Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is awaiting a UK release date.
Let me take you back to Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, 2018. Since its launch in 2012, Greater Manchester Fringe has provided a home for new theatre, cabaret and live performance while championing up and coming LGBTQ+ theatre and performers. In 2018, Karlton Parris’ period drama, Once a Year on Blackpool Sands, made its fringe debut, recounting the story of two miners in the 1950s who held a secretive love that only found freedom once a year on Blackpool sands.
Written and directed by Karlton Parris, the play offered us a rarely seen story of Northern working-class gay men at a point in time where the state and the police persecuted gay men. Their annual community coach trip to Blackpool was an escape from the oppression surrounding them and the expectations of masculinity born from a tight and insular community culture.
There is no doubt that the film version of Once a Year on Blackpool Sands was a passion project for Parris, but does it work on screen? The answer is mixed, much like the original stage production, with a slightly confused and disjointed opening thirty minutes, followed by some great drama and a disappointing end. There’s no doubt Parris was aiming for Brokeback in Blackpool; however, what we end up with never quite reaches the heights of the story’s initial promise despite its assured performances.
READ MORE: A TASTE OF HONEY
The film opens in the mid-1980s at the heart of the AIDS epidemic; here, we find Eddy (Kyle Brookes) and Tommy (Macaulay Cooper) surrounded by friends as they die of AIDS in each other’s arms. Through a young man who sits with them, we learn of their story; a hard-won love wrapped in fear, courage and the need to be together at all costs. The year is 1953, and Eddy and Tommy have been conducting a secretive love affair since their teens in a close-knit and tough mining community where secrets are hard to maintain. Homosexuality is illegal, and community gossip is deadly as both young men delicately try to navigate their love.
Once a year, the community arrange a trip to Blackpool, and here Eddy and Tommy find freedom and peace as they escape the trappings of their home lives for a brief week of love. But, as their annual holiday comes into view, tensions are also growing as Eddy talks of running away with Tommy after getting caught by the police at a local cruising ground. At the same time, Tommy begins to question whether their relationship can ever work.
READ MORE: MINYAN
The origins of Parris’ story are fascinating after he allegedly met the real Eddy and Tommy in Greece as they both enjoyed their last holiday together before dying of AIDS, and one can’t help but feel this should have been the opening scene. Instead, we get a mid-80s opening in a small suburban house where the tiny budget Parris had to work with is evident. Here the performances of those surrounding the older Eddy and Tommy as they fade away are weak, stereotypical and, at times, intensely irritating. At the same time, essential discussions on the LGBTQ+ history we lost during the AIDS epidemic lack the focus and attention so richly deserved.
This causes a significant problem, as the emotional link to Eddy and Tommy’s story is never allowed to flourish before we journey back to the 50s. Unfortunately, things don’t get much better in the opening 35 minutes as we explore Eddy and Tommy’s home life. Here while the production is rich in period detail and is carried by the central performances of Cooper and Brookes, the overarching narrative often feels confused and disjointed.
READ MORE: WILDHOOD
It’s not until the holiday to Blackpool comes into view that Parris’ movie hits its stride, the midsection wrapped in some genuinely outstanding performances as we explore Eddy and Tommy’s feelings and thoughts in a queer-friendly seafront hotel. However, even here, Once a Year on Blackpool Sands attempts to introduce too many characters as it explores the hotel’s residents, often distracting from Eddy and Tommy’s journey. This distraction is made worse by a score that regularly overpowers the drama on-screen, becoming an irritation rather than a tool in elevating the dramatic intensity.
However, there is also much to enjoy in Once a Year on Blackpool Sands despite these core weaknesses, with glimmers of what could have been given more focus on Eddy and Tommy’s journey. The performances of Cooper and Brookes are outstanding throughout and wrapped in fear of community isolation and ostracisation as they attempt to navigate their love. Meanwhile, the history of Blackpool as a centre for emerging gay rights and the first sparks of a fight for equality are present but lack focus. Equally strong is the Cinematography of Josh Gwynne, who ensures Once a Year on Blackpool Sands visually transcends the budget restrictions it faced.
READ MORE: FROM STAGE TO SCREEN
The result is a movie that swings from confusion to brilliance to disappointment as Parris attempts to duplicate the gritty period drama and oppression of films like Brokeback Mountain and the social realism of movies like Francis Lee’s sublime God’s Own Country. In part, Once a Year on Blackpool Sands achieves its goal, but I can’t help but feel there was a deeper story of oppression, masculinity, freedom and defiance in Eddy and Tommy’s journey that never quite found a voice in either Parris’ play or film.
READ MORE: LOVE, VICTOR SEASON 3 – NEW IMAGES
In part, Once a Year on Blackpool Sands achieves its goal, but I can’t help but feel there was a deeper story of oppression, masculinity and freedom and defiance in Eddy and Tommy’s journey that never quite found a voice in either Parris’ play or film.