‘In representations of the seaside, individual and cultural differences mostly dissolve into the experience of the crowd.’
In this essay I will discuss the way a trip to the sea is represented in Quadrophenia (the album by The Who with the accompanying short story, as well as the non-musical film of the same name) and in Gurinder Chadha’s film Bhaji on the Beach. I will argue that while the seaside of the story, music and the two films may be one that appeals to the characters because of its potential for a collective, enjoyable experience that can blur individual identities and anxieties, in fact the seaside that is represented produces conflict and may serve to challenge or renew identities.
The holiday at a modern seaside resort developed out of a pursuit of the wealthier classes in the eighteenth century – the visit to the seaside for the purported health benefits conferred by the sea. Railway connections and the advent of paid holidays allowed people from middle and working classes to begin to take seaside holidays and spurred by the growth in the number of visitors, resorts expanded and added amenities. While there were differences in individual resorts, with some attempting to appeal to more genteel visitors and others offering bawdier entertainment, nonetheless resorts began to develop into forms that would be recognised today, with piers and promenades, funfairs and dance halls and beach activities such as donkey rides or entertainment such as Punch and Judy shows. There were characteristic foods such as rock and candyfloss. These things can still be found at seaside resorts, even if modern activities such as surfing have also been incorporated.
Filmmakers can draw from this set of images to ground their representations of the seaside in the physical reality of the resorts and to gain traction with an audience that will have either experienced these things or will understand the association of them with the seaside. The symbols used in the first part of Bhaji on the Beach indicate that regardless of the characters’ ethnic background or individual situations at home, they are going to engage in the same sort of day at the seaside as everyone else. The first thing we see in Blackpool is the emblematic tower. Seaside music and the sound of seagulls can be heard as the women make their way towards the beach, along a bustling street of discount shops, costumed street vendors and fast food outlets. On the beach there are striped deck chairs and donkeys being ridden by children.
The initial scenes of Brighton beach in the Quadrophenia film also contain instantly identifiable aspects of the British seaside: a deck chair attendant at work, the imposing structure of the pier, fish and chip shops and hotels, though it is already clear before the seaside is featured, that the sort of experience the main characters intend to have, has little to do with traditional leisure pursuits. Jimmy has broken into a pharmacy to steal drugs for the trip and the group has talked about fighting Rockers on the beach. But when the Mods in the film talk about ‘getting out of their heads’ (Quadrophenia, 1979) it is clear that the seaside represents escape and pleasure.
Likewise in Bhaji on the Beach the principal characters see their trip to the seaside as a chance to escape their everyday problems or concerns and have fun in a setting that is removed from their everyday urban reality. Ginder assures her son that they will have a good time, after she anxiously reads a letter about her divorce. Hashida joins the trip, frustrated by her boyfriend’s reaction to her pregnancy. And Simi, the driver, promises an escape from ‘the patriarchal demands made on us in our daily lives’ (Bhaji on the Beach, 1993). Though this statement seems to baffle the older women in the group, it is clear that essentially the trip to the beach is supposed to be a chance to escape day-to-day concerns and have some fun.
The women begin their day at the seaside by having the same experience as the other people on the beach including white children and a mixed-race family. The women revel in the sea, paddling, laughing and splashing each other, while Ginder’s son Amrik rides a donkey and the two younger women play beach games. But despite this seemingly typical start to a day at the beach, the sudden revelation that Hashida is pregnant and that her boyfriend is black, exposes stark individual differences within the group. While the older women react to the news with shocked disapproval the younger women seek to defend Hashida. The difference in these generations of women might seem to correspond to a clash between Indian and contemporary British values, but the picture is revealed to be more complex when Rekha, who is visiting from Bombay, accuses the older women of being out of touch with the country whose values they purport to uphold.
From this point on, the women begin to engage with and negotiate their seaside surroundings in different ways, ultimately having individual experiences, as the group separates and the women experience Blackpool alone or in twos. They find themselves negotiating their identities and the surroundings and in some cases re-assessing their situations. Hashida seeks advice on abortions. Ginder is torn between going back to her abusive husband and raising Amrik by herself. Pushpa and Bina are racially abused by a café owner. Ladhu and Madhu spend much of the day with two white teenagers and display very different attitudes towards having physical contact with the boys. Asha’s hallucinations or visions (a reference to Bollywood film-making techniques) culminate in her re-assessing her position in English society and she declares ‘I was not born to sell newspapers’ (Bhaji on the Beach, 1993). Gurinder Chadha describes her own childhood trips to the seaside as ‘bittersweet’ (in The Seaside, 2008), something that she looked forward to but which made her consider her identity as a British Indian. She says that as she grew up she sought to blend in, but felt most different at the beach, for example, when the family’s food was brought out. (Similarly to a scene in the film). She talks about an essential Englishness in the seaside setting that caused her to think about her identity and to feel especially visible.
Chadha explains some of these difficulties in terms of ‘hybridization’ (in The Seaside, 2008), explaining that she negotiated feelings of being an outsider, of feeling patriotic towards Britain and of identifying with Asia, ultimately forging an identity that was a mixture of all these different elements. Chadha’s characters and even the setting are depicted as being similarly hybridized. The women represent a negotiated space between traditional South Asian and contemporary British values and are selective about which cultural elements to adopt. Simi combines Western and Indian clothing and Pushpa is only able to eat her chips, sprinkled with spice. Even Blackpool itself is depicted in a post-colonial hybridized way with Rekha declaring the Golden Mile to be Bombay. Clearly, in such a layered and negotiated setting, it becomes harder to pin down what the crowd experience is, and Chadha’s film is a conscious mélange of cultural elements, not only in what it depicts, but also in its technical execution – the mixing of English comedic and Bollywood film traditions, the Punjabi version of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday and the upbeat Bhangra music which accompanies the women’s first few minutes on the beach, where for a while at least, they enjoy quintessentially English pursuits.
Like the women in Bhaji on the Beach, the central character in Quadrophenia sees the sea as being removed from his everyday urban reality. Jimmy (as he is called in the film, and came to be referred to as by The Who after the release of the album) lionizes the sea’s beauty; ‘so gorgeous you want to jump into it and sink’ (The Who, 2011) and he equates the sea with release: ‘Let the tide in/And set me free’ (on ‘Drowned’, The Who, 2011). The troubles Jimmy faces at home are to do with his difficult relationship with his parents, his distaste of urban mundanity and his dislike of his job. Being a Mod is a form of class identity. Townshend saw the Mods as ‘lower-class young’ (Heylin, 2012, p. 268) who had to ‘submit to the middle class’s way of dressing and… speaking and… acting, to get the very jobs that kept them alive’ (ibid). Townshend saw the Mod identity as a form of rebellion against this, where ‘Fashion, music and daily life was elevated to a form of aloof poetry’ (Heylin, 2012, p. 269).