Tag Archives: Richard Curtis

Dish and Dishonesty (S3 Ep1)

In the latest entry to our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series, we’re introducing Nicholas Lay, a new guest writer to the site, who’s inducting one of the most intelligent episodes from the BBC classic comedy, Blackadder.

by Nicholas Lay (@laidbaremedia)

dish and dishonesty 1In the spirit of the frantic general election that last week, as per usual, made a mockery of the political and social system in the UK, it seemed only natural that my contribution to Failed Critics 100 Greatest TV Shows should be the timeless send up of British politics that is the opening episode of the late 80s sitcom, Blackadder the Third. While II and Goes Forth are arguably stronger seasons, certainly in terms of consistency, and are no doubt more popular, I find it difficult to hold any single episode in higher favour than Dish and Dishonesty. Set during what could perhaps be considered a ‘brave’ time period selection – the turn of the 18th/19th century British Regency (a historical period lodged primarily in further education compared to the primary school-taught, everyone-knows-a-few-facts-about-them Elizabethan and WWI periods of II and Goes Forth respectively) – the episode features some of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s finest, altogether smartest writing, terrific performances and comic timing across the board, as well as probably my favourite Blackadder sequence of all time.

Right off the bat there are jokes aplenty regarding the rather backward electoral structure of the age, with facts presented that could essentially produce the humour out right due to the almost tragic nature of their genuine existence. Curtis and Elton of course sprinkle their delicious sense of exaggeration on virtually everything, but as is the case throughout Blackadder the comedy stems from the reality that, while ridiculous, each social and political aspect ridiculed to the extreme isn’t actually that far away from the truth. Within the first five minutes or so we’re treated to a brief history of the unfair manner of voting procedure (“Look at Manchester…population, sixty thousand; electoral roll, three”), an introduction to the running joke of an overly adolescent Pitt the Younger, and the outrageous class divide as depicted by Blackadder himself, who describes MP Sir Talbot Buxomley’s interests as “flogging servants, shooting poor people, and the extension of slavery to anyone who hasn’t got a knighthood”.

Although helped by the fact that period pieces tend to stand the test of the time with greater success than their contemporary cousins, Curtis and Elton were evidently masters of the sitcom set up of their day. Immediately punching out lines and gags of this ilk over and over again, they really allow the old day BBC studio audience to get their teeth into things from the off, thus pulling the whole thing off spectacularly well throughout. Incidentally, the episode is a fine example of a time when a live audience laughter track genuinely did drive and enhance the comedy, from the perspective of both the working actors and the end user, so to speak, in the form of the audience at home.

Working in tandem is the superb delivery provided by the cast, led by Rowan Atkinson’s legendary title character, whose bitter sense of both curiosity and utter loathing alike manifest themselves marvellously with each straight close-up of his subtle, completely apt facial expressions. His calm, permanently sarcastic demeanour in the face of complete buffoonery, both above (Hugh Laurie’s elite thicko, Prince George) and below him (Tony Robinson’s ever-present dogsbody, Baldrick), results in punch line after spot on punch line. Laurie excels opposite as the brain dead Prince, the non-state related concerns of whom remain consistently at the forefront of the comic proceedings (“Socks are like sex…tons of it about and I never seem to get any!”). The nauseating guest characters are as close to perfection as one is likely to find in sitcom history, with Dennis Lill’s grotesque, flushed elitist Buxomly’s brief cameo matched by the depiction of two-time Prime Minster Pitt the Younger, played wonderfully by Simon Osborne. Like the “Darling” gag during Goes Forth, the joke that the PM is a mere teenager is simple but genius in both subsequent connotation and all round execution, as he continuously spars with Blackadder in fantastically immature, highly patronising fashion.

