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

DVD review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick. Directed By: Grant Heslov

Fox Mulder was right. The truth really was out there, all along. But, as Jon Ronson’s excellent 2004 non-fiction book demonstrated, the reality of what certain elements of the US military and government were up to in the 70s and 80s, was far stranger than anything in The X-Files.

There’s the army general, for example, who became so convinced that he could will his body to pass through solid objects that he actually physically ran into his office wall. He failed to go through it. He just crashed into it.

Then, there are the military operatives who, taking their cue from an earlier science fiction franchise, named themselves “Jedi warriors”. And then there are the men who stare at goats themselves: a crack division who become convinced that they could actually kill animals merely by deploying their ‘psychic’ powers while staring at them, causing their hearts to explode. Goats are judged to be the perfect test subjects for these experiments, it is revealed. While many soldiers felt uncomfortable staring at dogs, it is apparently much harder to forge an emotional bond with a goat.

Yet while the book was by turns hilarious and fascinating, there are causes for concern here. For one thing, this isn’t a documentary. Director Heslov has gone down the route of dramatising a non-fiction book – a feat attempted before by Richard Linklater on his version of Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’. The result then was a failure. Ewan McGregor is also cast unconvincingly as a fictional American journo (presumably based on the book’s author Ronson, which is odd as both men are British anyway) partly, it is presumed, so the ‘Star Wars’ star can make play of the story’s Jedi references.

The film also makes little attempt to confront the darker aspects of the book. The bohemian freethinking of the First Earth Battalion ultimately led to some of the torture methods used in the War on Terror, but this is only alluded to here.

Despite everything, this still manages to be a consistently entertaining, compelling and amusing film. It doesn’t hurt that a bit of effort has been made on the extras, although neither the commentary from director Heslov or from the book’s author Ronson are as exciting as they could have been. Other featurettes, however, give added weight to a narrative that is always difficult to fully believe.

This is, however, fascinating enough to overcome most of its flaws. And yes, in case you’re wondering, one goat did die during the many goat staring experiments. It may well have been just a coincidence, but for safety’s sake, perhaps don’t try it out on your hamster at home. Just in case.

Bonus features:

Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion Featurette

Project Hollywood: A Classified Report From The Set Featurette

Audio Commentary with Director Grant Heslov

Audio Commentary with Author Jon Ronson

Character Bios

Deleted Scenes

Rating: 4 out of 5


Overall Verdict:

Undeniably a bit of a mess, but the story is bizarre and fascinating enough to win the day.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: Danny Collins (2015)


Review first published on Movie Muser, October 2015  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer

Directed By: Dan Fogelman

Al Pacino plays Danny Collins, a fictional music star whose career seems to have peaked at some point in the Seventies. Although not officially a has-been – he still appears to be very wealthy and is widely recognised by young and old everywhere he goes, Collins is unsatisfied. He hasn’t written a song in thirty years and seems less than enthused about his much younger fiancée (Katarina Cas).

While, as his agent (the ever excellent Christopher Plummer) points out, his problems are extremely minor compared to some people’s, the revelation that Collins was once sent an admiring letter by John Lennon which never got to him, triggers what can only be described as a very late midlife crisis. He begins to reassess his priorities attempting to rebuild relations with the family of his estranged son (Cannavale and Garner). He also moves into a hotel and soon he begins wooing the straitlaced manager (Bening).

The Lennon stuff seems to be largely an excuse to get some of the Beatle’s music on the soundtrack. This turns out to be a godsend as all the music performed by Pacino is absolutely awful. It is hard to see how Collins would ever have made it as a music star, even allowing for the fact that he is supposed to have worsened with age.

The performances are fine though particularly Garner and Plummer and as Collins notes he and Bening’s character do generate some “good patter” (as in banter).

The mock up album covers on the extras using pictures from Pacino’s own long career are good fun too. There’s an okay, short advertising featurette too in which Al Pacino at one point unwisely compares his decision to take the role to his decision to play Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’. Needless to say , the comparison to his past glories would have been best left unmade.


