The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Spaced (1999-2001)

Spaced is the story of Tim and Daisy, two young people in need of somewhere to live.

Daisy is a frustrated writer, keen to escape life in a squat. Tim is a small-time cartoonist who has been forced to move out after discovering his girlfriend has been having an affair with his best friend.

Together they hatch a plan. Despite not being a couple or even friends really (they have met by chance in a café), having spied a reasonably priced flat to rent advertised as being only available to “professional couples only,” they decide to present themselves as a happily married couple to the apartment’s landlady.

This in essence is the premise of Spaced. Although as Tim himself would say, “it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Spaced ran for two series on Channel 4 in 1999 and 2001 and proved the perfect calling card for its two writers and stars, Simon Pegg (Tim) and Jessica Stevenson (now Jessica Hynes, who plays Daisy) with the show’s unseen force, the hugely talented director, Edgar Wright also making an impact.

Straddling the millennia, technically only the second of the two series is a 21st century sitcom and thus eligible for this list. But who cares? Both series are great anyway, for a number of reasons…

Firstly, whether its Tim railing against the evils of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (a film which Peter Serafinowicz who plays his hated love rival, Duane Benzie actually features in), Daisy attempting to write her masterpiece to the theme from Murder She Wrote, or Wright skilfully evoking memories of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Spaced is packed to the brim with clever popular culture references.

Secondly, many of the episodes are masterpieces in their own right. Tim and his war-obsessed friend Mike played paintball, long before the guys on Peep Show or US shows like Big Bang Theory and Community did it. Another episode skilfully turns the TV show, Robot Wars into a real life conflict while ‘Gone’ sees the stars engaged in an ingenious mimed gun battle governed by ‘masculine telepathy’ at the end of a drunken night out. And that’s not to mention the celebrated Epiphanies episode in which Tim’s odd friend Wheels (Michael Smiley) takes the gang clubbing.

Then, there’s the brilliant supporting cast. Pegg’s real life best friend and flatmate, the then unknown Nick Frost plays Tim’s war-obsessed pal, Mike, a man once expelled from the Territorial Army for “stealing a tank and attempting to invade Paris”. Or Brian (Friday Night Dinner’s Mark Heap) an eccentric artist who has an ‘arrangement’ with landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin). There’s also a supporting cast which includes a whole host of rising comedy stars including David Walliams, Paul Kaye, Bill Bailey and Ricky Gervais.

But finally there’s the best reason of all: Spaced is likeable, endless quotable, highly watchable and very, very funny.

The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Peep Show (2003-15)

Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) is a straight-laced sort of chap. “Socks before or after trousers, but never socks before pants, that’s the rule,” we hear him thinking in the first episode. “Makes a man look scary, like a chicken.” Later, he eats some toast: “Brown for first course, white for pudding. Brown is savoury, white’s the treat. Of course, I’m the one who’s laughing because I actually love brown toast!”

For all this sweetness, Mark can be weird and quite history-obsessed, sometimes constructing strange analogies to explain his relationships with women.”Sophie is the one. Toni is Russia: Vast, mysterious, unconquerable.,” he reasons. “Sophie is Poland: Manageable… won’t put up too much of a fight.” He is a loans manager, boring, neurotic, anal, and as the above indicates, obsessed with his work colleague, Sophie (Olivia Colman).

His flatmate, old Uni friend, Jeremy (Robert Webb) is a very different character: jobless, vain, promiscuous, irresponsible, convinced against all the evidence of his own musical genius, (he envisages a band called, “Danny Dyer’s Chocolate Homunculus). He falls ‘in love’ with any pretty girl he meets and is too much under the influence of his dubious friend, Super Hans (Matt King). “If I don’t think about it, there’s always a chance it didn’t happen,” is a typical thought.

“If it feels good, do it!” he suggests to an outraged Mark, at one point.

“If it feels good, do it?” Mark repeats incredulously. “And what is that? ‘Gaddafi’s Law?'”

Peep Show is still the longest running sitcom in Channel 4 history. Two things particularly (other than Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s brilliant writing) elevate it above the usual odd couple style flat share set-up. Firstly, the unique way it is filmed, enabling us to not only see the world through Mark and Jez’s eyes but hear their (often not entirely flattering) thoughts.

The other is that as a comedy vehicle, it introduced most of the world to the world of David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Or as Jez would put it: “This is good. This is exactly like watching a porno. Except I can’t see anything, I haven’t got a hard on and I want to cry.”

Netflix, All 4

Peep Show quotes:

Mark: Jeremy, there are many things I would do to help you. But digging a hole in the wintry earth with my bare hands so that you can bury the corpse of a dog you killed is not one of them.

Jez: Justice is done. Not actual justice, but what I wanted to happen, which is basically the same thing.

Jez: Crunchy Nut cornflakes are just Frosties for wankers.

Mark: Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.

Jez: No more drugs! I don’t need drugs. I mean, what great music was ever made on drugs? Bowie, obviously…The Floyd…The Prodge. Aphex, the list is endless really.

Super Hans: People? People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis! You can’t trust people, Jez.

Mark: So what if I don’t really love her. Charles didn’t really love Diana and they were alright. Sort of.

Jez: Brilliant, Mark! My mate and your woman have just gone off to fuck each other. What are we gonna do now? Go and make a tent in the living room and eat Dairylea? Is that what you want? ‘Cos that’s what’s gonna happen!

Mark: There’s the familiar gut punch of pain and confusion. Hello, old friend…

Jez (on vaginas): She’s got one. She’s got one. She’s definitely got one… she’s pretending she hasn’t got one. But really she has..

Mark: Well, listen, I’m sorry if I didn’t do it right and I’m sorry if you assume that I eat red meat and don’t necessarily think money or Tony Blair are a bad thing, but if there isn’t room here for people who stand against everything you believe in, then what sort of a hippy free-for-all is this?

Jez: Come Mr. Taliban, tally my bananas.

Mark: The perfect combination of beauty and low self esteem.

Big Suze: My friend Otto had a very bad trip one time. He put his head on a railway track thinking it was a big steel sweatband.

Jez: Why can’t I just have everything I want? All the time? Isn’t that democracy?

Mark: I guess doing things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness.

Jez: Aren’t we supposed to be living in a multicultural democracy? And isn’t that the point? You know, the Jews, the Muslims and the racists all living together happily side by side, doing and saying whatever the hell they like?

Mark: Do a Columbo! Do a Columbo!

Super Hans: The twins! I’m always going on about me twins, am I?’ Course I have! The twins, the fucking twins. I’m always on about them! I bloody love ’em too. Hey – I’ve got them on my phone. Oh, hold on, have I…?

