Is there a certain film that pops into your head when you hear the phrase ‘road movie’? It could be one of the cult anti-establishment efforts of the late 60s/early 70s like Vanishing Point, Badlands, Five Easy Pieces or Easy Rider. Or it might be something more recent, like Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers, My Own Private Idaho, The Straight Story or Sideways.

All very good films, but whichever one you think of, the chances are it’s American. The US suits the road movie to a tee: it’s the land of the long, snaking freeway, it has those endless big blue skies, there are huge distances between towns and cities and, last but not least, there’s the car fetishism. If the US ever feels the need to replace the bald eagle as its most famous symbol may I politely suggest that a picture of a 1950s Thunderbird or a Cadillac should be adopted instead.

Where one side of the Atlantic has its many cinematic paeans to Route 66 and the like, over to the east we haven’t really found the knack of celebrating that particularly sexy cluster of roundabouts on the A343. You know: the ones just north of Upper Throngford that tend to get snarled up during rush hour. Here in the UK our terrain, transport infrastructure, scenery and psychogeographical make up hasn’t been as romanticized in recent popular culture as much, and therefore doesn’t appear to be as well suited to the road movie. Or at least that’s what we have been led to believe.

Frankly, there’s no reason why good UK road movies can’t be made, as proven in 1979 by Christopher Petit, whose debut film Radio On casts some admiring glances westward, but casts even more eastward towards Germany. Echoing the path taken by several ex-Cahiers Du Cinéma writers in France, Petit was a film critic working as an editor for Time Out, and managed to convince Wim Wenders – a director who would prove to be a massive influence – to back his first feature. Wenders offered Petit some money, his regular camera operator Martin Schafer and his wife, actress Lisa Kreuzer.

The British film industry had largely stagnated during the 1970s; there were a few blips of life, of course, but by and large in the latter half of the decade there were far too many TV sitcom tie-ins being made and formulaic, nudge-nudge sex comedies like the long-running Carry On and Confessions Of A… series. Britain’s only hope seemed to lie with its vast studio spaces, which offered attractive rates to filmmakers working with tight(ish) budgets.

Against this backdrop Petit decided to make something that went against the grain: an existentialist road movie influenced by German cinema. Given that it was completely out of step with the majority of British films around that time, it’s no surprise that it was largely ignored by cinemagoers, or that it was met with indifference by the majority of critics. Since then, however, it has achieved the unmeasurable and has been given the status of ‘cult film’. Yet perhaps Radio On deserved more when it was originally released. It superbly illustrates the concrete mess (grimly depressing and occasionally beautiful) of late ‘70s Britain, captures the essence of the post-punk movement, and with the benefit of hindsight you could certainly make a case that it should have been the defining rebel film of the year rather than the more widely-celebrated Quadrophenia.

The main protagonist here is a man named Robert (David Beames), a DJ who works for a radio station that broadcasts to factory workers (based on the United Biscuits Network of the 1970s, which apparently was far more glamorous than the squalid den of iniquity known as BBC Radio 1). At the beginning of the film Robert is informed of his brother’s suicide in Bristol, and sets off from London to investigate, meeting a few interesting characters along the way. Robert’s journey is soundtracked by a mix of post-punk, Krautrock and rockabilly music, including three Kraftwerk tapes Robert posted as a birthday present by his brother before he took his own life. (It would seem that Robert’s brother may have been part of a porn ring which is alluded to in news broadcasts, but whether or not it was the main or only reason for his suicide is left open for interpretation.) In Bristol Robert meets Ingrid (Kreuzer), a German woman, with whom he has a brief affair.

In terms of the plot, that’s pretty much it for Radio On. Even taking quieter roads like Robert does, London to Bristol is a journey that can be made in less than a day, so some disbelief must be suspended when his trip involves not one but two nights on the road. History has been re-written so that mental images of the late 1970s Callaghan era now usually incorporate stacks of mounting waste, petrol shortages and long queues outside the DHSS offices. So if viewing just remember that this was a period when – as I have always been told – nothing worked properly, and that presumably includes the 24-hour day / night cycle.

