WHILE Richard Curtis probably isn’t someone you would turn to for stark social realism, the story of pirate radio deserves a slightly more serious appraisal than that found in his latest happy-go-lucky comedy, The Boat That Rocked.
Curtis’s Sixties-set tale of high-jinks on the high seas has received mixed reviews – “fine if it were funny, but auto-pilot Curtis prevails”, said one reviewer; “I am going to email Richard Curtis and tell him I hate him and ask for my money back,” said another – but unlicensed radio remains a staple of British culture to this day.
In The Boat That Rocked, much is made of the fact that a hopelessly out-of-touch BBC played just 45 minutes of the new-fangled pop music per day, meaning that pop-hungry teenagers had no option but to tune into stations that took the music they loved more seriously.
In reality, despite attracting daily audiences of up to 25million people, the pirates’ brash and breezy US-style of commercial radio was anathema to Harold Wilson’s Labour government – although the official line was that pirate radio broadcasts had the potential to blot out the signals of legally-sanctioned stations, as well as emergency services and air traffic control communications.
The then-Postmaster General Tony Benn declared war on the pirates in 1965 with the promise, “the future does not exist for them”.
Although the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967 sank the pirates anchored just outside British waters, and a couple of years later Radio One (fronted by many former pirate DJs) soaked up their audience, unlicensed radio never really went away.