggested he might be right. It’s all massively redeveloped now, but then it was a wilderness, and I remember thinking, “If you look at it in the right way then it can become anything you want.” So, later, the idea of making a ‘road’ movie in a country seemingly antithetical to the term never struck me as odd.

Radio On (1979)

Everyday spaces and street furniture taken for granted are often a dominant part of your visual language. Do you see such spaces as having changed since filming, and what places would Radio On’s protagonist drive to today?

Everything is much more cluttered now. The ‘road’ in Radio On is virtually empty and not just of traffic. When Emma Matthews and I went back for Radio On (Remix) 20 years later you could see how much more written on the road had become. Cars down the years have become bigger and more anonymous. It would be tricky to know what car to drive now. I chose the Rover in Radio On because my grandfather had one. In Radio On (Remix) we were driving a 1979 Mercedes 200, the colour of burnt rust, perhaps the last great Mercedes.

One of the problems since the rise of the internet is a sense of everything having been shot to death. Also, what the car represented in 1979 is very different from what it stands for today. Ballard said the key image of the 20th century was a man alone in a car driving down a superhighway. A tipping point came when Iain Sinclair and I were making London Orbital (2002), when we realised that the notion of the road had ceased to be futuristic and had become retrospective and perhaps best explained through past references to possible future worlds. 

There are too many screens now, and the experience of shooting something doesn’t interest me. Everything looks like everything else. And in a world dedicated to waste, the act of driving becomes, rather boringly, a moral choice. Maybe one does the journey by proxy now. I have a colleague in Finland who is shooting on my behalf, driving huge distances across the wilderness. Radio On was always about emptiness: perhaps one now has to seek out the last empty landscapes to rediscover that state.