FILM / No particular place to go: If the US road movie is an open highway, the British is a country lane. Will Soft Top Hard Shoulder put us back on the map? Sheila Johnston reports

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'O POOP-POOP]' as Mr Toad once put it so eloquently: there is nothing like the call of the open road to inspire the soul of the true artist. Certainly the road movie is one of the few film genres to putter along in a national cinema otherwise running on empty: the last ten years or so have seen, if not a traffic jam then at least a steady flow of road movies: Chris Petit's Radio On (1979), Loose Connections, (Richard Eyre, 1983), Fords On Water (Barry Bliss, 1983), The Hit (Stephen Frears, 1984), Restless Natives (Michael Hoffman, 1985), Coast to Coast (Sandy Johnson, 1986), Vroom (Beeban Kidron, 1988) and, now, Soft Top Hard Shoulder, a first film written by and starring the actor Peter Capaldi.

Looking further back, we can field more examples: They Drive By Night (1938), Genevieve (1953), Summer Holiday (1962) and Catch Us If You Can (1965). And yet, compared to France and, particularly, America, the Great National Road Movie, the blue-riband classic of its genre, is thin on the ground. Partly it's a question of the puny distances involved: an English 'coast-to-coast' odyssey is scarcely of epic dimensions (the TV film of that name journeyed from Merseyside all the way to Essex).

Soft Top goes on the London to Glasgow run, which, Capaldi says, would take only six or seven hours by car. 'Obviously you have to give them some problems to draw it out a bit. You do need long journeys to make it work - if my character had come from Birmingham, it would have been a big problem. At least with Glasgow there is an element of distance, and of cultural distance as well.'

And the roads themselves are duller - empty motorways which the characters leave, often for no very convincing reason. There's nothing corresponding to the American interstate highway, winding through a stream of colourful diners and little towns. 'All those towns in the Midwest have been built on a grid pattern, for people to drive through,' Chris Petit says. 'This reflects the whole history of migration from East to West - the idea of movement is built into the sense of America and the road movie is a very logical development of that. In the UK our cities are much more enclosed and labyrinthine.'

The narrative impetus propelling the British cinema is not horizontal but (metaphorically) vertical: upwards through the class system. 'Performance,' Petit says, 'is about the move from East to West London, which is as far in imaginative terms as New York is from Los Angeles. The dramatic movement in English realist cinema tends to be about getting out and improving yourself: the desire to escape is actually to escape from your class.'

Perhaps for the same reason, the choice of vehicle is fraught because of all the subtle social connotations that any car will entail. 'I used to have a Ford Escort,' says Capaldi. 'But we knew it was not visually terribly interesting (forgive me, Ford). At the same time I didn't want to get a Pink Cadillac - I hate those films where for no particular reason there's an American car, because then there's the idea that you really wanted to make an American film. Which I didn't. Someone suggested a Ford Cortina but I thought that looked a bit too . . . yobbish. We wanted something that had a comic value of its own without being a 'look at me, aren't I funny?' car.

'Then a Triumph Herald was suggested. I saw one and thought: this is just perfect. Because it has those little wings at the back that look, you know, 'I want to be American, but I can't really go through with it.' It (the car, by the way, was 20 years old and barely roadworthy) was terrifying to drive. They'd have the camera on a bridge going over the motorway - you'd have to drive up to the next exit, which might be 20 miles away, turn around, come back down again and wait until they came into range on the walkie- talkie and suddenly started screaming at you: get into the middle lane] Of course the rest of the traffic is just carrying on; they think you're a lunatic and start flashing you. And those cars are so exposed - they're little rustbuckets that just shake and quake.'

Petit defends his choice of another old car (a Fifties Rover) for Radio On on the grounds that it was all he could afford at the time - back in 1979, cheap, new-ish second-hand cars were harder to come by: 'England has changed in that you very rarely see rust-pitted old bangers these days.' His first choice had been a Mini, but Wim Wenders (who co-produced the film) advised him against it - it was too small for a 35mm camera, and you couldn't get a hard focus on the back of the driver's head. (The nerd factor is not insuperable: Wenders had filmed in such uncharismatic cars as a Renault 4 in Alice in the Cities and a VW Beetle in The American Friend, and Godard once even ventured to use a Honda.)

A revealing detail: if the great road movies are mostly American, the greatest train movies tend to be European, or by European directors. And one might not too fancifully speculate that this is down to a deep-rooted difference in outlooks. 'As soon as you see an open road in front of you a certain optimism begins to come together,' Capaldi says. 'Generally road films are ones of self-discovery, and generally the major characters are better off for the journey they have made. It's not a conscious decision but you can't help but be upbeat.'

Petit adds: 'There was a point in consumer history when the car symbolised the notion of control of your own destiny. This was reflected in the Fifties in the design of American cars, which were like individual palaces you go cruising in. It's impossible to underestimate the effect of driving along playing your own music.'

Contrast this with the gloomy foreboding of train movies like Lars von Trier's Europa, Strangers on a Train and Runaway Train (these last two made in America, but by European directors: Hitchcock and Konchalovsky). Tracks and timetables (Brief Encounter]), after all, connote the idea of an inexorable, malignant outside destiny controlling your fate.

Claude Lanzmann's Shoah contains one of the most chilling train images in all of cinema. The point of view is from the driver's cab. In front, the rails strech out, meeting on the horizon. They lead to a long, long facade. The subtitle reads: Auschwitz. 'Since the Holocaust the train has connotations that it is very hard to avoid,' Petit says. 'Primo Levi wrote that the problem with the camps was that in the end everyone forgot - they couldn't agree on any of the details. The only thing they could agree on was the trains.'

Or perhaps the problem with the British road movie is simply the absence of a mythic weight to our landscape, cities and, indeed, highways (did anyone ever write a great song about the M6?). Capaldi disagrees: 'Doesn't the lack of the mythic status not come from the lack of material producing that myth? One of the problems about being British and trying to make British films is that you're frightened to take a place and give it its full romantic value. But if you go out and make a work that gives it that romantic status, it starts to have that romantic status.

'Over the last ten years, the Scots have become very confident, mainly through rock music: so many Scottish rock bands became successful, and they were writing songs about Glasgow or whatever, and suddenly people saw that their own culture could be interesting. The more of that goes on the better - we should be more bullish about it.'

'Soft Top Hard Shoulder' opens next Friday

(Photograph omitted)