Mark: This was definitely a good idea. There’s no chance this wasn’t a good idea.

The Best British sitcoms of the 21st century so far: The IT Crowd (2006-13)

Jen, Roy and Maurice make up ‘the IT Crowd,’ the IT support team located in the basement of a large London corporation. Jen (Katherine Parkinson), is the boss. Hopelessly out of her depth having bluffed her way into a job she knows nothing about, she is even unsure how to pronounce the word, ‘computers’ correctly. Roy (Chris O’Dowd), meanwhile, is nice but lazy. He tends to answer every IT enquiry with the question, “Have you tried switching it off and on again?” Finally, there’s Maurice Moss (Richard Ayoade), an intelligent geek.

As with Graham Linehan’s other sitcoms, Father Ted and Black Books, The IT Crowd’s main characters arguably adhere to a comedy formula: an inept boss who would rather be somewhere else (Ted Crilly, Bernard Black, Jen), an amiable subordinate (Dougal, Fran, Roy) and a weirdo (Father Jack, Manny, Moss). But if it is a formula, it’s pretty loose: none of these characters are really anything like each other. And it works.

The casting of Chris Morris, as company head, Denholm Reynholm generated much comment when the show started.  Why was Morris, the man behind Brass Eye attaching himself to such a mainstream vehicle? Such statements proved misplaced. Morris, although fine, was never the best thing in it. All the main cast proved their worth on their show and have flourished elsewhere since. Morris, at any rate, soon left to be replaced by Matt Berry as his son and heir, Douglas. As the lecherous, unreconstructed “sexy Hitler,” Douglas, Berry (in fact, only twelve years’ younger than Morris) delivers an almost career-defining performance.

Although patchy at first, The IT Crowd was a rare sitcom which steadily improved as it went on. Standout episodes feature Roy’s emotional game of Dungeons and Dragons, Moss’s appearance on Countdown, Roy and Moss tricking Jen into believing a box contains the entire internet and a work’s outing to see ‘Gay! A Gay Musical.’

And for the record, the title, The IT Crowd is apparently pronounced to rhyme with ‘high tea crowd’ not ‘bit crowd’. Although, frankly, it probably doesn’t really matter.

All 4, Netflix

The Best Sitcoms of the 21st century so far: Friday Night Dinner (2011 – ?)

Despite a surprisingly funky theme tune and title sequence, Robert Popper’s long running sitcom works on a deceptively simple premise: a family of four, Martin, Jackie and their two unmarried grown-up sons, Adam and Jonny, meet up for their regular Friday evening meal.

Dad Martin (Paul Ritter) is the most eccentric of the four; endlessly taking off his shirt (“so bloody hot!”), recycling the same lame jokes (“a lovely bit of squirrel, love!”), reacting with confusion and terror if anyone attempts to ‘high five’ him (“Jesus Christ!”) or hiding from his wife, Jackie (Tamsin Greig). Although in their twenties, the sons (Inbetweeners’ star Simon Bird and Ton Rosenthal from Plebs) revert to their childhood selves whenever they visit, putting salt in each other’s drinks or feuding over such trifles as the possession of a childhood cuddly toy.

The meal is also reliably interrupted by oddball neighbour Jim (Greig’s old Green Wing co-star, Mark Heap) who has an ill-concealed crush on Jackie and until recent series, a pet dog, Wilson, who he is clearly terrified of. And then there’s Horrible Grandma. And Lovely Grandma (the late Frances Cuka). And the horrible Mr. Morris (“I will not be slandered!”)

Writer Robert Popper and an excellent cast have created a frequently hilarious world of their own.

Channel 4, All 4, Netflix.

The Top 20 Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…This Country (2017-20)

Cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe live in an unnamed village in the Cotswolds. Although both have finished school, they are both poorly educated and are still yet to break out of their childhood habits. There is literally almost nothing to do in the village and the suspicion is that the longer they stay there the more likely they are to turn into one of the assorted eccentric weirdos who already roam the landscape. Indeed, they are already well on the way.

The cousins are in fact played by real-life brother and sister, Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper who also wrote the series which is filmed in a mockumentary format. The Mucklowe’s only real ally in the world – although a much underappreciated one – is the well-meaning local vicar (the excellent Paul Chahidi).

Kerry is almost invariably dressed in a football t-shirt and lives with her mother, who rather like Howard’s mother in early episodes of the US sitcom, Big Bang Theory, is an unseen presence (in this case, voiced by Daisy May Cooper herself) endlessly shouting inane instructions or complaints to her daughter (“KERRY!!” “WHAT??) in an agitated rasping voice.

The show is something of a family affair with the Coopers’ real life father, Paul Cooper playing Kerry’s dad and their uncle, familiar character actor, Terry Cooper playing local oddball, Len.

Kerry is, a formidable presence in her own right:

“I’ve got enemies in South Cerney,” she boasts boldly at one point. “I’ve got enemies in North Cerney, I’ve got enemies in Cerney Wick. I’ve got enemies in Bourton-on-the-Water. There’s a tea rooms there and under the counter they’ve got a panic button and if I take one step inside, they can press that.”

Both she and the hapless Kurtan often act, as the ever positive vicar notes, “somewhat younger than their years.”

“Have you ever looked up at the clouds and the sky?” Kurtan reflects thoughtfully, at one point. “It really makes you appreciate how insignificant they all are.”

Both are, at times, selfish, childish and immature. But they are essentially good-natured and there is a real sweetness to them. Kerry, in particular, completely worships her father. The fact, that he is clearly an incredibly selfish loser, keener on relating crude and unlikely anecdotes about his supposed sexual exploits than showing any affection for his daughter, makes this relationship quite poignant.

In truth, these are great comic creations. This Country is not a series that benefits from extensive hype: it is perhaps best discovered for yourself, either on DVD or on the BBC iPlayer.

But it is nevertheless, quite brilliant, a wonderful, low key, comic delight.

The Top 20 Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge

I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Mid Morning Matters With Alan Partridge (2010-2016), This Time With Alan Partridge (2019- )

Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge with Jennie played by Susannah Fielding. Photograph: BBC/Baby Cow/Colin Hutton

Like the great man himself, Norwich’s finest broadcaster makes a slightly awkward appearance on any best 21st sitcom century list, partly because many of his finest offerings occurred well before this millennium began (he first appeared on BBC Radio 4 in 1991) but also because he has switched formats so many times. Happily, whether accidentally outing his interviewer during an ‘Anglian Lives’ interview, berating his co-host ‘Sidekick Simon’ (Tim Key) on North Norfolk’s Mid Morning Matters, attempting to flirt with fellow presenter Jennie (Susannah Fielding) on The One Show-like This Time or asking the questions that matter (“just why did Herbie go bananas?”), Alan has remained as consistently a brilliant comedy creation as Alan the presenter himself is awful.