Through Schafer’s lens the concrete council blocks, factories, flyovers, motorways and multi-storey car parks of southern England look great, as do the mist-covered rolling hills of the countryside when Robert opts for a more rural path to Bristol. There are some memorable shots of the Westway in London, the M4 corridor, rural Wiltshire and Bristol at night.

The film feels slow, an enjoyable and studied exercise in meandering if you’re in the mood for that kind of thing, and Petit is happy to allow the camera to rest on scenes and objects that clearly interest him for far longer than most directors would. That could be anything: the dial on an old petrol pump, the minutiae of Robert’s brother’s apartment, Robert’s car steering wheel, the lights of a pinball machine, a tower block or a till. At one point Robert puts a song by Wreckless Eric on the jukebox in a pub where there are only one or two other customers, drinking alone. The characters remain silent while the song plays, and Robert moves from the window to the bar. It’s a strange scene, one where tension arises from the fact you expect two characters to strike up a conversation, but it never takes place. Though it may look as if nothing much is happening on screen, that’s not actually the case, and quiet scenes like this are typical.

As Robert travels from east to west he meets a few interesting characters, but conversations are often stilted and awkward – the exact opposite of the cooler, worldlier, more confident dialogue of, say, Easy Rider. Robert is a man of few words, and he struggles to make smalltalk or to communicate easily with the people he meets. At one point he gives a lift to a psychotic ex-serviceman who is hitchhiking, but their chat is governed primarily by Robert’s concern for his own welfare; later on he is more animated when he meets a rockabilly fan (Sting) who is living near the crash site of his idol, Eddie Cochran, but this time the fan is a man of very few words. Sting’s cameo just doesn’t work and that’s my one major problem with the film. An up-and-coming musician at the time, his face stands out in comparison to the other actors: relative unknowns unless you happen to be a Wim Wenders aficionado. It has the air of record company product placement about it; Petit has since admitted that Sting was cast to put bums on seats. Still, there is something very engaging about these brief conversations and meetings that only exist because of the journey that is being undertaken.

It doesn’t look as though Petit felt his film would be appreciated in the UK. As Time Out’s film editor he was probably as well-placed as anyone to know he was making a resolutely anti-fashion movie, completely out of step with prevalent trends in the country, but the British film industry certainly needed shots in the arm like this. There’s something enjoyably punk in attitude about the decision to include two German actresses who speak for several minutes at a time in their native tongue with no subtitles provided. It’s a “fuck you” if ever there was one. The presence of Kraftwerk is another nod to the country, and the end credits are in both English and German too. At the start of the film the camera lingers on a note in Robert’s brother’s apartment which appears to be a call to arms for “the children of Fritz Lang and Wernher von Braun” while the German version of David Bowie’s Heroes plays on a stereo.

There are nods to American pop culture, too; the aforementioned Cochran, for example, or the appearance of the tail fin of a 1950s Thunderbird or the unavoidable presence of Coca-Cola. They may suggest an affinity for the home of the road movie, but just as easily serve to highlight how different Britain and the US were from each other in the 1970s. (Though, that said, the point being made may well be a prescient one – that the dominant US culture is taking over, slowly but surely.)

This is a film of significant importance in terms of social history, and also a beguiling one if you are the type of person that is able to see the beauty contained in a long shot of a car driving round and round an empty quarry in black and white. Petit and Schafer have captured urban Britain very well, and find much of contrasting interest in the countryside too, but most impressive of all is Radio On’s attitude; the night lights and endless concrete is perfectly married to the chosen soundtrack to create a true picture of the margins of urban Britain.

Though it was destined to be ignored by the masses, it is also a film that has become truly appreciated by the few that have watched it. It is a fascinating glimpse of late 20th Century industrial Britain (in decline while at the same point urban growth continued apace) and proof that the UK lends itself to serious UK road movies far more easily than you might assume. But only in the hands of the truly creative.

The Basics:

Directed by: Christopher Petit
Written by: Christopher Petit
Starring: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer, Sandy Ratcliff
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Year: 1979