‘Seaside Special’ Review: a Brexit doc where people, not politics, steal the limelight

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Seaside Special (2023) © TullStories

German director Jens Meurer explores Brexit through the seaside town of Cromer, North Norfolk, as it works to put on its annual Seaside Special show in 2019—-the “only remaining end-of-pier performance” in the world.

★★★★✰

Although geographically closer to Amsterdam than London, the people of Cromer voted in favour of leaving the European Union in 2016. Instead of focussing on the reasons and climate that led to this outcome, Meurer instead watches on as the community in 2019 comes to terms with what this means for them. The patriotism that played a part in contributing to Brexit is indirectly addressed as differences in what makes Britain ‘great’ are explored. Foreseeable symbols of Britishness such as fish and chips, cups of tea and gloomy beaches have their place in Meurer’s collage, but at the heart is the people of Cromer, the triumphant end of the pier production and community spirit. If there is a well-founded British patriotism, that is where it lies.

The whimsical characters we meet in comfortable interview pieces throughout the film are predominantly those involved in the Seaside Special production; the show’s director, theatre staff, performers, and dance teachers. We quickly learn that the Seaside Special is a source of immense pride for those involved and the wider community. What we begin to understand more gradually throughout the film is why.

Surprised by a 4-star review for the previous year’s performance from the ‘cosmopolitan’ press, the ongoing audience enjoyment of the traditional live-entertainment variety show is put down to a genuine audience interest and “wanting to experience a shared consciousness and enjoy something real” by the venue’s general manager. We watch the cast and crew for the 2019 production, most with a long-standing involvement in the Seaside Special, build their new show from the ground-up—a true labour of love.

Seaside Special (2023) © TullStories

The ABBA medley, Wizard of Oz scenes, old-school magician and pantomime-adjacent comedy have a kitschy quality that, at a glance, could have the whole show written off as a sentimental gimmick. However, there is a genuine talent and charming sincerity that doesn’t fail to win over the show’s audiences, or us as more distant onlookers.

Having been shot on 16mm Kodak film, what we see on screen inspires an instant, wistful nostalgia. Only a sprinkle of the 21st century, such as a truly original rendition of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and jokes that speak to the current political climate, allow us to place ourselves in the present day. Without discussion of Brexit and the occasional smartphone, much of the film could easily be archive footage pulled from previous decades, although it would be impossible to put any particular timestamp on the footage. One montage of the British seaside town, featuring picturesque portraits of seagulls and sunsets, suggests a hidden timelessness and magic in the mundanity we may ordinarily see.

In one scene shot in the ‘height of summer’, we see a dance performance take place on the seafront in the face of heavy rain and gale force winds. The stormy, turbulent sea acts as a dramatic backdrop, and fittingly reflects the political climate. However, the people of Cromer, watching and filming the performance in the rain, are not deterred.

Seaside Special (2023) © TullStories

All entertaining or engaging in their own unique way, the characters we encounter sit at different places on the spectrum of ‘politically engaged’. There is a lib-dem councillor, fisherman and anarchist sisters/dancers, with undeniable star quality, looking to escape the UK on a “fuck the Brexit European tour” in their 1984 Chevrolet camper van (despite its lack of working engine and their lack of a driving license).There’s no sense of judgement between the residents of Cromer or from Meurer’s lens. Instead, we see an admirable level of respect and understanding—even between those with strongly opposing views. Residents of Cromer are united by heritage, tradition, humour, and a will to build something for themselves.

Noted as ‘a love letter from Europe’, German director Meurer’s fondness for this eccentric-leaning aspect of British culture is abundantly clear. You could argue that this fond portrayal, where handmade entertainment reigns supreme, allows the turbulent and very real consequences of the Brexit vote to be trivialised, the corners softened. But in many ways, this is an honest portrayal of the Brexit experience for the average voter. Even when Brexit dominated the news, ordinary life, and the show, went on.

Seaside Special (2023) © TullStories

To watch Seaside Special in 2023 is a multilayered experience. The privilege of hindsight distorts how we receive certain opinions linked to the Brexit debate, and our relationship with live entertainment has changed post-pandemic. Regardless, there is still a lot to be gained from Meurer’s film. Through the personal experiences of some individuals featured, themes of the Brexit conversations are humanised in a refreshing and original way. Seaside Special isn’t a history lesson, but what it does teach us is that there is power in community, danger in loneliness and that in any tightly bonded group, such as the cast and crew of the Seaside Special show, any goodbye is bound to be emotional.

The Verdict

Jens Meurer’s Seaside Special captures responses to the ‘unchartered waters’ of 2019 Britain, where a relentless barrage of Brexit news pushed us to reflect on our identity as individuals, communities and as a nation.

Words by Lena Moss

Seaside Special is released 10 November 2023.


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