Indeed, as Alan himself says of his own (fictional) memoir, Bouncing Back “Lovely stuff,” adding carefully, “not my words,” he clarifies: “the words of Shakin’ Stevens.”

Book review: Viz: The Trumpeter’s Lips 2020

As the rosette emblazoned (or, at least, drawn) on the cover reminds us, Viz has been doing this for forty years now.

Yes, that’s right. There have now been four whole decades of the popular British adult comic, which is ‘Not For Sale To Children’. In theory, this should mean it has now reached middle age or at least some semblance of maturity?

Has it though? Well, as Viz’s longest running character, the foul-mouthed TV personality, Roger Mellie, The Man on the Telly would say: “Hello, good evening and bollocks.”

In other words, “no”. As another publication which lasted in print for roughly half as long as Viz’s 40 years to date once memorably put it, this is a magazine “for men who should know better.”

This edition of the Viz annual, promises “a brassy fanfare of crowd pleasing blasts from issues 262-271.” So what’s included?

Roger Mellie appears opposite Gemma Collins on a celebrity version of Channel 4’s Naked Attraction. Aldridge Prior, The Hopeless Liar gets his perfect job: as President Trump’s press secretary: (“The President can do a one inch punch just like Bruce Lee and it would instantly kill you. FACT!”). Raffles, the Gentleman Thug is up to his usual tricks, (“Don’t forget your red flag, Bunny! We’ve got to absquatulate before the Scuffers get here!”). Old favourites return (“There is precious little sunshine for those living in the shadow of The Bottom Inspectors”), alongside strange newcomers (“Wally Walton’s Emergency Scorpion Squad and Wall To Wall Carpet Warehouse”). If you’ve read Viz before, you’ll know what to expect.

Viz has never been just a comic, however. Nearly half of it is made up of features usually satirising the celebrity-obsessed culture of the tabloid press. Highlights in this book include ’20 Things You Never Knew About Hats,” and a spoof of ‘Take A Break’ magazine called ‘Take A Shit’. There’s also a special festive edition of Roger Mellie’s Profanisaurus.

Mrs. Brady: Old Lady. Letterbocks. Gilbert Ratchet. Big Vern. The Broon Windsors (a bizarre amalgamation of the family from the long running comic strip, The Broons and the Royal Family). Mr Logic (“He’s An Acute Localised Body Smart in the Rectal Area”). I’ve really only scraped the surface of the world of Viz here.

Perhaps you think Viz is crude, vulgar and disgusting. Perhaps you think it is sometimes or often quite brilliant. You are both right.

Or as senile Daily Telegraph reader Major Misunderstanding says to an estate agent and his clients who he has mistaken for a group of young anti-Trump protesters, “Go back to your bedrooms and play on your ‘You-Tubes. Nobody cares tuppence for what you think.”

Chris Hallam has written a feature on Viz for the magazine, Comic Scene Volume 2, Issue 11, published in mid-December 2019

TV review: The Politician – Season 1

Payton Hobart really wants to be president. He really, really wants it, in fact. He seems to have planned out every detail of his two terms in the White House already. And he is only seventeen years old. He seems to the living example of why anyone who wants to be president enough to successfully go through the process of being successfully elected is probably precisely the wrong person to be doing the job.

Netflix’s new comedy drama begins with Peyton (Ben Platt) launching his campaign for election to the position of student body president of his Santa Barbara high school. This proves to be a surprisingly big deal fought with almost all of the intensity of the actual presidential elections, Hobart imagines one day fighting himself. Indeed, that’s the plan for the series too: future seasons of The Politician aim to focus on different political campaigns occurring throughout Peyton’s life. The brilliant opening title sequence (which uses the excellent 2005 song, Chicago, by Sufjan Stevens) depicts Peyton the politician being created by a Frankenstein-like process of alchemy, before offering his hand to greet the viewer.

The opening episodes of Ryan Murphy’s series are very twisty and bubble over with exciting story possibilities. Imagine Tracy Flick (Reece Witherspoon) in 1999’s film Election magnified by ten. Peyton is slick and like Kennedy, Bush and Trump before him has been born rich. He seems to inspire a phenomenal amount of loyalty in both his girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his campaign team (played by Laura Dreyfuss and Theo Germaine). But he also seems erratic and clearly has skeletons in his cupboard. What is his exact relationship with his handsome rival, River (David Corenswet)? Are they gay or bisexual?  In fact, this probably isn’t a problem: everyone seems to be bisexual here. The whole thing is a bit like a 1980s Bret Easton Ellis novel at times.

There are other intriguing elements notably potential running mate, Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch: daughter of Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson), an apparently sweet-natured character dominated by her horrendous, gold-digging grandmother (an excellent Jessica Lange). Peyton himself is dominated by his own bohemian Lady MacBeth-like mother (another Oscar winner, like Lange and also great here). River’s girlfriend, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) also seems like a potentially interesting character, at least at first. The fine actor Bob Balaban also gets a high billing here as Peyton’s step-dad, but is barely in it.

Sadly, like a morally bankrupt politician, the series does not live up to its early promise. Perhaps that’s the problem with planning several seasons in advance like this: the creators seem to have lost interest in this story and started setting up the next series a few episodes before the end. The election story-line fizzles out. The mid-season episode, ‘The Voter’ depicts an apathetic student totally ignoring the election day events occurring around him. This is an interesting idea which might have provided a fresh new perspective on events: not everyone at Peyton’s school (or in society generally) is obsessed with politics, after all. But the voter (played by Russell Posner) is clearly anything but typical. He is far more drug-obsessed, girl-obsessed (a point over emphasised with far too many shots of him checking girls out) and violent than anyone around him. The episode is a complete dud.

Despite these flaws and too many irrelevant musical interludes from the talented Platt, however, The Politician is still well-acted and compelling enough to make it worth viewing. But as Peyton himself is once cruelly described, this is more Gerald Ford than Barack Obama.

The Politician is on Netflix now.

