Interview with ‘Seaside Special’ director Jens Meurer

Seaside Special (2023) © TullStories

The Indiependent spoke to Jens Meurer about his documentary Seaside Special—an ode to British handmade live entertainment and the power of community to overcome division.

Seaside Special is set in Cromer, a seaside town in North Norfolk, in 2019. There’s an undercurrent of political uncertainty following 2016’s Brexit vote, as cast and crew work to produce their annual end-of-the-pier summer show.

The Indiependent: Seaside Special simultaneously explores Brexit and follows the production of Cromer’s end-of-the-pier summer season show. I was interested to know which you initially intended to make a film about and why you chose to tie those two things together. 

Jens Meurer: I didn’t really choose to tie them together. My original idea was a homage to this very English, very British form of entertainment. I think what really struck me was the community behind it. Although everyone who performs in the show are professionals, not necessarily from Cromer, the whole community is based around that pier and that show. They entertain 500 people at the end of the pier, two times a day when it’s sold out, which is crazy. That’s what brought me there in the first place.

It was inevitable to have Brexit in the film because it was in every family, every town and every theatre. As a German, I figured no one needed me to do a socioeconomic study on the ups and downs of Brexit. So instead, I thought of doing the total opposite. Going to the most wonderful, most British place that I knew and making what I call my ‘sweet revenge’ on the con that was Brexit. People have been really divided, even right through families, but despite this they come together to put on a show. I think that’s maybe why this film works for UK audiences, because it shows that there is an antidote to division—community.

It is a really loving homage to that British handmade entertainment that you don’t really see everywhere anymore. Where did that appreciation come from?

It came, against the odds, from my in-laws taking us there on vacation. They go to Cromer every year, and a while ago invited us to join them. The high point of the visit was seeing the end-of-the-pier show. I was blown away by the really unique style. Although it was much more common years ago, to me it feels really modern. It’s not relying on special effects and digital wizardry, but instead has real characters on stage, people performing, giving their everything, with only a metre between the cast and the audience. That immediacy and everyone, whatever political persuasion they might have, sitting together and actively participating in the show is really healthy. That bug bit me.

For me, it’s not nostalgic, but really forward-looking and futuristic. It’s a kind of humour and experience that transcends this super division, and is something we’ll need in the future. 

Obviously this film was shot pre-pandemic; do you see COVID as having changed the way people appreciate live entertainment? Maybe even reignited a passion for that collective consciousness you’re speaking about after being deprived of it for so long? 

It was such a shock that the show didn’t come back in 2020, especially to the people who made their living being in the show, but also to the potential audience. We realised that we are communal animals. We need good company to function well and this show is fantastic company, so it’s very bittersweet. You could say that COVID had a positive effect of making audiences appreciate this kind of place. The show is doing really well now. It isn’t on its last legs, and has sold out more than ever. It’s really made a comeback.

Seaside Special (2023) © TullStories

There’s so many fantastic characters featured. How did you find and choose the right participants for the film?

I was fortunate enough to have people interested in us being there. They were surprised I wanted to make the film, saying “no one from London’s ever come to make anything about us, never mind from Germany!” They found it quite odd. Our crew spent a whole year there, just observing and getting to know people. Being privileged enough to spend time seeing what was going on backstage—it’s magic. Before long, we were part of the furniture, part of the crew, the cast and the town. We always wanted to feature people in the town as well as those involved with the show. In the theatre you might expect larger than life characters, but this was true around Cromer too. Not everyone in the film is somebody I would agree with politically, but we’ve become friends.

As Britain, similarly to other countries, is falling prey to populism and division, people tear themselves apart over really stupid things. In my view, with Brexit, people fell for a lie. They wanted to ‘make the UK great again’, but now worry Britain is the laughing stock of Europe and won’t ever be welcomed back. It’s really important to say that this isn’t true. When German audiences saw this film, they loved it.

There’s so much about Britishness to admire. It’s a huge cultural force, with a sense of humour that Germans wish we had. The people in my film stand for something that Britain can be really proud of. They are a little bit eccentric, but also work hard. It seems to me that people have lost the knack of respecting each other for those traits. There could have been 20 more people featured in the film, there were so many amazing people in Cromer. Seaside Special isn’t just a film, it’s a love letter. Us Europeans have been dumped by you Brits, but we still love you.

Did you have any specific ideas or views about either British culture or about Brexit that were challenged or changed over the course of making the film?

Definitely about Brexit, to a degree. My family is half British, my partner is British, my children are half English, so it’s an issue that really touched our family. But what the film did is challenge the preconception that anyone who voted for Brexit was some right wing idiot.

That’s why I went there, to meet somebody like the fisherman in the film, John Lee, who is a member of the Tory party. He loved me because I let on that I was at university with Boris Johnson and he thought it was just excellent news. Meeting John did challenge my assumptions because he’s definitely not a right wing idiot. As he says in the film, he has European roots and wanted to make clear he’s not anti-European, he’s anti-EU.

When we showed the film in Germany, John was absolutely everyone’s favourite character, which speaks volumes. I would never have imagined making a film where John and his wife came out to the German premiere. They couldn’t believe how warm the audiences were to them. They all thought he was an idiot for voting Brexit, but a really wonderful and understandable one. Sadly, he passed away a few months ago, so this is his legacy.

Seaside Special (2023) © TullStories

Do you ever revisit Cromer and would you want to produce any follow up work there?

Oh, I’m there all the time. I’ll be there next week. I’ve spent holidays there and we have a Christmas tradition of showing the film at the theatre. It’s the one movie they show and it’ll be on this year for the third time running as a tribute to John Lee and Paul Eastwood, the MC, both who have sadly died since filming. It’s quite emotional, always. 

In terms of making any more work, we’re still gearing up to complete the twins’ “fuck the Brexit tour” in the Winnebago that was mentioned in the documentary. They go on the road with me to show the film together, so this is one of the plans we’re hatching. The Winnebago still exists, albeit still missing its engine. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing something; it would make a brilliant documentary series.

I’ve discovered that British audiences have a strong reaction to the film. Maybe because, as the director, I’m not on either side. I’m a foreigner and I’m respectful, so my film isn’t judgmental or cynical. In that sense, I’d love to come back. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen the Cromer Pier version of The Wizard of Oz, I’d still come back for more.

Interview conducted by Lena Moss

Seaside Special is released 10th November 2023.

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