Shirley Valentine is an essential title for our list of Liverpool films. It’s also an interesting film in terms of its audience and the group of creatives who made it a big hit in the reviving British cinema of the late 1980s. The film might be described as a ‘feelgood’, nostalgic feminist comedy-drama – a strange and perhaps contradictory description. Looking at reviews, I was interested to see a number of US reviews which are in some ways quite distanced and critically acute, but also quite welcoming and celebratory. Pauline Collins who plays the titular lead was Oscar-nominated and the original play had been a hit on Broadway so the the US reviews do make sense. But the fact that the film is an ‘opening out’ of a successful stage play that doesn’t solve all the problems inherent in that practice and has tended to downplay the artistic achievement in the UK.
If you aren’t familiar with the play or the film, here’s a brief outline. Shirley Valentine was a bright grammar school girl with a rebellious streak who somehow became Mrs Shirley Bradshaw and the traditional stay at home mother of two living in a suburban street in Liverpool. One day, after the kids have left home, her long moans to her kitchen walls finally lead to action and she accepts the chance to go on holiday to Greece with a friend Jane (Alison Steadman). She hopes to rediscover her younger self and surprise herself with what might happen. Her sudden change in behaviour is prompted by her nosy neighbour across the street (Julia McKenzie) who puts on ‘airs and graces’ and her children Milandra (Tracie Bennett) and Brian (Gareth Jefferson) and her husband Joe (Bernard Hill) who have all long ago taken her for granted. The cast also includes Tom Conti with a moustache as a Greek hotel/bar owner and both Joanna Lumley and Sylvia Syms in cameo roles.
I remember enjoying the film in the cinema with my partner, who identified with Shirley just as many other women in the UK would have done at the time. We were also conscious of the Liverpool setting and the fact that nearly everything worth watching in the 1980s in the UK seemed to be set in Liverpool. Willy Russell was the playwright behind Shirley Valentine as well as the earlier Educating Rita which also became a major film, in 1983 (it was filmed in Dublin but at heart it remains a Liverpool narrative). Russell had many other theatrical hits as well as TV drama scripts throughout the 1970s and 1980s and one other film Dancin’ thru the Dark (1990) based on his earlier script Stags and Hens (1978). He was one of the most successful of the Liverpool writers in this period. His work tended towards comedy, music and working-class life whereas Alan Bleasdale had similar success with more politically edged material such as his TV serial Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). Bernard Hill as ‘Yosser’ Hughes in that production became something of an iconic figure of resistance to Thatcherism in the 1980s with his catchphrase “Gizza a job” (“Give us a job!”). Watching Hill as Shirley’s husband in 1989 was undoubtedly different for many audiences in the UK than it might have been for those overseas. Bleasdale and Russell were both trained as teachers in the mid-1960s (they were born in 1946 and 1947) and therefore they were around as teenagers and young men with the rise of popular music and football ascendency for the city’s teams. Pauline Collins was born in 1940, slightly earlier than the writers and her character Shirley might already have been married by the time the Beatles and the other Liverpool bands became so influential. Several of the successful Northern comedies in the 1970s and 1980s have that slightly odd feeling of being written a few years before they emerged as popular films – and therefore have a slight nostalgic feel.
Shirley is very much the central character of her own narrative as emphasised by her conversations with the kitchen walls and with the camera. This latter was also famously an element of an earlier successful film (by a Northern-based writer, Bill Naughton) Alfie (1966), another film adapted from an earlier play. The link between the two films is also through the director Lewis Gilbert. Gilbert (1920-2018) was a remarkably successful British director who succeeded in several different genres. He followed a series of wartime-based dramas in the 1950s with three James Bond films and then both Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine looking back to Alfie. Always seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, his success directing Julie Walters and Pauline Collins led to the suggestion that he was good with these roles which saw women changing their lives and creating a different identity. The result was that in 1991 he was was hired by Paramount to direct an American version of another similar British play, Steppin’ Out featuring Liza Minnelli. This seems to have turned out slightly less well (like the remake of Alfie?). Although these adaptations each derive from stage plays my feeling is that their referents are mainly a certain kind of British television production.
Although Pauline Collins made a big impression internationally as Shirley Valentine, her UK profile has always been maintained by her theatre work and her TV stardom rather than by cinema and this is true for most of the actors in the film of Shirley Valentine. In 1989 the UK cinema audience had increased significantly but was still not much more than half of its 2019, pre-Covid figure. I think this TV focus explains partly why the film today feels nostalgic for a period before the late 1980s. To give another example, Shirley’s trip to Greece sees her meeting various British holidaymakers still reacting xenophobically to local food and culture. This was one of the points of criticism of the film and it reminded me of British TV sitcoms, particularly Duty Free (three seasons 1984-6) featuring Gwen Taylor and Keith Barron. One of my favourite Monthly Film Bulletin critics, Philip Strick, offers in MFB October 1989 what is I think a typical response to the film which he suggests works because of Willy Russell’s skill with one-liners. What doesn’t work, he argues, are Shirley’s pieces to camera and the whole opening out of the play and peopling it with the characters who in the stage version were mentioned by Shirley but who didn’t actually appear in the flesh. I understand this criticism, but I don’t have any problems with the ‘to camera’ monologues. I also feel that films work with audiences in many different ways and in this case I think I know Shirley and all the characters, because they are ‘typical’ for British social comedy rather than because they are rounded characters in a drama. But perhaps this does date the film and thirty years on it stands primarily for enjoyable nostalgia and for a fine central performance.