The highlight of the episode is the development of the by-election held in the fictional corrupt rotten borough of Dunny-on-the-Wold, discussed first by Blackadder and the Prince (in no other context could the lines “a small hen, its late forties” and “window tax” be delivered with such understated aplomb and work so damn well), before culminating in the eventual election declaration. One of the all time great moments of British television, the fourth wall-breaking election result – presented as a BBC-type event with contemporary political commentator Vincent Hanna speaking directly to the camera/audience – is a masterpiece of witty political satire. From start to end it precisely dissects the sometimes seemingly insane practice and nature of politics in the late 18th/early 19th century, alongside modern day politics and the ugly, concurrent themes of power, wealth, and corruption. The sight of Prince George holding Colin the dachshund and approving Mr. Hanna’s acknowledgement of the beast sets the tone for a scene in which each scenario, portrayal, and line is pure, side splitting gold. Baldrick’s old timey version of political “gagging”, Pitt the Even Younger crying to his mother in defeat, the Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party’s policy of the compulsory serving of asparagus at breakfast, and Mr. Hanna’s Country Gentleman’s Pig Fertilizer Gazette media outlet are just some of the standout moments, all held together by Blackadder’s treacherous, completely transparent rigging of the vote. Never again did a single scene have my heavily inebriated weeknight YouTube-watching first year history university student-self on the floor quite as long as this.

A momentous, everlasting piece of British comedy, Dish and Dishonesty opened a season that deservedly won the BAFTA for Best Comedy Series in 1988, with the episode itself a cornerstone of its success. The blend of quirky, restricted staging and cynical writing forever associated with the series is at its absolute strongest here, a factor from which the cast rose to the occasion to produce a practically flawless thirty minutes of television. To any fan of history, comedy or political satire who may have missed it, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. If you still don’t wish to give it a try, then I say, in the words of Mr. Pitt the Younger, poo to you with knobs on!

The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.

Failed Critics Podcast: Riddick, Richard Curtis, and Dr Zaius

BTTF Doc BrownThe Failed Critics Podcast is here, with another helping of shambolic film discussion that will make you wish you could go back in time to the moment you downloaded it and punch yourself square in the throat.

This week’s episode sees us review Richard Curtis’ time-travel rom-com About Time, as well as choosing our favourite time travelers in Triple Bill. We also review the latest Vin Diesel vanity project, Riddick, and catch up on great films you have have missed like Robot and Frank, and Whisper of the Heart.

Finally, we said a sort of goodbye to Gerry McAuley, who missed this week’s recording and is now merely a part-time contributor. It’s okay though, as miserable northerners with a Spanish fetish never die…

Join us next week as we review Rush, Insidious 2, and look at the relationship between movies and video games in time for the release of GTA V.

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I Give It a Year

I-Give-It-A-YearThe good thing about going to see a film you know nothing about (seriously, I barely knew the title) is that you can go into it free from any preconceived opinions or reviews. The bad thing is that you might unwittingly stumble into a film featuring Minnie fucking Driver. My hatred of Minnie Drive is well documented.  You’ll be surprised to hear that she was not the worst thing about this movie.

I Give It a Year is a Working Title picture, by Borat writer Dan Mazer, clearly inspired by the Richard Curtis school of British Romantic Comedy. There’s this attractive couple who live in London and do London things like take cabs and eat cereal and play charades at Christmas. Then there’s an American female love interest. Only, instead of Notting Hill’s Julia Roberts, it’s Anna Faris. You know, that girl whose babies Chandler & Monica adopted at the end of Friends. Obscure. And yes, of course, Julia Roberts was in Friends once upon a time. But she’s also Julia Roberts.

One half of the oh so terribly London couple is Nat, played by Rose Byrne, who was just brilliant in Bridesmaids, but is a little blah here. She’s never particularly likeable or sympathetic, even though she clearly married a bit of a dolt. Nat’s ill-fated husband Josh is played by Rafe Spall, who is mainly famous for having a dad, and because he used to be fat. Spall’s entire performance is an admirable impression of Martin Freeman starring in, well, anything. If you close your eyes (not to fall asleep, just for some extended blinking) it could almost be him. And completing the foursome of star-crossed lovers is the American male love interest, played by floppy haired, cheesy grinned Australian Simon Baker.

