A German film director’s whimsical and heartfelt portrait of Cromer has become an unexpected hit among audiences and critics in his home country, sparking an interest in the town on the north Norfolk coast.
Seaside Special follows the town as it prepares for its annual end-of-pier variety show – a burlesque mix of song and dance, standup comedy and slapstick performed twice a day for three months – in the summer of 2019, set against the tumultuous backdrop of clashing views within the community over Brexit.
The film’s director, Jens Meurer, said that in Cromer he had discovered a “very filmic microcosm” of Brexit Britain.
“It was a great relief to discover that despite such politically charged times, Britain having slammed the door on the EU so loudly, a quintessential Britain that we love that is decent and funny, eccentric and compassionate, still exists,” he said.
Shot on 16mm film, lending it a grainy, elegiac charm, Seaside Special juxtaposes the trials and tribulations of the lives of the performers and residents on stage and off with the differing political views of the wider community. Off stage, John Lee, an eighth-generation crab fisher who voted for Brexit, explains to Meurer from his fishing boat: “They put the word ‘great’ in front of Britain for a reason.” Once the uncertainty is overcome “then we’ll prosper”.
German audiences who had struggled to understand the motivation behind Brexit warmed to Lee, said Meurer. “He is honest. He helps them understand how you can be pro-European but anti-EU. They respect him even if they don’t share his views.”
In one sketch from the show, the sisters Polly and Sophie Duniam – former child TV stars and long-time vocal backing singers for the Pet Shop Boys – say they want to express their outrage at Brexit by driving their camper van through Europe on a “never-ending fuck Brexit tour”. However, it transpires that not only did the sisters not vote (“we’re too anarchistic for that”) but their van is missing its engine and the sisters their driving licences.
Paul Eastman, an erstwhile standup comic at Ukip events, holds the show together as its quick-witted compere.
In the film he ruminates about the outcome of Brexit. “Whatever happens … the British people will just bloody get on with it … They say that if you voted to leave it’s going to be terrible because you won’t get lettuce any more … I mean the wine thing I worry about, but lettuce? I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a lettuce, who cares?”
The film is dedicated to Eastwood, who died in an accident before its release.
Cromer’s residents – two-thirds of whom had voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum – were surprised when the German film-maker turned up.
“Firstly they told me they don’t usually get Londoners here taking an interest in them, let alone Berliners,” said Meurer. “Secondly when I knew this would be a film that would make people laugh, it became this topic of amusement that it would be a German of all people who’d manage that.”
German media has said that just like the pier show it features, the film offers a “safe place of refuge from Britain’s political and societal fragmentation”. The German broadcaster ZDF, which visited Cromer to report on Seaside Special, said the film showed “what happens when complex issues and British stubbornness collide”.
German audiences have been offered the chance to win tickets and holiday packages to next summer’s end-of-pier show. “I think we’re going to have a lot of people coming over to Cromer now as a result,” Olly Day, a local entertainer, said. The local press has told readers to brace itself for an influx of German tourists.
“It’s proved to be a bit like a lightening rod for audiences, sparking a great deal of animated conversation and releasing a lot of emotions in people, whatever side they’re on,” said Meurer.