This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
Already proving to be a hit in his native Germany, director Jens Meurer's charming documentary hones in on the British seaside town of Cromer in North Norfolk and more specifically, its annual end-of-the-pier show that runs for three months during the summer. Shot on crisp 16mm Kodak film in 2019, the lingering effects of Brexit hang in the air like sea-salt as the town grapples with the ongoing process of leaving the European Union. Yet this isn't an overtly political documentary. And what may appear at first to be a surface level representation of quaint British eccentricities and political divides develops into a complex examination of, not only Britain's relationship with Europe, but with one another. Cromer is after all closer to Amsterdam — albeit across the sea — than it is to London. This feeling of alienation is captured rather succinctly by a suprisingly positive review from a presumed metropolitan newspaper reviewer.
There is though, a surprisingly active interest in politics that seems to belie the idea that the British ‘didnt know' what they were voting for. One could argue that fisherman the length and bredth of the country knew exactly what they were voting for. Two thirds of Cromer voted to leave the EU, but with no oven ready deal in place, the process of leaving is in limbo. With neither side satisfied, the show must go on, as they say.
As preparations for the summer get under way, director Jens Meurer intersperses the ‘action' with to-camera excerpts from the wonderful “minor local has-been” Olly Day and radio clips from North Norfolk radio. Both of which lend the the film an Alan Patridge / Anton Du Beke level of charm and familiarity. But it's in the show's compère, comedian Paul Eastwood, that the film seems most at home, tackling the inescapable sadness that comes with the slow demise of the British coastal town. Eastwood, an outwardly confident, cheeky and slightly dated comedian seems to encapsulate the end-of-the-pier show. The comedian, sharper perhaps than he lets on, clearly recognises that the landscape has changed to such a degree that any hopes of a blossoming late career have all but gone. The inclusion of a rather dodgy joke seems to cement this. Thus he seems genuinely and earnestly appreciative of the opportunity, especially with the recent arrival of his young son.
There's some serious talent on display too. Singers Harvey James and Emily Jarrow are genuinely superb. Some of the routines and staging wouldn't look out of place at grander venues. Jarrow in particular has exceptional talent as a singer, demonstrated in her tender, operatic Italian-language rendtion of I Will Always Love You. Having spent most of her life in offices, Jarrow seems to have finally found a spark on stage. “I'd rather be a shining meteor streaking across the sky for a few seconds than a constant, dusty planet”, she remarks. As with all candid bts moments, it's hard to know whether this was prepared or off the cuff (I'm saying nothing!) Unfairly or not, there is the nagging feeling as though some are auuditioning for their next role. But honestly, who can blame them.
Knowing what's around the corner for the industry – and the country as a whole – makes this a harder watch. Filmed less than a year out from the life-altering pandemic, the performer's worries of whether they'll be “asked back” or not are all the more heartbreaking. The extremely sad footnote during the credits makes this painfully real. Jens Meurer never films his subjects with anything other than genuine affection and appreciation. So it's unsurprising that the film's ending feels more like a pause. It seems clear the German director might not be finished with this special place.
Rather aptly it feels more like the ending of a season than a completed work of art. The show goes on, as it always does, and so Seaside Special may just be a humorous, melancholic time-capsule of a rather unique moment in time — the dying days of the UK's decades old relationship with Europe. Yet there's little anger or divisiveness here. For want of a better term, it's keep calm and carry on. An attitude that Britain is famous for. But with the dreaded B-word featuring in the film's trailer and copy, Brexit fatigue may well prevent this wonderful film from gaining the audience it richly deserves.
Seaside Special is released in cinemas across the U.K. and Ireland on 10th November 2023.