The film charts the slow unravelling of Nat & Josh’s marriage, from the initial stylish wedding complete with a mass paper sky lantern release (unrealistic – they’re exactly the type to know about the environmental impact of such a display), to the one year anniversary surprise ‘celebrations’. Then there’s a scene at St Pancras which I guess is supposed to come off as cute and bumblingly British, but is just a bit weird. Luckily, all this is interspersed with simple scenes shot across a desk from Olivia Colman, showcasing the dark side of couples therapy. Colman is the kind of wonderful addition to this set up who can just make things work. The kind the director can tell to ‘have a phone argument with your husband about picking up the kids, make it last five minutes, make it the funniest thing in the film’, and she does.

Speaking of supporting cast, was Stephen Merchant owed a favour or something? His leery, innuendo cracking best mate to Josh is more than a little out of place here. Merchant plays it as a mixture of David Brent and everything else he & Gervais did together. Which is all well and good, and just part of the British ensemble set piece, like Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill or Kris Marshall in Love Actually, only a little more random. Like the whole film, really. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the worst 97 minutes of my life. I laughed out loud a few times, and there are plenty of good looking people to gawp at, whatever your predilection. Plus it’s always nice to see our fair capital city as romantic comedy intended: rain free, with ample parking and covered in fairy lights.

And so to Minnie Driver. Aside from my initial shock, anger and upset at realising she was in the film, I was actually grateful to her for uttering the line ‘I give it a year’ in the first five minutes, and reminding me of the name of the film. Moreover, she turned out to be pretty bloody excellent, as the scathing older sister, who is never without an eye roll, a witty disparaging put down, or a glass of wine. Plus she’s sleeping, albeit begrudgingly, with Jason Flemyng. (That’s Failed Critics Editor James’s good friend Jason Flemyng.) Minnie fucking Driver is the best thing about this film. Forsaking everything I previous thought true, when I grow up I want to be Minnie Driver’s character in I Give It a Year.

Oh, and Foxton’s may already be London’s leading estate agent. Nonetheless, they owe Rose Byrne an enormous debt of gratitude.

Lenny Henry: The British Robin Williams

Bernard and the GenieI apologise in advance for what will be one of the most obscure posts you will ever read on this site. As we count down to Christmas with some of our favourite seasonal films, I cannot help thinking back to my childhood. When I was young Christmas was perfect. I had no concept of post-work do hangovers, January credit card bills, or deciding when to encourage your children to question the existence of Father Christmas, in the same way you encourage them to think of Jesus as being a more boring Harry Potter.

No, Christmas for me meant spending a few weeks off school, eating chocolate whenever my parents weren’t looking, and Christmas television. You see, this post is about a TV movie which was only ever shown once on British television in 1991. And it starred an idol of mine at the time. Lenny Henry.

Bernard and the Genie is a Richard Curtis-penned comedy starring Alan Cumming (who went on to roles in Goldeneye, X-Men, and can currently be seen in the excellent The Good Wife) as an art-dealer sacked (by Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder territory) just before Christmas for being too nice. To make matters worse he finds out that his fiancé is sleeping with his best friend, and he is left in his empty flat, all alone at Christmas. Cue Mud.

Luckily he’s been left with a lamp, which contains a genie. Played by Lenny Henry.

Some (well, just me) would argue that Robin Williams’s acclaimed voice-work as the genie in Disney’s Aladdin a few years later owes a great debt to Henry in this film. I’m pretty sure everyone else would tell me to shut the fuck up. Henry’s genie plays a little hard and fast with the rules though. For a start he appears to be one of these new-fangled start-up genies offering unlimited wishes, unlike the traditional three wishes the old genie business model has trusted in for centuries.

Henry is perfectly cast as the man lost out of time in early-90s Britain. In classic culture-clash comedy style he is easily confused by modern bathroom amenities (washing his hair in the toilet and cleaning his ears with a toothbrush)…and hilarity ensues!

Out in public he discovers ice-cream, Big Macs, and Terminator 2…and hilarity ensues!

He tries to fix Bernard up with an attractive young lady and brings up the subject of dowries and child-bearing capability…well, you get the picture.

