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Rhys Ifans stars in Richard Curtis' film PIRATE RADIO, a Focus Features release.

2 out of 4 stars


Pirate Radio

  • Written and directed by Richard Curtis
  • Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Sturridge
  • Classification: 14A

He may have done more to influence British romantic comedies than anyone in the past 20 years, but Richard Curtis, the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral , Notting Hill and Love, Actually , goes off-shore and out of his depth with Pirate Radio .

This fictionalized account one of the radio ships which beamed rock music into British homes in the mid-sixties has a wealth of historical material to draw on and a strong ensemble cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. But Curtis's script is essentially an American frat-boy comedy with a series of vignettes showing games and ribaldry, virginity to be lost and pompous squares to offend.

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Re-edited and retitled (formerly The Boat that Rocked ) from its English release, the story, following the model of Almost Famous , centres around the arrival of a teenager, Carl (Tom Sturrridge, pale and delicate in the Robert Pattinson mode), who has been sent to spend time on the Radio Rock boat, managed by his godfather Quentin (Nighy).

Carl is soon introduced to the gang of DJs and staff, including the gruff iconoclast American import, the Count (Hoffman), roly-poly ladies' man Dave (Nick Frost), and Carl's easily confused roommate, Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke). They play charades, get drunk and outrage the government by broadcasting lively songs and dirty words into England's homes.

Curtis's forte is the comedy-drama hybrid, but there are only a few pokes at real emotions here, each dutifully accompanied by an illustrative song. One naively romantic DJ (Chris O'Dowd) makes the mistake of bringing a wife, Elenore, on board ( Mad Men 's January Jones), he's in for some short-lived heartbreak. Cue the Turtles' tune Elenore . Carl meets and falls for Quentin's pretty niece, Marianne (Talulah Riley), and when she goes back to shore we hear Leonard Cohen's So Long, Marianne . Carl comes to believe that his party-girl mother (a miscast Thompson) must have put him on the ship to meet the father he's never known, so we hear Cat Stevens's Father and Son .

The weakest scenes are those that are land-bound, featuring Branagh as a prissy government minister named Dormondy. Branagh plays the part with a bundle of John Cleese-like spasms and snide insults but the jokes are at a sub- Carry On Gang level. Case in point: He has an assistant named Twatt (Jack Davenport), which allows Branagh to wheeze: "I like you, Twatt."

Pirate Radio is also about a rich era in pop music and there are countless montages of enthusiastic English people, gathered around portable radios, boogying to new sixties songs from the Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Turtles, Jimi Hendrix and the Beach Boys. (No Fab Four here though; British films don't have that big a budget.) Much of this music is still too pervasive to qualify as nostalgia, and in some respects, the story is really about the first steps toward rock radio's commercial homogenization. Forty years ago, they couldn't get these songs on the radio; now we can't get them off.

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