The Olivia de Haviland Awards

(Special awards for people who manage to stay alive long after you think they’ve died).
1. Olivia de Haviland (103). Actress. Star of Gone with the Wind (1939). Born before the Russian Revolution. To put things in perspective, the three other stars of Gone with the Wind died in 1960, 1967 and 1943.
2. Bill Tidy: Cartoonist. Used to be on TV a lot. A British, non-perverted Rolf Harris (85). I’m sure that’s how he’d want people to think of him.
3. Kirk Douglas (102). Born 13 years after the first aeroplane flew. “I’m Spartacus!” “I’m Spartacus!” “I’m…very old.”
4. Sirhan Sirhan (75). Assassinated Robert Kennedy in 1968. In prison ever since.
5. Lady Clarissa Eden, the Countess of Avon (99). Niece of Churchill. Widow of Sir Anthony Eden (1897-1977) who was Prime Minister (1955-1957) before Theresa May was born. She was the second wife of Eden, one of only three divorced men to become British Prime Minister. The third was Boris Johnson.
6. Former senator Bob Dole (96). Widely seen as too old when he ran for US president in 1996. Sample jokes from the time: “Dole was hit hard by his divorce…his first wife got to keep the cave.” “When Clinton sees a glass of water, he thinks: ‘oh dear. It’s half empty’. When Dole sees one he thinks, ‘oh great! Somewhere to keep my teeth!’”
7. Sidney Poitier. Actor (92). Huge in the 1950s and 1960s. 
8. Rose West: murderer. Not that old (65). A bit surprised she’s still around though.
9. Frank Williams (88). The vicar in Dad’s Army.
10. Betty White (97). Last of the Golden Girls.
11. Jerry Lee Lewis (83) Musician. Great Balls of Fire.
12. Kim Novak (86). Star of Vertgo.
13. Tippi Hedren (89). Why do birds suddenly appear, every time she is near?
14. Dick Van Dyke (93). “I’m Dick van Dyke! I hope you are too” Google him and it comes up with ‘Dick Van Dyke causes of death’. But he isn’t dead. Diagnosis: Old.

2,001 ‘facts’ about 2001: A Space Odyssey

(Part One)

Director Stanley Kubrick considered withdrawing the film soon after release in response to tabloid reports that groups of young men had been launching ‘copycat’ manned space expeditions to the planet Jupiter.

Conspiracy theorists have speculated that Kubrick made the film as part of a plot to fake the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landings. This is, of course, nonsense. He was already too busy faking the Vietnam War.

The final line of the film is “My God! It’s full of stars!” This claim is untrue: in fact, there are no Hollywood stars in it. Leonard Rossiter is literally the most famous person in the film and even he hadn’t been in ‘Rising Damp’ then.

The apes at the start of the film are speaking in genuine prehistoric dialect. Roughly translated, they are saying things like: “God, this is taking a while to get going isn’t it?” “Hey! Watch what happens when I throw this bone in the air!” and “Shit! Where did that big black thing come from? That wasn’t there just now…”

Ever the perfectionist, Kubrick made one extra throw the bone in the air 7,674 times, even before he switched his camera on.

The song ‘Daisy Bell’ was not Kubrick’s first choice for the famous HAL shutdown scene. He had originally planned to use the song, ‘Cinderella Rockerfella’ sung in duet with another computer voiced by Barbara Streisand. This didn’t happen only because Kubrick never thought of it.

Although authentic-looking, very few of the scenes were actually shot in space.

Stanley Kubrick originally planned to film the movie in real time, starting in the prehistoric era.

Some viewers reported finding the film overlong. Some even claimed it was longer than the actual year, 2001 itself, including those who had watched it during the year, 2001.

A pilot for a spin-off TV sitcom , ‘You Can Call Me HAL,’ in which the computer sang ‘Daisy Bell’ during the credits and occasionally killed people was made, but never aired as it was shit.

Some have noticed that if you move the letters of the name ‘HAL’ one letter back in the alphabet it spells out the initials: ‘GZK’.

Things which the film predicted correctly about the year 2001: there would be some were people around doing stuff with computers and space. Things it got wrong: manned space expeditions to Jupiter, computers don’t usually take that long to shut down, classical music wasn’t that popular.

Kubrick was reportedly disappointed that very few people really thought the flying bone had actually turned into a spaceship.

He also was surprised so many people guessed the ‘twist’ that the planet of the apes at the start was supposed to be Earth.

Alternative names for the film which were considered were: Million Dollar Space Baby, The Keir Dullea Movie, Monolithicent, Kubrick’s Pube and The Apes of Wrath.

Imagine there were no Beatles…

Ten ways in which the world would really have been different without the Fab Four…

The hit Danny Boyle film, Yesterday envisages a world in which the biggest band of all time had never existed. But what if they really hadn’t? Consider…

First things first: the early series of Thomas The Tank Engine would not have been narrated by Ringo Starr. Someone else would have to have been found to do it instead, wasting considerable time and expense.

The career of the talented multimedia artist, Yoko Ono would have been allowed to continue without interruption, rather than being crudely sidetracked.

“Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye, crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess, man, you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down, I am the eggman, we are the eggmen, I am the walrus, Goo goo g’joob”. Out of context, such lyrics would just sound like drug-induced nonsense. Imagine!

The career of fashion designer Stella McCartney would never have happened. This would obviously…er…have huge effects for everyone.

It is quite likely (although not certain) Linda McCartney’s vegetarian and vegan food range, would not have been launched. Julian Lennon would have not had a 1984 number 6 hit with ‘Too Late For Goodbyes’ either.

Pete Best would probably feel better about how his career has gone.

None of the Beatles’ post-Beatles careers would have occurred. Imagine no Mull of Kintyre. No Frog Chorus. So This Is Christmas. Imagine no…Imagine.

The film explicitly stated that the Beatles-influenced Oasis had never existed either, in which case, isn’t it a bit surprising Jack didn’t have a go at an Oasis track too? Although perhaps not Cigarettes and Alcohol, as cigarettes are another one of the things that don’t exist in this world. One wonders if Oasis would still have existed in some form anyway or how strongly they or other bands would have been affected by the Beatles’ absence. Would Madonna sound the same? Would Lady GaGa? Would Martin Amis have written in the same way? Ultimately, we will never know.

The Monty Python film, The Life of Brian would not exist as it owes its existence to George Harrison financially bailing the film out, as he wanted to see it himself. Eric Idle’s post-Python parody, The Rutles would also not exist.

Needless to say, the Beatles’ films, A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine would never have been made without The Beatles. Nor would any films inspired by them such as Backbeat, the little-seen Across The Universe. Or Yesterday.

