German filmmaker Jens Meurer has had a huge success in his native land with this vivid and richly affectionate anglophile documentary. I think I can see why, and it could even turn into a German national TV tradition – like Dinner for One, the English-language drawing room comedy sketch that the Germans love watching at Christmas. Could it be that a German documentary about an English seaside town will show us all the way ahead, and heal the psychic wounds of Brexit?
Seaside Special is all about Cromer on the north Norfolk coast in the distant summer of 2019 – and mostly about all the local people preparing to take part in the annual end-of-the-pier show, the last of its kind in the UK, or for that matter the world. This theatrical event itself looks like a terrifically enjoyable variety gang show: with naughty gags, brassy musical numbers, Hollywood homages and pop songs. It is a bit like the BBC’s 70s programme Seaside Special (does Meurer really know about that?) or the old kids’ TV show Crackerjack.
Cromer, as Meurer’s film is quick to tell us, was overwhelmingly for Brexit but, interestingly, the tone of his film isn’t condescending or derogatory – perhaps because, to Germans, the leavers and the remainers both look like wacky Pythonesque British eccentrics. Meurer interviews leavers includer a fisher who we see bobbing thoughtfully about in his boat, just next to the pier, explaining why he’s against the EU. Then we talk to some of the showbusiness folk who are broadly in favour of staying. But they have no ill-will towards neighbours who feel differently. People talk animatedly about feeling European and also feeling British, and it doesn’t occur to anyone to start a fight about it.
There is always a kind of rackety glamour and melancholy in the end-of-the-pier idea, and at times this reminds me, just a bit, of Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend. I suspect, though, a British feature film or documentary on the same subject would have opted for miserablism and found an end-of-the-pier show that was just about to close down for ever. Meurer has instead found a show that is a big success, in rude commercial health and doing its bit to keep Brexit Britain together.
Seaside Special is a time capsule for that almost forgotten era: after the Brexit vote, but before Covid, when the nation was convulsed by daily headlines about hard Brexit, soft Brexit, leaving with a deal, leaving without a deal, and whether or not Theresa May was a more impressive politician than Boris Johnson. The show goes on and the politicians’ incompetence is resolutely ignored. There are some Johnson fans here, of course, and the show itself is a little like Boris, only without the cynicism and mendacity.
There is a strange and heartbreakingly sad footnote: standup comic Paul Eastwood, a cruise-ship veteran and Cromer show regular who was hugely loved by the audiences here, and sometimes shown in sad-clown mode pensively smoking, died in an accident just after this film was made.
When the cast perform their heartfelt rendition of We’re Off to See the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz followed by Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, it is unironically brilliant. The Cromer end-of-the-pier show should run all year: maybe they can do a residency in Hamburg.