Special Features: Danny Collins – Album Covers Through The Years Behind The Scenes of Danny Collins Featurette


Overall Verdict: Not likely to make Al Pacino’s own Greatest Hits album. Distinctly average.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: This Country Season One & Two

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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.

DVD review: Wanderlust

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Joy and Alan’s marriage is in trouble. Joy (Toni Collette) is a relationships counsellor but has recently (ahem) enjoyed a mutual masturbation session with a man she met during swimming class. “You’re terrible Muriel,” indeed!
Alan (Stephen Mackintosh), meanwhile, is a schoolteacher who has boffed a younger attractive colleague (Fresh Meat star, Zawe Ashton).
Both tell their other half straight away. But can their marriage be saved? Joy thinks so. She has a radical solution: why don’t they continue their external relationships and just be completely open with their partner about what’s going on?
Will this ever work? How will it affect their three teenage children? And what exactly did happen on the day of Joy’s biking accident?
Wanderlust suffered a little from over-hype about its sex scenes on TV. It’s not that rude in truth and much of the cast particularly Collete (convincingly English-sounding, despite her antipodean background), Ashton and the talented Andy Nyman, in a small part, are great. Ultimately, however, the pace does rather slacken and like Joy and Alan’s sex lives at the start, it does rather run out of steam.

Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

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But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

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Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

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Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

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Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 3

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Upstart Crow, that is, the further adventures of Will Shakespeare, returns for a third series. As before, Shakespeare (David Mitchell) is depicted as a normal if somewhat conceited man, simultaneously brilliant while full of human flaws. He alternates between his humble Stratford domestic existence with wife, Anne (Liza Tarbuck), somewhat embarrassing parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox) and children (notably Helen Monks) and his busier London life dominated by his flamboyant contemporary, Kit Marlow (Tim Downie) and assistant Kate (Gemma Whelan).

Ben Elton’s sitcom has always had something of the air of a Blackadder II tribute act about it (not forgetting, of course, that Elton co-wrote that superb mid-eighties series). Will is essentially a less sinister Edmund, Marlow is Flashman, Greene (Mark Heap) is Lord Melchett, while Kate is a female…er…”Kate” (short for “Bob”) while Baldrick was basically a much dirtier Bottom (Rob Rouse). Ahem…

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There is also a definite sense of fatigue creeping in. The issue of Marlow’s impending murder is dealt with rather unsatisfactorily and there is also an over-reliance on extending words (for example, “strap on a pair of boobingtons”) for comic effect. It’s lazy and not even very Shakespearian. There are cameos by ex-Young Ones Nigel Planer and Ade Edmondson and, separately, by Edmondson’s daughter, rising star Beattie Edmondson.

And yet, for all that, there are frequent flashes of brilliance here. The use of language is often superb as with Mitchell’s hilarious sex monologue in the first episode. Ben Miller brilliantly sends up actor Mark Rylance as the Tudor actor, Wolf Hall and Spencer Jones continues his excellent piss-take of Ricky Gervais. The cast, particularly Whelan and Downie are also consistently great.

And, as in real life, all does not always necessarily end well. The final episode is surprisingly, beautifully and wonderfully poignant.

Release date: October 8th 2018

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DVD/Blu-ray review: I Feel Pretty

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DVD/Blu-ray review: I Feel Pretty

Out now

Directed by: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein

Starring: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Emily Ratajkowski, Rory Scovel, Aidy Bryant, Busy Philipps

Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) struggles in life. Working in the basement of an office block, running the website of a major cosmetics firm, she aspires to apply for the position of receptionist. But, crucially she lacks confidence. She is in fact perfectly attractive but being slightly overweight she feels anxious about her own appearance, a feeling re-enforced by the large number of models who are cast in the film alongside her.

She’s so big that she actually breaks the exercise bike she’s pedalling on in the gym. This sequence is played for laughs but completely fails to amuse. For one thing, the accident – were it real – looks quite painful. For another, Renee immediately walks out humiliated, as if it’s her own fault. Although it’s quite possible she might feel like this, nobody challenges this view in the film: clearly the accident was her own fault. She was too fat to go on an exercise bike. Stupid girl! In reality, she’s nowhere near overweight enough to have broken a fully functioning exercise bike. She should be suing them.

Later on, guess what? The same thing happens again. It’s still not funny, but this time has plot implications. Having just watched the sequence in the fairground from the 1988 film, ‘Big’, Renee has desperately wished under a fountain, not to be “big” (quite the opposite) but to be beautiful. Now, soon after, thoroughly concussed after her second accident, she becomes convinced she’s very beautiful. In fact, no magical transformation has occurred. She’s physically exactly the same.

The film really isn’t very funny at all. That said, it is mildly amusing seeing Renee convinced she has been suddenly radically transformed. For a while anyway. She grows confident enough to land her dream job and make a big impression on the boss of the cosmetics firm (Michelle Williams – atypically annoying in a sub-Marilyn Monroe performance). She also lands a boyfriend – a genuinely nice guy (Scovel) – although a surprisingly ordinary one in the circumstances. She ultimately ends up getting too snobby and alienating her friends (Bryant and Philipps).

Amy Schumer is a major name in comedy these days and one senses I Feel Pretty has good intentions behind it. But the film misdirects its fire somehow (Schumer didn’t write it) and, crucially, for a comedy,  it just isn’t funny.

Worst of all: it doesn’t even have the song, I Feel Pretty, in it.

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Blu-ray review: Game Night

Game Night

Thirty-something couple, Max and Annie Davis (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) like games. Nothing weird, just simple quiz games, or perhaps charades or Pictionary, usually with a group of friends once a week at their house. Ultra-competitive, the couple first met during a particularly exhilarating quiz session while Gary even managed to incorporate his successful marriage proposal into one of their ‘Game Nights’.

The only awkward point about this arrangement is Gary, their next-door neighbour. An intense and socially maladjusted cop, Gary (Jesse Plemons) is more the ex-husband of a friend than a friend in his own right and with his marriage now a thing of the past, Max and Annie are not particularly keen to invite him over.

The other fly in the ointment is Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s rich, successful and similarly competitive brother. Brooks’ occasional visits have a way of getting under Max’s skin. Indeed, it is during a special “Game Night” apparently initially organised by Brooks, that Brooks is kidnapped. Here the fun begins: is the “kidnapping” just part of a game or has Brooks been genuinely abducted after getting involved in some shady business dealings? And, more to the point, if, as seems likely, Brooks is in genuine trouble, will Max and Annie and his four game-obsessed friends ever realise what’s going on?

Game Night is a good, lightweight piece of evening entertainment boosted by a strong cast which includes TV’s Catastrophe star, Sharon Horgan and a wonderfully intense turn from Plemons as cop next door, Gary. There are lots of fun film references – Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury play a couple under strain after she blurts out that she once had sex with a celebrity whose name she won’t reveal – and Rachel McAdams and Billy Magnussen particularly demonstrates again their real comic flair, the latter as Ryan, the least intelligent person in the film.

At one point, it is revealed, Max’s stresses about Brooks are hampering his attempts to help Annie conceive: an unnecessary element in what is essentially a far fetched escapist comedy. This aspect also makes Max and Annie seem even more like Chandler and Monica Bing in the later episodes of TV’s Friends.

But in general, this is an enjoyable, forgettable diversion: a welcome Saturday night alternative to your own game of choice, be it Risk, Scrabble or ‘Naked’ Twister.

Blu-ray: Out now

Released by: Warner Bros Home Entertainment

Bonus features:

Gag Reel

An Unforgettable Evening: Making Game Night Featurette

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What happened next: the Seven Dwarfs

sevendwarvesthanksgiving1The years after Snow White left the forest to marry the Prince proved to be difficult for the seven dwarfs.