Life lessons from He-Man

The popular TV cartoon series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe ran from 1983 until 1985. Essentially designed to promote the Mattel toy range of He-Man action figures, the series was based around Adam, a prince on the planet Eternia and his ongoing struggle for control of Castle Greyskull with his rival, the malevolent Skeletor. By declaring “By the power of Greyskull!” Adam could transform into the all-powerful He-Man. There were a whole host of other characters, plus a spin-off entitled She-Ra in 1985, aimed at girls.

Despite being set on a mythical world, He-Man would often end with a straight to the camera moral message to the audience from some of the characters. These were sometimes edited out of the British transmissions.

Here are just some of them:

There are no magic drugs (He-Man)

“In today’s story Ilena tried taking a magic potion which she thought would help her. Well, she found out there aren’t any magic potions. And you know what? There aren’t any magic drugs either. Anytime you take one from anybody but your parents or your doctor, you’re taking a very big chance. Your gambling with your health, maybe even your life. Drugs don’t make your problems go away, they just create more.”

Very true. Skeletor would be especially well advised to stay off cocaine as he doesn’t have a nose.

Be careful when doing practical jokes (Man-At-Arms)

“You’ve all seen how Orko’s magical tricks don’t always go the way he planned. Sometimes they backfire on him. The same thing is true of practical jokes. Sometimes they don’t go the way you planned, and you or someone else can get hurt. So be sure and think twice before playing a joke or a trick on anybody. It might not go the way you planned and someone could wind up losing a finger or an arm, or maybe even an eye. And no joke is worth that is it? See you again soon.”

Bloody hell! An arm or an eye? What sort of practical jokes were they thinking of? One involving a chainsaw???

Respect Magna Carta (He-Man and Teela)

Teela: “A very long time ago a wonderful document came into being. It was called the Magna Carta.”

He-Man: “It was the first big step in recognizing that all people were created equal. But even though more laws have been passed to guarantee that, there are still those who try to keep others from being free.”

Teela: “Fortunately Queen Sumana realized in time that only by working together could her city be saved. And that’s the way it should be. Together. Right?”

He-Man: “Right.”

Er…so they had Magna Carta on Eternia too then? I didn’t know they even had it in the USA.

Don’t ram things too much (Ram Man)

“In today’s story I sure was busy. Boy, did that hurt. Ramming things may look like fun, but it really isn’t. Trying to use your head the way I do is not only dangerous, it’s dumb. I mean you could get hurt badly. So listen to Rammy, play safely and when you use your head, use it the way it was meant to be used, to think. Until later, so long!”

Got that? If you’re ramming while reading this, please stop immediately. Ram Man (not to be confused with ‘Rainman’) was a minor character. He’s wrong about this though. Ramming is definitely fun. Ram Man, thank you man.

Sleep properly (Orko and Cringer)

Orko: “Hi, today we met some people who had slept for over two hundred years. Well, we don’t need that much sleep, but it is important to get enough sleep. So here’s some things to remember. Don’t eat a lot before going to bed, a glass of milk or a piece of fruit makes a good bedtime snack. Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and avoid any exercise or excitement before going to bed. Well, goodnight. Oh, goodnight Cringer!”

Cringer: (snoring).

Does eating fruit before bedtime really help you sleep? I’m not convinced.

We all have a special magic (Sorceress)
“Today we saw people fighting over the Starchild, but in the end her power brought these people together. It might surprise you to know that all of us have a power like the Starchild’s. You can’t see it or touch it, but you can feel it. It’s called love. When you care deeply about others and are kind and gentle, then you’re using that power. And that’s very special magic indeed. Until later, good-bye for now.”

Sorceress was clearly to busy building a nest to read the first moral, Sorceress. Stay off the magic drugs!

Your brain is stronger than any muscle (Man-At-Arms)

“Being the most powerful man in the universe isn’t all that makes He-Man such a great hero. Being strong is fine, but there’s something even better. In today’s story He-Man used something even more powerful than his muscles to beat Skeletor. Do you know what it was? If you said, ‘his brain,’ you were right. And just like a muscle, your brain is something you can develop to give yourself great power.”

I’m not sure Man-At-Arms was the best choice to put forward this argument, to be honest. He has “university of life” written all over him.

Play it safe (He-Man and Battle Cat)

He-Man: “I’d like to talk to you for just a moment about safety. When we go to the beach there are lifeguards there to watch out for our safety. Crossing guards are in the street for the same reason, to help protect us. Now things like that are fine, but we can’t count on someone always being around to protect us. We should practice thinking of safety all the time. So don’t take a chance. And that’s true whether you’re crossing a street, or driving a car. Think safety.”
Battle Cat: (Roaring)

The beach? ‘Crossing guards’? Has He-Man been to Earth at some point? And what does “practice thinking of safety” mean? Nice of Battle Cat to contribute here too. Much appreciated, thanks.

Learn from experience (He-Man and Battle Cat)

He-Man: “As we’ve just seen Skeletor went back into the past to make evil things happen. In reality no one can go back into the past, that’s only make-believe. But we can try to learn from the past, from things that have happened to us, and try to apply them toward being better people today. Remember, it’s today that counts. So make it the best day possible. Until next time this is He-Man wishing you good health and good luck.”

Battle Cat: (Roaring)

Learn from he mistakes of history. But also live for today: that’s all that matters. Make your mind up, please!

No job is unimportant (He-Man)

“Have you ever had a job to do you thought was boring and unimportant. We all have. Opi did. But no job is unimportant. Opi learned that if he’d done the little jobs his father gave him, things would not have gone wrong. So remember, any job worth doing is worth doing well. No matter how dull it may seem at the time. Bye for now.”

Sadly, this one isn’t true. Some jobs are both boring and unimportant. Writing the moral messages at the end of children’s TV cartoons, for example.

Fighting is bad (Teela)

“Some people think the only way to solve a difference is to fight. Skeletor for example, his answer to every problem is fight. He doesn’t care who’s right or wrong. He thinks that might makes right. Well, it doesn’t. He-Man knows that, even with all his power, he always tries to avoid fighting. Fighting doesn’t solve problems. Fighting only makes more problems. See you soon.”

Bloody hell! This is a bit rich. He-Man spends half of every episode fighting.

Read a book (He-Man)

“I hope you enjoyed today’s adventure. You know television is not the only way to be entertained by an exciting story. There is another way; it’s called reading. And one of the wonderful things about books is that they allow you to choose whatever kind of adventure you like; a trip with an astronaut, an adventure with the great detective Sherlock Holmes, a comedy, anything. You can find it in a book at your school or neighbourhood library. Why I’ll bet there are even some good books right in your own home just waiting to be read.”

In other words, in the immortal words of the 1980s UK kids’ show, ‘Why Don’t You?’ “switch off your TV set and go out and do something less boring instead.” Especially now this episode of He-Man has finished.

