The post-Brexit culture wars must have seemed like the perfect backdrop to reviving Steven Berkoff’s satirical 1994 play Brighton Beach Scumbags on screen, as director Stephen Cookson has done with his new movie Brighton. It is a tale of the culture clash between an older Britain – represented by two elderly London couples with, to put it politely, antediluvian views on everything from homosexuality and immigration to littering and their cake-based diet – and the growing progressive modernity of the city, where they met as teenagers.
Brighton is set in two time periods: the early pre-Beatlemania 1960s, when its subjects are fresh-faced rebellious rock and rollers, and most of it in 2005, when the gruesome foursome Dinah (Marion Bailey/Hanna Stewart), Derek (Larry Lamb/Jamie Bacon), Dave (Phil Davis/Christopher Sparkles) and Doreen (Lesley Sharp/Phoebe Jones) are ageing, bigoted has-beens. Using both time settings, Cookson’s movie attempts to take Berkoff’s unvarnished satire of the uncouth working class and hint at a deeper sadness (particularly in Doreen’s past) in a way that means they may deserve more than justified scorn and condemnation.
The problem is this doesn’t really work at all because, while Berkoff’s caricatures may have been biting on the stage three decades ago, they just aren’t in a film in 2021, or 2005 for that matter. Here they are just cruel jabs – and not just to the unfortunate beachgoers or gay couple they come across, but to the subjects of the satire themselves.
Theatre has a fine tradition of the grotesque dating back to Shakespeare – think Falstaff or Malvolio – but even cinema’s most biting humour requires characters to be imbued with a little more complexity and pathos. With the exception of Doreen, to whom Sharp adds wit and melancholy, there’s none. Most of their utterances are not just offensive, but hackneyed, both linguistically and geographically.
The strange thing is that one suspects Cookson understands this. Large parts are filmed like a play, to the extent that one half expects a stagehand to appear in the back of the shot and knock over a deckchair. The flashbacks and final act try to add profundity, but are too little, too late to justify a mostly horrible first hour.
It’s a shame, because there’s a good, universal story to be told about its themes – of lost youth, and losing a world you understand to a younger generation you don’t. Meanwhile, a stage revival with the same cast could be something of a guilty hoot. This is neither.
Brighton is released digitally on demand on 7th June 2021.
Watch the trailer for Brighton here: