10 great films set in Liverpool

As Terence Davies’ masterful Distant Voices Still Lives returns to cinemas, we celebrate the best of Liverpool on film.

David Parkinson
Updated:

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

Carl Jung once described Liverpool as “the pool of life”, while Beat poet Allen Ginsberg declared it “the centre of the consciousness of the human universe”. No wonder filmmakers have been drawn there since the dawn of cinema, when Lumière cameraman Alexandre Promio filmed outside St George’s Hall in 1896.

Five years later, Mitchell and Kenyon produced the first crime reconstruction in The Arrest of Goudie, which was screened at the Prince of Wales Theatre just three days after Thomas Goudie was detained for embezzling £170,000 from the Bank of Liverpool.

Since those days, a number of hard-hitting crime films have been made in the city, including The 51st State (2001), which staged its explosive climax at Liverpool’s home ground, Anfield. Naturally, football and the Grand National have featured prominently in Mersey movies, as has pop music. Yet, apart from a couple of scenes at the start of Yellow Submarine (1968), The Beatles didn’t get to film here – unlike Cilla Black, who joined Gerry and the Pacemakers in Ferry Cross the Mersey (1965).

Film stars may not die in Liverpool, but a large number have been born there, and many more look set to be drawn to Merseyside by the opening of a studio facility in the Art Deco Littlewoods Pools building.

The iconic skyline was still under construction when Anson Dyer filmed his city symphony, A Day in Liverpool (1929). But its landmarks have recently done stand-in duty in pictures as different as The Dark Knight (2008), Fast and Furious 6 (2013), Creed (2015), Florence Foster Jenkins and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (both 2016).

For this Top 10, however, we’ll be sticking to films about Scousers.

Penny Paradise (1938)

Director Carol Reed

Penny Paradise (1938)

Carol Reed’s sixth feature might win few prizes for the cast’s accents, but this Capra-esque saga provides a fascinating insight into the national mood as Britain continued to recover from the Depression. Based on an idea by producer Basil Dean, the story centres on the party that tugboat skipper Edmund Gwenn hosts at his local pub after winning the football pools. However, as daughter Betty Driver leads the communal singing, Gwenn receives some unwelcome news about his coupon.

The back projection might be a bit rickety, while the depiction of the working-class can seem a little patronising. But this breezy dramedy cannily captures the sense of dockland camaraderie.

Violent Playground (1958)

Director Basil Dearden

Violent Playground (1958)

Contrasting with the mix of gentle wit and gritty realism in Charles Frend’s ‘rubble film’, The Magnet (1950), the depiction of juvenile delinquency is markedly more downbeat in this problem picture from director Basil Dearden. Just as a vicar tried to help Frankie Vaughan’s gang leader in Herbert Wilcox’s These Dangerous Years (1957), priest Peter Cushing joins forces with juvenile liaison officer Stanley Baker to fathom pyromaniac David McCallum’s motives by understanding his background.

The residents of Gerard Gardens were appalled to see their tenements described as slums and challenged the notion that poverty breeds crime. But, while the thesis may be flawed, scenes like the gunpoint classroom siege are undeniably tense. 

The Golden Vision (1968)

Director Ken Loach

The Golden Vision (1968)

Ken Loach once declared: “If there was a revolution, it would start in Liverpool.” But he was in a much more benign mood when he directed this Wednesday Play for the BBC. Scripted by Neville Smith and newsreader Gordon Honeycombe, it deftly combines everyday episodes involving various diehard Everton supporters with a peek into the professional and private life of Scottish forward, Alex Young.

As Paul Greengrass revealed in The Fix (1997), the club had been embroiled in a betting scandal earlier in the decade. But the devotion of these Evertonians remains unswerving, as they pile into a removal truck to travel to an away game at Highbury.

The Reckoning (1969)

Director Jack Gold

The Reckoning (1969)

Completing a prodigal trilogy with Michael Anderson’s Waterfront (1950) and Jack Cardiff’s Beyond This Place (1959), Jack Gold’s adaptation of Patrick Hall’s novel, The Harp That Once, anticipates Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971). There’s also a whiff of Hamlet about executive Nicol Williamson’s return north to avenge the Fenian father felled in a fight at a dockland working men’s club. But, while Williamson is bent on finding the thugs the police refuse to pursue, he is also plotting a coup at his London-based technology firm and striving to seduce married receptionist Rachel Roberts.