I freely admit that I cannot be objective about this film. It is very much of its time and hugely dated – and, in this case, that’s why I love it. It reminds me so much of 1991 it hurts. That was the year I went to big school, scored my first goal for my local football team (complete with Roga Milla dance), and bought my first cassette with my own money (Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing). Bernard and Genie is constantly throwing out pop culture references of the time (a youthful Melvin Bragg and Bob Geldof appear in cameos, Terminator 2 and Thelma and Louise are showing at the cinema, and Kylie Minogue is the object of every man’s desires – well, some things are timeless), and I revel in these references like a pig in shit, but shit made of wonderful memories.

Even if you could track a copy of Bernard and the Genie down, unless you saw it at the time I wouldn’t bother. You wouldn’t understand. You weren’t there, man!

Bernard and the Genie has only ever been shown once on UK television. You may be able to find a region-free copy on DVD from eBay. Don’t tell anyone I told you.

Yes, I like Love Actually. Do you want to take this outside?

A couple of months back my twitter timeline exploded with people dismayed to find themselves watching Love Actually. From what I could tell, they weren’t being held against their will. They couldn’t bear to switch it off, but needed to justify their actions with derision.

For a start, they’re doing it wrong. Everyone knows the official date to watch Love Actually is 20th November – exactly five weeks before Christmas, and the day on which the film commences. While watching a movie that’s so laughably bad you have to provide a running commentary of its failures is fun, if you honestly hate the fact that you’re doing so, I’m willing to bet there are a couple of other films out there you haven’t seen yet, and could watch instead. Besides, where’s your festive spirit?!

Richard Curtis continues his expedition into the world of romantic comedy in this all star Christmas extravaganza. Before the opening song titles (a nod to Four Weddings and a Funeral, his first foray into the genre) are over we’ve met Bill Nighy the aging rockstar; Liam Neeson the widow; Emma Thompson the harassed mum, and Keira Knightley the sickeningly beautiful bride. This is exactly how the world looks inside Curtis’s head: a bunch of attractive middle class people who say ‘fuck’ a lot, and Hugh Grant as Prime Minister

The plot is full of holes. I won’t list them all; watch it and pick your favourite. Mine is the fact that they schedule a concert, starring children from a number of different primary schools (even St Basil’s) on Christmas Eve. That would never happen! Which leads directly onto the whole airport debacle. But I’m not going to mention that, as I generally disregard the entire kid storyline on the grounds that it’s a bit shit. Nonetheless, it’s worth it. It’s worth it for Colin Firth‘s swagger when he walks out of the room post jumping in the lake segment. For the thought of Colin Firth learning Spanish for you. For his adorably slow typing. Colin Firth, Colin Firth, Colin Firth.

I love the Wisconsin storyline. And that was surprising starring, as it does, the dude from My Family, who I was predisposed to hate on sight. But it’s just the right kind of silly, the geeky guy from Basildon getting to have all the sex with Betty Draper, Kim Bauer, and other screen hotties. Plus actor Kris Marshall landed the BT love advert series off the back of his stint at the Richard Curtis school of romance acting. We may have grown tired of Adam & Jane at the time, but they were vastly superior to a bunch of filthy students posturing about their Infinity package we have now.

And beautiful Laura Linney. Bringing a slice of realism to proceedings, offsetting the Mr Bean nonsense entirely. In standard chick flicks, you either get your desired outcome or your comeuppance. You never see a good guy get a non happy ending. This is real life in action. Well, real life if your boss was a pervy Alan Rickman hell bent on getting you laid, if you lived in a gorgeous mews house in central London, and if you had the stoic dignity of Laura Linney. She is never once shown cry-sniffing until she chokes a bit on her own snot backwash, which I admit  is a teensy bit far fetched.

I could (and will, on request) write a whole other post on why the Ant & Dec cameo makes me proud, how I strive to parent like Emma Thompson, or why the end credit footage makes me want to move into Terminal 5.

Dear Love Actually. Ignore the haters. For now let me say, without hope or agenda. Just because it’s Christmas (And at Christmas you tell the truth). To me, you are perfect. And my wasted heart will love you until you look like this. [Insert picture of generic rom com flop, set in June and not starring Laura Linney]

Read the 12 Days of Christmas Films so far, or watch Love Actually when it’s next on TV. (Probably sometime in April.)