Perhaps because nowhere in Britain is more than a day’s drive from anywhere else if you put your mind to it, the UK road film is generally a species of art cinema, the inner journey of the traveller transfiguring the discovery of the landscape. In the traditional road movie, self-discovery takes place on the road. In the UK road film, no road can be long enough to put arrival out of the traveller’s mind, or the viewer’s. A road movie protagonist is tested by transition. A UK road film protagonist is tested by the threat of arrival.
The apogee of the UK road film’s resonance was the nineteen-seventies. At perhaps no other point in the history of film in the UK have the borders between modes of film practice seemed so porous: the impoverished state of the industry made commercial production almost as artisanal and economically uncertain a venture as experimental filmmaking; in this era Peter Sellers vehicles could sit on the shelf permanently while Stephen Dwoskin’s films received theatrical distribution. Never since has Rivette’s observation that narrative films are documentaries of people acting seemed so acute.
Sometimes, the UK road film is a film about people thinking about moving – roads of any kind scarcely appear in Barney Platt-Mills’ Private Road. At other times, the destination merges into the road, becomes defined as the catalyst of an emotional voyage. Take Me High has only begun when Tim Matthews (Cliff Richard), previously so much an item with the smoked-windowed Mini on whose roof he has perched to sing (before drinking champagne alone) becomes a Birmingham pedestrian and discovers the waterways. Ryker (George Lazenby)’s spiritual odyssey in Universal Soldier takes him from his career of perpetual travel for perpetual war to a life of rented rooms among the countercultural Left.
Radio On is something rather different. To relate to thought as one in transit, at home in liminal spaces, is an ambition already discernable in that film, despite the trauma of the occurrence Robert (David Beames) travels to confront; the logical conclusion of its drift the ceaseless movement of Petit’s later travellers.