Reel Stories @ Museum of Liverpool

Review by Steve Slack | 12 Apr 2016

Think of the Liverpool skyline and you probably think of powerful Victorian buildings – docks, grand hotels with sweeping staircases, the two cathedrals. The Three Graces have sat proudly alongside the Mersey for generations and, more recently, next to their new neighbour the Museum of Liverpool. Reel Stories: Liverpool and the Silver Screen seeks to shed light on another side of the city – the role it has played in cinema. It turns out there’s more to Liverpool’s cinematic history than A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Shirley Valentine (1989).

Chariots of Fire (1981), for example, used the Oval sports centre on the Wirral as the Stade Olympic de Colombes in Paris. And In the Name of the Father (1993) used Liverpool streets in place of London and included cameos from the James Munroe pub and the Queensway Tunnel. But after these examples, despite the curators’ best efforts, the links become more tenuous.

Scenes from The Hunt for the Red October (1990) were filmed in Liverpool, but never made it into the final picture. And the fact that a scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010) was filmed in an underground tunnel in Liverpool is neither here nor there. Even iconic movies that we might more readily link to the city don’t present strong links. In the end, A Hard Day’s Night and Shirley Valentine are both really about leaving Liverpool.

Perhaps more interesting than the scenes of movies that were filmed in the city are the tales of real Liverpudlians. Going to the pictures is a 12-minute film running on a loop featuring a handful of real people’s memories of visiting the cinema in the 1940s and 50s – from the flea pits where patrons were sprayed with DDT to the palatial cinemas that matched the grandeur of the movies. We hear of one girl’s ambition to be an usherette and saucy tales of courting on the back rows.

Bringing the story up to date, the exhibition makes it clear that Liverpool’s success as a filming venue in recent years is thanks to the work of Liverpool Film Office, founded in 1989. This enterprise has assisted in the filming of over 6,000 programmes and films in the city, which is rather impressive. It does seem, however, that part of the exhibition reads like a marketing campaign. The great and the good of Hollywood wax lyrical about how great it is to film in Liverpool and their message is reinforced by a very polished promotional video.

The Skinny suspects most visitors won’t really be too diverted with this moment of self-congratulation, preferring to look at something with more relevance to their own lives. It's also a shame that we can’t view the great buildings and iconic locations alongside the movie posters, or stills from the films that are featured, allowing us to make real meaning in the exhibition. You could imagine yourself going on a hunt to find locations featured in movies. There is an app for that, although it wasn’t working at the time of the exhibition’s launch.

Although we left the museum feeling inspired to see some of the films included in the display, we got the impression this exhibition isn’t quite sure what it’s about. The curators might have chosen just a few themes, rather than getting out everything to do with Liverpool and film. But then covering plenty of themes and movie genres allows more potential ways in for local visitors, who will surely be delighted to see their cityscape reflected on the silver screen and in the museum alike. It is also worth pointing out that it would be great if the museum actually showed some of the movies they focus on, there is a 170-seat cinema just waiting for it – right in the heart of the city centre.

Reel Stories runs at the Museum of Liverpool until September 2016