DVD review: Ghosts – Series 1

BBC Studios Home Entertainment, Out: now

Lolly Adefope, Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Charlotte Ritchie, Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Ben Willbond, Katy Wix

The spirit of Rentaghost is resurrected in this recent BBC sitcom, the highest rated British TV comedy series of 2019 thus far.

Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe play Alison and Mike, a young married couple whose lives are transformed when Alison unexpectedly inherits a large, but dilapidated rural manor house, following the death of an unknown elderly aunt.

The house contains many secrets, however, not least a large party of ghosts who dwell within. All are from different historical time periods and all are invisible to most normal humans, ensuring their initial attempts to haunt the house’s new owners all in vain, rather like the Tim Burton film, Beetlejuice. This changes when Alison (Ritchie star of Fresh Meat and Call The Midwife) bangs her head in an accident. Soon, she alone, can see the home’s phantom residents, whether she wants to or not.

The ghosts – all played by the former cast of the acclaimed Horrible Histories and Yonderland and who, mostly, also wrote this – are, of course, the chief source of fun here. Mathew Baynton (The Wrong Mans, Quacks), for example, plays a romantic poet hopelessly besotted with the still very much alive and married Alison, while Katy Wix (Not Going Out) plays the ghost of a slightly charred 17th century peasant woman apparently burnt to death for witchcraft.

Most hilarious are the great Simon Farnaby (The Detectorists and, appropriately, the man who sang ‘Stupid Deaths’ on Horrible Histories) as a disgraced 1990s Tory politician, still massively pompous, despite now being permanently trouser-less having died in some unspecified sex accident. Laurence Rickard also works wonders as Robin, (“bum and chips!”) a caveman, who lived on the grounds of the estate, long before it was built.

How did such a random assortment of characters ever come to live in the same house, even at different times? Why does every one of the Ghosts seem to have died prematurely? Doesn’t it all feel a bit like a children’s programme? Ultimately, none of these things really matter. Were it not for the presence of a few deliberate adult references (including a brief appearance by a genuinely scary child ghost), this would fit in perfectly well on CBBC.

Again, though, this hardly matters. Occasionally, Ghosts’ large regular cast works against it and the show is overwhelmed by chaos and silliness. But overall, this is good fun from a talented bunch of actors and writers. If your mansion house needs haunting, look no further.

A second series is on its way, in 2020.

The BFJ (2016)

People all over the land have been thrilling to the antics of the huge lumbering giant BFJ, otherwise known as Boris Fucking Johnson.

“I love how he uses funny long words which nobody understands, ” says Colin, 66, from Kent. “Like ‘rambunctious’ and ‘flibbertigibbet’. I also like how he travels to lots of different countries all around the world, really fast.”

Miranda, 44, from Chelsea, also enjoys Boris Fucking Johnson’s adventures. “He’s always saying the wrong thing!” she laughs. “He blows dreams into people’s ears. Mainly dreams about the UK benefiting economically by leaving the European Union.”

Boris Fucking Johnson has definitely NOT been seen enticing young women out of their windows as some have claimed.

Other, less popular recent characters from the same stable include Danny Alexander: Champion of the World, James Brokenshire and the Giant Speech, George Osborne’s Marvellous Economic Medicine and The Fantastic Dr. Liam Fox.

DVD review: Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story


Director: Steve Sullivan. Running time: 105 minutes
Back in the 1980s, a Manchester man called Chris Sievey started appearing in public wearing an oversized Papier-mâché head. At first, he called the character, ‘John Smith’ before changing it to ‘Frank Sidebottom.’ Frank soon became something of a success. You may well have seen him yourself. This documentary tells his story, or rather, the story of his creator. Chris Sievey ended up playing Frank for the rest of his life.
Chris appeared live as Frank as well as on Saturday morning kids’ shows like Motormouth and in the comic, Oink! He worked with a few people who later became famous such as Mark Radcliffe (interviewed here, before his recent illness), Caroline Aherne and Jon Ronson. Ronson later wrote a book about his time with Sievey, which later became the 2014 Michael Fassbender film, Frank.
He was never hugely famous himself, despite once introducing Bros (at the height of the short-lived ‘Brosmania’ era) at Wembley stadium. He played songs and told jokes, appearing with a ventriloquist’s dummy made in Frank’s image called ‘Little Frank’. He was often not very funny and his songs were often not good.

Despite this, it’s hard not to be won over by the warmth of this affectionate tribute to Sievey (who died in 2010, aged just 54) from director Steve Sullivan. There was certainly a dark side to Sievey: his success with Frank Sidebottom came only after years of persistent failed attempts to launch his own music career notably with band, The Freshies. A song called, ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk’ came closest to success. Like Sidebottom, he seems to have been possessed by a child-like optimism and a naivety about such things as paying taxes and bills which must have made him very hard to live with. He seems to have grown to resent the fact his only real fame was achieved through a made-up character. No joke intended, but he also seems to rather have let the success he did have as Frank Sidebottom go to his head.
Supported by interviews from fans like poet John Cooper Clarke and comics Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas as well as Chris’s son, Harry, who was subsequently tragically killed in a cycling accident in 2017, this is a first class documentary about a minor popular culture icon who deserves to be remembered.

Film review: Vice

Director: Adam McKay Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry

The office of US Vice President was for a long time commonly overlooked. The position was deemed “not worth a pitcher of warm spit” by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner while as Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) points out here, the job is essentially based around the principle of doing nothing other than waiting for the president to die.

Dick Cheney was a different sort of Vice President, however. Whereas some leaders, such as the late George H.W. Bush have been fully aware of the potential opportunities afforded by the position, (Bush had, after all, spent two terms as Veep himself) and have thus deliberately picked non-threatening buffoons like Dan Quayle as their Number 2, Bush’s own son (played here by Sam Rockwell) recognised he was hopelessly out of his depth and thus when his turn came in 2000, delegated unprecedented power to an older man, much more experienced than himself. Cheney seized this opportunity head-on and exploited it to the full.

Richard Dreyfuss has already played Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W (2008). Now Adam McKay – a director once known for comedies such as the rather good Anchorman and the rather less good Talladega Nights and Anchorman 2, turns his focus onto the last US Vice President but one.

We first meet Cheney (Bale) at a low point. As a drunken hell-raiser in the 1960s, he is encouraged out of his decline only by the words of his strong-willed wife Lynne (Amy Adams, excellent). We then cut to the extremely dramatic aftermath of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Whisked away to a “secure location”, the Vice President turns this terrible occurrence into a golden opportunity for him and his ilk. Using the new atmosphere to test the limits of his power to the limit, Cheney, aided and abetted by the conservative cheerleaders of Fox News conspire to make war against Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the attacks whatsoever.

Gruff and lacking in charisma, the real Cheney, 78 in 2019, has never been an obvious candidate for dramatic portrayal. Despite this and the fact he bears no real physical resemblance to the man himself, Christian Bale aided by prosthetics which increasingly make him resemble a modern-day Chevy Chase as he ages from his twenties to his seventies, is brilliant as the heart-attack prone Cheney. As with Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), it has taken a Welsh actor to most perfectly capture a pillar of modern American conservatism.

Steve Carell, who in McKay’s Anchorman played the idiotic weatherman Brick Tamland, (a man who we were told later “served in a senior role in the Bush administration”) is also great here as Bush’s defence secretary and Cheney’s long-time friend and rival, Donald Rumsfeld (he of the “known unknowns).

As in The Big Short which explained the reasons for the last recession in easy language, McKay deploys numerous clever tactics here – a scene performed in iambic pentameter, a false ending, a mystery narrator. Some of these work better than others: a sequence in which Alfred Molina’s waiter offers Bush’s cronies a “menu” of legal options in a restaurant, for example, just seems weird.

But, overall, this is a compelling, well-acted insight into the banality of evil.

A quick survey…

1.            Hello.

a)            Hello

b)            What?

c)            Yes, I am actually.

2.            Do you consider yourself to be psychic?

a)            No.

b)            Yes.

c)            I anticipated your question and have already answered it in question 1.

3.            Imagine the following scenario. You are completing an online survey when the following question arises. Is this…?:

a)            True.

b)            False.

4.            Which of these fictional characters best characterises your leadership style?

a)            Animal from The Muppet Show.

b)            Flipper the dolphin.

c)            Skeletor from He-Man.

d)            Donald Trump.

5.            Have you ever suffered from déjà vu?

a)            Yes.

b)            No.

c)            For God’s sake…

6.            You have survived a plane crash in the mountains. Everyone else on board has been killed. In addition to the human cargo, the plane had been transporting a large consignment of hazelnuts. Unfortunately, you are allergic to hazelnuts. You are starting to starve. What do you?

a)            Take a chance and eat the nuts. You have an epipen anyway.

b)            Start eating one of your dead colleagues. Hopefully, they won’t have been eating any nuts recently. If they have, it doesn’t really matter.

c)            Reject the whole question as being in rather poor taste. Although if I found out the person framing the question had a nut allergy himself, that would make it okay. Even if he hasn’t been in a plane crash.

7.            Have you ever suffered from déjà vu?

a)            Yes.

b)            No.

c)            For God’s sake…

8. You think you’re pretty clever don’t you? With your degree and everything. Well, I don’t think you are. In fact, I reckon I could have you. Do you want to have a fight?

a) Don’t be absurd man. We can resolve this like adults.

b). Yeah, alright. Do you want some? Come on then? Outside now.

9. Why do birds suddenly appear, every time that you’re near?

a) To be honest, I do always keep lots of bird seed in my pockets. That might be it.

b) I am Tippi Hedren.

10. Why?

a) Why not?

b) Why what?

c) Because.

d) Because because because because because because of the wonderful things he does.

11. You have arranged your perfect dream dinner party featuring a range of guests both living and dead, real and fictional. However, Trotsky has totally let you down by forgetting to bring the salad he promised to make for starters. Churchill seems to have been drinking before he even arrived and is in heated discussion with Napoleon, even though neither understand can each other as they both speak different languages. Alexander the Great is chatting to Stephen Fry but looks bored. Brian Cox the actor is proving much better company than the TV astronomer who you meant to invite would have been but Penelope Cruz and Uncle Bulgaria have already left together. Do you like Pepsi more than coke?

a) No.

b) Only if I am blindfolded first.

c) Aren’t they both coke anyway?

12. When will I be famous?

a)            I can’t answer. I can’t answer that.

b)            How old do you think I am? First, Tippi Hedren and now this. What’s the next question going to be about? Juliet sodding Bravo?

c)            I was actually still thinking about Uncle Bulgaria and Penelope Cruz from the last question.

13. You walk down a narrow corridor and come to a cavernous poorly lit room. As you advance forward you see hear a loud snoring sound. As your eyes adjust the sleeping body of a huge malevolent green OGRE homes into view. As you attempt to run away, the ogre’s eyes flick open. It is clearly angry and wants to fight. Do you…?

a) Roll a dice. Get a 6 and you successfully kill it and thrust a sword into its evil still beating heart. You get to carry on with the survey. Get anything less and the ogre bites your head off and you die. Redo the survey endlessly from question 1 until you can advance beyond this question. Good luck!

b) Pretend to roll a dice and get a 6. Way hey. You win. That’s what everyone else does. I bet you don’t know where your dice is anyway. Or die. Whatever.

14. Look at these words. Do they look better…like this? Or like…this?

a) The first one.

b) The second one.

c) They are both about the same.

d) Er…not sure…could you do it again please?

15. Have you ever attempted to conduct a citizen’s arrest on a serving police officer?

a) Yes.

b) No.

16. Which is scarier?

a) The Laughing Cow

b) The Jolly Green Giant.

c) Being sued for copyright infringement

17. You accidentally phone your old telephone number by mistake and inadvertently get through to a ten-year-old version of yourself from the past. What advice do you give to your young self?

a) Don’t bother watching Lost.

b) Buy some shares in mobile phone technology.

c) Don’t believe what people tell you. Father Christmas is real. Your parents are the ones who don’t really exist.

Thank you for your time…

Film review: Begin Again (2014)

Review first published on Movie Muser, November 2014  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, James Corden, Catherine Keener Directed By: John Carney. Running Time: 104 minutes. UK Release Date: November 10, 2014 . Certificate: 15. Your Rating: 4 out of 5

Gretta (Knightley) is young, English and has some talent as a musician. She also has a good comedy sidekick/friend in Steve (James Corden). But her dreams of musical success in New York lie in tatters. After her recent break-up with boyfriend and collaborator Dave (Levine), she is bound for the next flight home.

Dan (Ruffalo), meanwhile, is middle-aged and seems to be on the way down after both a successful producing career and his marriage come to an end. He happens to see Gretta performing at an open mic session on her last night in town. Could this meeting be exactly what these two lost souls need?