Speaking at their annual meeting, Doc identified two clear threats to the mine’s future. First was the obvious demographic time bomb: all of the dwarfs were ageing, male and childless. Secondly, production was suffering from the fact that only three of the seven dwarfs – Happy, Grumpy and Doc – were actively working regularly. Sleepy was often absent on account of his chronic lethargy, Sneezy was almost perpetually off sick. Dopey, meanwhile, frequently simply forgot to turn up for work. Bashful suffered such from such chronically low self-esteem that he could rarely be dragged out of his room.

In addition to a long-term suggestion that in future, dwarfs be given more promising names (Doc’s own name was conveniently vocational, but what chance had Dopey ever stood?), Doc proposed a recruitment drive. Within weeks, the mine had five new dwarfs: Botany, Philately, Arty, Greedy and Paranoia.

Doc privately anticipated problems with Greedy and Paranoia while Dopey was forced to admit he had thought there was a dwarf in the group called Greedy already. But with their respective private interests in flowers, stamp collecting and art, Botany, Philately and Arty soon became a credit to the team. That Easter, Arty even produced a long portrait of the twelve dwarfs sitting at a long table, eating supper together. Noting one of the dwarfs in the picture didn’t have a beard, Paranoia began to speculate that one of the dwarfs was secretly female. But it actually turned out to be Dopey.

Greedy betrayed the other dwarfs soon afterwards. Paranoia exposed him: he had privately sold the mine on to unscrupulous developers. The mine was closed almost immediately and converted into luxury flats

Confronted by Grumpy at a meeting, Greedy defended himself:

“It’s simple economics.” he argued, lighting a cigar. “Sure, the mine’s making money now but what about in ten years? It was only a matter of time.”

Some thought Greedy sounded like the evil Queen who had been overthrown some time before. “There is no such thing as society, only individual dwarfs.” He went on. “The state doesn’t owe you a living, you know. You should all get on your bikes and whistle while you look for work.”

In practice, the community was devastated. Some of the dwarfs briefly found employment when Greedy opened a call centre but they lost their jobs again when he relocated it to Mumbai a few weeks later.

His self-esteem shattered, Bashful spent more and more time in internet chat rooms. Dopey spent more time in bed than Sleepy and the other dwarfs noticed his room started to smell suspiciously of acrid smoke. Doc, too, who actually had no formal medical training (his doctorate was in Media Studies), struggled to find work. Even Happy was on Prozac.

The only distraction for the dwarfs was that Snow White had returned, her marriage having failed after the Prince had cheated on her. “There were three of us in this marriage,” she said. The dwarfs weren’t sure about the Prince’s new wife at first but ultimately concluded she was closer to the Prince in age and intellect and probably had more in common with him than Snow White had.

But aside from that, Greedy aside, nobody lived happily ever after.

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DVD review: Inside No.9 – Series Four

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Cert: 15. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Rory Kinnear, Monica Dolan, Kevin Eldon, Emilia Fox, Bill Paterson, Sian Gibson, Noel Clarke, Nicola Walker, Nigel Planer, Helen Monks

Four years after the series launched with the hilarious but increasingly sinister wardrobe-based adventure, Sardines, former League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith continue to astound with six more often funny, frequently sinister half hour comedy dramas. As before, all are linked by the fact they involve the number 9 in some way.

Despite the fact its story-line incorporates murder, adultery and suicide, the first episode Zanzibar is positively cheery by Inside No. 9 standards, a breathtaking, star-studded hotel-based farce with strong Shakespearean overtones. The whole thing is written entirely in iambic pentameter and is quite, quite brilliant.

Even so, the series highlight might actually be the second episode, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. Detailing a heartbreaking and seemingly ill-advised reunion between two Eighties comedians, it manages to be both funny and desperately moving.

Like the early Christopher Nolan film Memento, the third episode, Once Removed gradually unravels its clever homicidal story-line by showing its scenes in reverse order. To Have And To Hold, meanwhile (an episode which, it must be said, rarely even tries to be funny) presents an uncomfortable portrait of an unhappy marriage. As usual, there is more going on than meets the eye.

