Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Purely Belter



UK 2000
director – Mark Herman
script – Mark Herman, adapted from the novel by Jonathan Tulloch
cinematographer – Andy Collins
stars – Chris Beattie, Greg McClane, Charlie Hardwick
99 minutes

Purely Belter is the 54th film I have reviewed for Jigsaw Lounge, and it is by some measure the worst. It’s tougher to classify really bad movies than really good, but I’d have no hesitation in placing Purely Belter in the same atrocious division as Dobermann – which was French, so God knows – and The Avengers – which was apparently hacked about by the studio. There are no such excuses for Mark Herman, and nowhere to hide. If it was up to me, Herman would never be allowed within sight of a film set for the rest of his life, such is the cinematic crime Purely Belter represents. From start to finish, it is crass, trite, patronising, predictable, tedious, obvious and dull. Purely offensive, in fact.

It’s pointless to debate exactly where Purely Belter fits among the all-time worst movies, but I have no hesitation in proclaiming one small segment as the worst scene I have ever had the misfortune to witness in a cinema. Whitley Bay, a grim wintry afternoon : Gerry (Beattie) has been loafing around with his best mate, Sewell (McLane). Adolescent Gerry has had a tough life. His dad (Tim Healy) is a violent alcoholic who bailed out long ago, leaving his frail, bronchial wife (Hardwick) on her own and returning for sporadic visits to abuse his family and steal what meagre cash they’ve managed to scrape together. Gerry’s sister Bridget (Kerry Ann Christiansen) has long since fled the family home.

From the press notes: ‘There’s another surprise at Whitley Bay. As he’s wandering through the empty fairground, Gerry sees Bridget huddled on one of the rides under a big coat. He tentatively approaches her. She has the haunted look of the homeless and lurches from tender curiosity about the family she’s left behind to aggressive demands for money or drugs. Gerry is heart-broken to see his sister so ravaged and begs her to come home. She refuses, reminding him of what their Dad did to her that made her leave.’

Words can’t do justice to the staggering awfulness of this scene. Samples of dialogue : “Where y’as going?” “Nowhere.”… “What you on?” “Life, man, just life.” Herman ticks off the last box in his checklist of squalor, adding incest to the rota of social ills the film so glibly gives lip-service to : poverty, violence, drugs, abortion, crime. It’s all here, a tapestry of grim Geordie picturesque. Whitley Bay sums up and showcases Herman’s limitations: bewilderingly dreadful dialogue, ham-fisted characterisation, bog-standard directorial input. It’s deeply depressing, but not in the way Mark Herman probably intended.

The plot, such as it is, follows Gerry and Sewell in their attempts to accumulate sufficient cash to buy a season ticket for their beloved Newcastle United. This quest of theirs starts off fairly idiotic – recovering a broken toilet from the muddy sludge of the Tyne – but soon spirals off into the realms of the ludicrous, culminating in a botched bank robbery (botched as much by the script and direction as by the characters themselves), then capped by a silly coda which shows the friends kind-of-but-not-quite achieving their goals. Along the way there are all manner of absurdities – I especially hated the subplot which has social worker Val McLane promising Gerry a match ticket if he’ll attend school for a fortnight. The punchline is that the ticket turns out to be for Newcastle’s hated rivals Sunderland – as if Gerry, who’s supposed to be so streetwise and clever, wouldn’t have established this beforehand. As if the two Geordies would even go to Sunderland, let alone enter the Stadium of Light and sit clapping alongside their bitter enemies.

This would perhaps be forgivable if the film went for a surrealistic or off-the-wall tone. But no – Herman seems to think he’s crafting a slice of pure social realism, wallowing as he does in all the glue-sniffing, car-nicking, house-breaking “truth” of these kids’ lives. There’s no way to tell whether Beattie and McLane can act or not – they are given such idiotic dialogue to spout, there’s no way to tell. But if there’s one person you come away from Purely Belter with a higher regard for, it’s Andrew Shim, whose performance as a similarly deprived and abused working-class kid in A Room For Romeo Brass is just light years ahead of anything on screen here.

Saying that, perhaps I wouldn’t have such regard for Shim if his character had been required to take a baby to a nightclub, as transpires here. As if a baby would ever be allowed into a nightclub. As if a baby, even in the most Magpie-crazy pocket of the north-east, would ever be actually christened “Sheara”. And then, after their nightclub trip, the two lads go to a fast-food takeaway and ask for a ‘Gazza Special’. This is Geordie life as phantasmagoric cartoon, a pantomime version of real social problems, a cinematic travesty from start to finish. You end up having to cherish the sheer awfulness of Herman’s script – I hope the line about the Angel of the North as “the patron saint of toe-rags” was his own invention, rather than being taken from the novel. It’s nice to see the Angel on the big screen – but not so nice to see the supposedly intelligent and streetwise Gerry labouring under the impression that said Angel is female.

But it seems unfair to pick out specific examples. Just about everything in this film is poisonous: ill-thought-out, condescending, badly handled, packed with sledgehammer ironies. Apparently it clocks in at less than 100 minutes, but I’m not convinced. It seemed interminable, inexhaustible in its remorseless inanity. The title is off-target as the rest of the film – despite what Herman may want to believe, nobody in the north-east ever uses the phrase ‘Purely Belter’ to express approval. In this case, ‘Strictly Bullshit’ would be much closer to the mark.

October 23rd, 2001
(seen 22-Oct-01, UGC Boldon)

For the many other films as bad as this (and worse) check out our Diorama of Dishonour

by Neil Young