Cannily using locations either side of the Mersey, this is abrasively authentic and darkly droll. 

Gumshoe (1971)

Director Stephen Frears

Gumshoe (1971)

Written in an argot that reflects its times, Neville Smith’s screenplay may have dated badly. But Stephen Frears’ affectionate pastiche of pulp fiction retains a certain charm, as bingo caller and occasional stand-up Albert Finney dreams of cracking a case like his hero, Sam Spade. He gets more than he bargains for, however, when he places a small ad in the Echo as a birthday present to himself.

Many of the places captured by Chris Menges’s roving camera have vanished or been much changed, which reinforces to the air of melancholic mundanity that makes this such a bittersweet paean to a city whose 60s heyday had largely been a mirage.

Educating Rita (1983)

Director Lewis Gilbert

Educating Rita (1983)

Home to Carla Lane, Alan Bleasdale, Jimmy McGovern and Frank Cottrell Boyce, Liverpool is spoilt for choice when it comes to writers. But Willy Russell gets the nod here, even though Lewis Gilbert’s acclaimed adaptation of his 1980 play was filmed in Dublin. The influence of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is clear, as hairdresser Julie Walters is assigned drunken tutor Michael Caine when she seeks to better herself by signing up for an Open University literature course.

In addition to landing Oscar nominations, the leads would also win Golden Globes and BAFTAs for their well-matched performances, while Gilbert and Russell would reunite for more understated Scouse feminism in Shirley Valentine (1989).

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Director Chris Bernard

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Along with Brookside (1982-2003), this shoestring charmer served notice that Liverpool had no intention of going into terminal post-industrial decline. Filmed in just three weeks using begged and borrowed equipment, Chris Barnard’s debut fizzes with defiant wit and romantic pugnacity, as Kirkby girls Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke take a stand in order to reconnect with Soviet sailors Peter Firth and Alfred Molina.

Such is the acuity of Frank Clarke’s script that sniping outsiders would dismiss it as an aggregation of clichés and caricatures. But he caught the mood of a city that was as mad as hell and, in the process, helped restore its pride.  

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

Director Terence Davies

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

Viewing his past through the prism of T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, Terence Davies’ feature bow perfects the technique of ‘memory-realism’ he had refined making the shorts, Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983). Produced as separate films two years apart with different crews, ‘Distant Voices’ and ‘Still Lives’ mosaic fragments of working-class family life with artistic delicacy and emotional truth, with Davies refusing to shy away from the imperfect humanity evident in the melodramatic episodes of repression, brutality and sadness.

He would revisit his deeply personal version of Liverpool in The Long Day Closes (1992) and the 2008 documentary, Of Time and the City.

Nowhere Boy (2009)

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson

Nowhere Boy (2009)

As a thriving port, Liverpool was consistently exposed to overseas influence before the rest of our insular island. Consequently, Mersey teens were among the first to hear the rock’n’roll records ferried across the Atlantic and art student John Lennon quickly realised that music was his métier. However, Sam Taylor-Wood’s biopic is less concerned with the prehistory of the Fab Four than with the prickly relationships between the young Lennon (Aaron Johnson), parents Alf and Julia (Colin Tierney and Marie-Anne Duff) and his prudish Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Matt Greenhalgh’s script takes the odd factual liberty, but this gets the look and feel of 50s Liverpool spot on.

Kelly + Victor (2012)

Director Kieran Evans

Kelly + Victor (2012)

Two artworks in the Walker Art Gallery – Giovanni Segantini’s 1891 canvas ‘The Punishment of Lust’ and Alfred Gilbert’s 1908 statue ‘Mors Janua Vitae’ – play key roles in this adaptation of Niall Griffiths’s bestseller, along with Gilbert’s Shaftesbury Memorial in Sefton Park. This is where Kelly (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) and Victor (Julian Morris) have their first proper date after indulging in vigorous S&M sex after meeting in a city centre nightclub. But Victor’s fate is sealed when he fails to pick up on the intimate clues Kelly provides.

Dismissed by some as Fifty Shades of Hollyoaks, Kieran Evans’ unflinching love story manages to find jagged beauty amid the shards of broken Britain.

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