Greetings from Blackpool: Peter Chelsom's follow-up to Hear My Song was filmed there. So, too, was Gurinder Chadha's Bhaji on the Beach. Film-makers tired of the Britain presented by heritage movies are avoiding the Home Counties and heading north

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The Independent Culture
Phone the Blackpool tourist office, and the talk is all of of 'bed-nights' and 'media friendliness', of production schedules and location guides. The big- spending, two-week tourist trade might have been drifting smartly southward but, in the beds it deserted, there now snores a small army of sparks and gaffers. At the town hall, this latest sideline still has the shiny veneer of novelty. 'It's good fun, this business,' an official who calls himself the media co-ordinator says.

In the last 18 months, the town has hosted five feature films and 'a lot of telly'. And, unlike lesser movie Meccas - Liverpool, say - which often have to disguise themselves as somewhere entirely different, Blackpool always stars as its own inimitable self. So what is the attraction?

For the director Peter Chelsom, born and bred there, it scarcely needs stating: 'A lot of people's original work comes from their past.' He has now made three films that, in grander moments, he calls his 'Blackpool trilogy' - Treacle (a short film), Hear My Song, and the forthcoming Funny Bones (which notched up 3,000 bed-nights) - all of them roving around the seamier fringes of the local show-business scene.

But you don't have to be Blackpudlian. Here is Gurinder Chadha, Anglo-Asian, resident in London, and the director of Bhaji on the Beach, in which a group of Asian women discover rock, male strippers and personal liberation on an awayday to the Golden Mile: 'I chose Blackpool because of the Illuminations: I think they're one of the forgotten wonders of the world. And the tourist board was very accommodating; it gave us control over the lights. A guy called the erection foreman - a name which, in itself, is very Blackpool - switched them on and off for us four or five times.

'Brighton is a bit Chariots of Fire, very Edwardian and middle- class. Southend is just ugly. It had to be Blackpool because of its place in British social history. Of all the seaside resorts it has the strongest identity in belonging to a specific time and place - a real sense of civic pride, even though I know it's tacky in lots of ways.'

And here is Colin Nutley, a British film-maker who has lived for many years in Sweden (he made his last film, House of Angels, there), but who returned to Blackpool for his new movie, The Last Dance, a 'very black comedy' about two couples involved in ballroom dancing: 'I grew up in Portsmouth in a working-class family. We always spent one week on holiday a year and we always went to the Isle of Wight. Many things about it were just the same as Blackpool - you'd sit in a deckchair in the howling wind getting sand in your sandwiches. Blackpool still smells of England in the Fifties. I find that thrilling. It has history and beaches and piers and pubs. It has life.'

Richard Kurti - a southerner - chose Blackpool for Seaview Nights, a comedy about a crook who, after receiving a blow on the head, believes himself to be King Arthur. In UFO, the comedian Roy 'Chubby' Brown goes to Blackpool, is abducted by feminist extra-terrestrials, is impregnated by them and gives birth through his rectum. Blackpool is a world of its own, a microculture where anything could happen. For a trade that peddles fantasies, it's the perfect fantasy location.

True, it doesn't have much of a toehold in the heritage trade. Blackpool qualifies for a brisk nine lines in the Blue Guide to England (Bath, by contrast, sprawls over eight pages). The town doesn't feature on that well-trodden, London / Cambridge / Oxford / Stratford / Bath / Cream-Tea-under-Thatch tourist trail.

But, by the same token, Blackpool isn't pickled in whimsy. It's adaptable, ever-changing. Modern. There might be a whiff of stale fish and chips, but the town does its best to hide it. This year, for instance, it launched the biggest roller-coaster in the world and gave the tower a lick of gold paint to celebrate its centenary.

'Britain', for international film audiences, and Americans in particular, is a nowhere land, a composite of the package tour they went on last summer and the Britpix they see. And, in those films, if the working classes are on the playbill, they're bound to be knocking around some fly-blown council flat in the inner city. The upper orders, of course, orbit sedately through the Home Counties and - the odd Scottish castle excepted - never go north of the Watford Gap. These films define Britain to the world - and to Britons. They shape our self-image.

Blackpool offers a glimpse of another country: a place where you don't need to be young or white or wealthy or a southerner to have a good time. The new wave of films taps into a small and forgotten movie heritage, a brief but glorious moment, 60 years ago, when Gracie Fields washed dishes in a B & B in Sing as We Go, and George Formby serenaded his little stick of Blackpool rock. Blackpool is not a place for literary stylists; James Ivory will probably never make a film there. But for those trawling for a scruffy, disreputable, distinctively British telly- tabloid culture, it's the business. Pop-culture there doesn't just mean America.

We must then ask: how exportable are these movies? A white linen suit looks good in almost any social situation, but not a kiss-me- quick hat. The producers of UFO didn't even bother to export it to cinemas down south. Of the others, Funny Bones, whose cast includes Jerry Lewis, Leslie Caron, Oliver Reed and Lee Evans, looks like the best bet for an international breakthrough.

And there is always the appeal of the exotic. Nutley says: 'All the Swedish journalists who visited the set of The Last Dance came to Blackpool rather than the Caribbean, which is in the film too. There's nothing like it in Sweden; on their holidays, they all go to their summer houses or sail in the archipelago.'

And Chadha, whose Bhaji on the Beach has recently been released in the States in a handful of arthouses, and is doing rather well there in its own modest way, comments: 'Many Americans are saying to me they didn't realise there was somewhere like this. Because of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Widow's Peak, there's a real passion for Englishness. This film shows an England that nobody in America sees.'

Blackpool is not well-mannered. Two foolhardy members of Kurti's production crew put their ponytailed heads round the doors of some pubs down the rough part of town, and withdrew them again quickly. 'We had quite a lot of trouble while we were filming there,' Nutley says. 'We had to call in the police on two or three evenings; it's that end of the road you're talking about. But that's also part of its charm.

'I live in Sweden, but I want to show Swedes my country too. Films like Howards End put an image to the world which I think is bullshit. When Swedes talk about England, they are talking about middle-class England and that view is pushed at them by those films. It breaks my heart, really.'

'Bhaji on the Beach' and 'UFO' are both available on video. 'Funny Bones' will be released next year. BBC 2 is devoting an evening to Blackpool on 29 August

(Photograph omitted)

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