Admittedly, this film from Once director John Carney sounds predictable as hell on paper and to some extent, this is true. But Ruffalo is great, making a potentially sleazy character likeable. Knightly can sing and has some nice scenes bonding with Dan’s teenage daughter. There are no real villains here – even Gretta’s ex has redeeming qualities and yes, this is relentlessly feelgood. But it’s not stupid either. So what’s wrong with that?

There is a “making of” featurette and some music videos on the DVD/Blu-ray. Haters of James Corden or Keira Knightley (and, yes, such people do exist) will want to steer clear and the music might repel some. But everyone else should find this an uplifting and rewarding musical treat.

Overall Verdict: The Hulk and Anna Karenina: together at last and unleashed on New York.

Special Features: The Making of Begin Again Featurette, Music Videos

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

Film review: Calvary (2014)

Review first published on Movie Muser, August 2014  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Domhnall Gleeson

Directed By: John Michael McDonagh. Running Time: 100 minutes. UK DVD Release Date: August 11, 2014. Certificate: 15

Your Rating: 5 out of 5

Review: Father James (Gleeson) is a priest. Once driven to alcoholism by the death of his wife, he appears to have found solace in his vocation, living a peaceful existence with his dog in an apparently serene Irish coastal village.

Or at least that would be the case if the villagers ever left him alone. Chris O’Dowd’s local butcher Jack, for example, has serious marital problems, his wife “sharing” him with another man. Then there’s the local millionaire Michael, played by Dylan Moran. Prone to alcoholism and urinating on priceless Holbein portraits, he is just one of the village’s many eccentrics whose grievances range from sexual frustration to an elderly American man (M. Emmett Walsh) who wants Father James to shoot him to death

Things get more personal, however, when the priest’s daughter (Reilly) turns up after a suicide attempt and Father James soon finds himself and his church subject to a series of threats and outright attacks from foes known and unknown.

Initially, it appears we might be in for a tale of whimsy and humour with the populace resembling the eccentric Craggy Islanders of Father Ted. But McDonagh (director of the lighter although similarly excellent The Guard, also starring Gleeson) makes it clear we’re in for a much darker adventure from the very first scene. There is humour here, yes. But all the characters seem deeply troubled, often by unspecified problems in their past. Moran’s Michael clearly has serious problems while some such as the doctor played by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen seem to be positively evil. Although a genuinely good man himself, Father James soon faces the wrath of a very angry community reflecting an Ireland still scarred by the after-effects of the numerous real-life scandals concerning paedophile priests.

This is a superb film which benefits from all the cast truly giving their all even to the tiniest role.

Overall Verdict:

Another darkly humorous instant classic from the hugely talented John Michael McDonagh.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: Just Like Heaven (2005)

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The following review was first published in DVD Monthly magazine in 2005.

Sub-heading suggestions: Reese almighty/High spirits/Spirited away/While she was sleeping.

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Jon Heder, Donal Logue, Dina Spybey, Ben Shenkman

Director: Mark Waters

Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures Original Release: 2005

The Lowdown: When ER doctor Elizabeth’s overworked, socially undernourished existence is brought to an abrupt halt by a wayward truck, she soon finds her spiritual form sharing her flat with lonely semi-alcoholic, widower architect David. But is Elizabeth really dead? Why can only David see her? And can stoner bookshop employee Darryl help?

Review: While few men would balk at the prospect of suddenly discovering Reese Witherspoon was their room-mate, Just Like Heaven is a rom-com with a supernatural twist. For as with Brad Pitt at the start of Meet Joe Black, here we’ve barely had a chance to get familiar with the overworked singleton lifestyle of Witherspoon’s medic (a sort of cross between Bridget Jones and the one of the cast of ‘ER’) before she has a close encounter with a runaway lorry and is killed.

However, as with the unfortunate couple in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, the next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment and railing against the intrusion of new resident David.

We’ve been here before, of course. In addition to the films already mentioned, Just Like Heaven draws on everything from (most obviously) Ghost, to the 1930s Topper movies and even has shades of While You Were Sleeping. But happily Just Like Heaven is (just) cute enough to get away with it’s somewhat less than groundbreaking premise.

Partly this is down to Reese Witherspoon. While (as with Sweet Home Alabama) she’s clearly working with less incisive material than in her best work (Election, Pleasantville) she is never less than her usual luminous and quirky onscreen self. As David, Ruffalo is less good, never really proving that he has the aptitude either for physical comedy or for the dour ‘sad Tom Hanks in Sleepless In Seattle’ type romantic lead role the screenplay demands of him, though this isn’t a serious problem.

Indeed, comedic honours probably go to Jon Heder who as semi-psychic alternative bookshop assistant Darryl is good in his first significant if small post-Napoleon Dynamite role, a sort of stoner answer to Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost.

The film has its problems. For one thing, it’s rarely that funny. The early scenes detailing Elizabeth and David’s fractious first encounters wherein both argue vigorously over who is intruding upon whose flat are fine. Elizabeth (who like the ‘dead people’ in The Sixth Sense doesn’t know she’s a ghost) reasons that the drunken David is a vagrant who has wondered in off the streets. But the film gets funnier once David recognises Elizabeth is more than a product of his lonely alcoholic mind and enlists a range of solutions to vanquish her from the flat: namely a New Age guru, some amateurish ‘Ghostbusters’ and a priest who repeatedly intones “The power of Christ compels you!” to no discernible effect.

Some too, might lament that Waters, who did, after all, direct the dark edged Mean Girls in addition to cheerier fare such as Freaky Friday hasn’t produced a blacker film. But darkness and romantic comedy can be uneasy bedfellows and it’s probably to its benefit that Just Like Heaven is good-natured to its core.

Sadly, the extras never really rise above the average. The ‘Making Of’ featurette is the usual promotional fare and is supplemented by a similar and fairly unnecessary ‘Meet the Cast’ featurette (high court judges aside, even before Walk The Line was there anyone out there unfamiliar with Reese Witherspoon?). And despite the slightly surprising revelation that the film is based on a French novel (Marc Levy’s ‘If Only It Were True’), you’ll soon find your attention wandering during the filmmaker’s commentary.

Although in fairness this isn’t really the sort of film that readily lends itself to hours of dissection and analysis. For make no mistake: while this won’t linger long in the memory, Just Like Heaven is against all odds, one of the better romantic comedies of the past year. It’s just that as with ‘Great Films Starring Hilary Duff’ and ‘Intelligent Statements Made By President Bush’ this isn’t exactly an overcrowded field.

Final Verdict It’s not going to change the world but if you do fancy a Friday night date movie, you could do a lot worse.

Rating FILM: 6 EXTRAS: 5

Text By Chris Hallam