The tables in the back corner at Elaine’s restaurant in New York City usually go to such luminaries as Woody Allen, Mia Farrow or Diana Ross. But on this night two relative unknowns draped with junk jewelry and wearing gobs of makeup reign over the VIP sections like a couple of punk princesses. They are Margi Clarke and Alexandra Pigg, Liverpool gals enjoying a bit of the high life on their very first visit to the United States. “They’ve been pourin’ vodka in us all night,” Clarke says with a cackle. Thrilled to find herself seated next to the Michael Douglas, she begins to fire her nonstop lewd jokes at him in a frequently unintelligible accent. “He was a scream,” Clarke says later. “I kept gettin’ the inclination to squeeze me face and give meself a cleft chin like his.”
So much for Professor Higgins’ theory that you’ve got to change a British woman’s accent to get her out of the slums. For Clarke, 30, and Pigg, 23, the same spunky style that made them flourish on the streets of Liverpool now brings them star treatment on both sides of the Atlantic. They are the heroines of Letter to Brezhnev, a romantic comedy written by Clarke’s brother Frank and filmed on a skimpy budget against the grim backdrop of their hometown. “Basically people like our film because it’s a simple love story,” says Pigg. “It’s a refreshin’ change from all the Rambos and that sort of thing.”
Actually, if any one element is making Brezhnev a success, it’s the warmth and gritty wit of its leading ladies. Pigg plays a dreamer who hopes that her love for a Russian sailor will save her from life on the dole in Liverpool. Clarke plays her wild and cynical best friend, who escapes from a day job stuffing giblets into chickens by carousing at nightclubs. Some critics have complained about the thick accents; others have objected to the script full of four-letter adjectives, nouns and verbs. But most audiences who sit out Brezhnev are won over by the most irresistible Liver-pudlian scallywags to grace the screen since the Beatles.
The chemistry between their characters comes right out of real life. “We’re best friends,” says Pigg. “Margi’s more outgoing than I am, but I tend to be more adventurous.” Both actresses share an enormous love for their movie. “Between takes they’d be giving masses of enthusiasm and encouragement to the other actors,” says Brezhnev director Chris Bernard. “They were tuned-in enough to know the film wouldn’t have worked without extra care.”
Pigg and Clarke’s bittersweet depiction of their home turf is more than just cinema. “You do tend to love and hate it,” says Pigg. “As a place it’s not that ugly. It’s just depressin’ because there’s no work for anybody.” Both actresses have firsthand experience with the widespread unemployment shown in the film. Pigg’s father became a driving instructor after losing his job in a chemical factory, and her mother is an out-of-work pastry chef. Clarke’s father lost his job as a dockworker and is a security guard. Her mother is a labor counselor, but only two of Margi’s seven siblings have jobs. “Liverpool people know how to get by on the dole now. They’ve stopped lookin’ for work,” says Clarke. “They’ve all got brilliant imaginations, though. They’re the craziest bastards you ever met.”
Growing up in a blue-collar area called Knotty Ash, Pigg became one of those crazy types early. She hated going to school and at 14 fell in with a crowd of artists and actors led by Margi and brother Frank. The group performed bizarre shows in nightclubs and theaters. Pigg read her own poems in pubs, danced with a live royal python around her neck, played a lunatic in one play and a stripper in another. A favorite act she staged with Frank included a violent fistfight that once left her with a broken rib. Before Pigg finished high school, she moved into Frank’s flat, which they shared with various roommates, including members of the now-famous band Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Pigg first grazed stardom at 19, when she was cast as a neurotic housewife on the soap opera Brookside. “She was probably the sexiest thing Channel 4 had ever seen,” says Chris Bernard. When her character was killed off, she collected welfare for a year until Frank offered her the lead in Brezhnev.
Clarke took a similarly haphazard route to her film career. She recalls having a mischievous way at school. “I’d leave the gas taps on and try to blow up the science lab,” she says. After graduating at 15, she held various jobs, including one as a receptionist (“I love playing games on the phone, misconnecting people”) and as a pillow-stuffer (“I loooved that job because all the boys used to toss me around in this room full to the ceiling with feathers”). Clarke left home at 17 to marry a truck driver. “He stayed in bed with me so much that he went out of business within 12 months,” she says. “Now we’re divorced but still friendly. We have a looovely child called Laurence, and he lives part-time with both of us.”
When Clarke became pregnant, she gave up a scholarship to study drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. But she eventually grew weary of unemployed motherhood. “One day,” she recalls, “I was being very emotional, and I said a prayer: ‘Please, God, let me make it, and I’ll take 50 people in the lifeboat with me.’ Then we started to assemble the lifeboat.” On the passenger list was that loose group of performers that included her brother and Alexandra. Inspired by their experiments onstage, Clarke formed a band, Margox and the Zinc, presented a punk-style spot on a TV magazine show, What’s On, and became a darling of Liverpool’s intelligentsia.
“They didn’t have access to the working-class tongue,” she says. “So they’d invite me to dinner parties, and I’d come out with these crazy sayings to make them laugh.” In return Clarke got reading lists from her newfound intellectual friends and began ploughing through the classics on her own. She says playwright Willy Russell, who watched over her progress, eventually used her as one of the prototypes for his Educating Rita.
In 1981 Clarke moved to Paris where she sang rock songs in French. Strapped for money, she returned home two years later and headed for England’s Lake District to star as Rita in Russell’s play. By the time Frank found the money to make Brezhnev, she was equipped to co-star as well as to write and sing the theme song.
“What the movie did for them was to open the shackles,” says director Bernard. “Now they can’t walk down the streets of Liverpool without being recognized.” Even so, Pigg and Clarke, who picked up $18,000 for their work, can’t sup at places like Elaine’s very often. “I’m living on overdrafts till I get the next job,” says Pigg. Clarke’s situation is no better. “She doesn’t know how to save money,” says her father. “She’s always been a soft touch when she has it.”
The success of Brezhnev has written a chapter in Pigg’s and Clarke’s lives that resembles the end of the film. Like her character, Pigg has been able to escape from Liverpool; she lives in London with her boyfriend, Bernard Rose, 25, who just directed her in a British TV movie. Clarke’s boyfriend, Jamie Reid, 38, the artist who designed the Sex Pistols’ album covers, also lives in London. But like her Brezhnev character, Clarke can’t bring herself to leave Liverpool. She lives in a small flat with Laurence, now 10. “I don’t go in for all this bull where you turn into a movie monster,” she says. “Why should I leave Liverpool? I’ve got a prediction. It’s going to become a boom city in three years, the Hollywood of Britain.” She stops to laugh. “God knows where I got that idea from.”