Finally, And The Winner Is… takes a look behind the scenes at the judging process of a major TV award while Tempting Fate focuses on a clear-out following the death of a local hoarder.

These last two episodes are probably the weakest. But this is not a major criticism. Inside No.9 remains head and shoulders above virtually everything else on TV.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 2

Upstart Crow s2Familiarity, as someone once said, can breed contempt.

Happily, this is certainly isn’t the case with the second outing for Ben Elton’s Tudor sitcom, which aims to tell the story behind the creation of Shakespeare’s plays.

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It’s not a dramatically original idea (the films Shakespeare In Love and Bill have all had a pop at it) but aided by a strong cast, this generally works well. As the Bard himself, David Mitchell does an excellent job of humanising a figure who can sometimes seem like some sort of 16th century superhero. Mitchell essentially portrays him as a likeable clever dick torn between the demands of his work, the acting ambitions of his friend Kate (Gemma Whelan), the roguish charms of contemporary Kit Marlow (Tim Downie), the rivalry of his nemesis Robert Greene who coined the term “upstart crow” to describe Shakespeare in the first place (Mark Heap) and the attentions of his more common but loving Stratford family (Liza Tarbuck, Helen Monks, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox). Noel Fielding also crops up in one episode of this series as another real life figure, composer Thomas Morley.

The 2017 Christmas special is not included here although if you’ve seen it, you will probably agree this is no bad thing.

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A modern comedy classic then? Perhaps not quite, at least, not yet. But this is certainly enjoyable, clever fun with a top notch cast and a welcome return to form for the generally unfairly reviled talent that is Ben Elton.

And, no. The “familiarity breeds contempt” quote is not by Shakespeare. Although on this evidence, the man himself might have claimed it was.

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Book review: Viz: The Jester’s Shoes

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Viz: The Jester’s Shoes. Published: Dennis Publishing

(Gentle readers, be warned…!)

Where would the world be without Viz?

Well, in truth, it wouldn’t actually be very different would it? Most people don’t read it after all even in Britain, let alone the world. Most of you probably aren’t even reading this review. I know I’m not.

But, for those of us, who do, it is a joyous time. For a full 29 years after the release of The Big Pink Stiff One (i.e. the first Viz annual anthology), The Jester’s Shoes (no, I don’t get it either) is out. The cover describes it as “a toe-curling stack of the best bits from issues 242-251”. It is also at 200 pages, the biggest ever anthology of the ADULT COMIC yet.

Yes, just to emphasise this is an ADULT COMIC, just in case the phrase “Big Pink Stiff One” didn’t alert you to the fact. Any children thinking of reading this can piss off.

So what’s happening in this one?

Well, to pick at random, Sid the Sexist falls victim to a stage hypnotist, children’s favourite Hector’s House is subverted into Hector’s Whores (“C’mon Kiki the frog, give the cash to Daddy”), Major Misunderstanding takes exception to the phrase “Winter Wonderland,” The Fat Slags star in On The Game of Thrones and Roger Mellie: The Man on the Telly (who has appeared in every issue of Viz to date) offends Ann Widdecombe by making an obscene suggestion while drunk on the live TV Election Night Special.

There’s also the usual newspaper parodies (“Fuck all on Mars” and “Pope’s Hat ‘Fundamentally Flawed’, Say Scientists”) and the usual fun with regulars Mrs Brady Old Lady, The Bacons, The Real Ale Twats and much much more.

 

Book review: Only Fools and Stories by David Jason

Only Fools and Stories: From Del Boy to Granville, Pop Larkin to Frost by David Jason (Published by Century)

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In 1980, as he approached his fortieth birthday, David Jason could look back on an enjoyable comedy and acting career. But he had never hit the big time. And there had been plenty of missed opportunities.

For a few joyful hours in the late Sixties, for example, Jason had been briefly cast as Lance Corporal Jones in a new BBC sitcom about the wartime Home Guard called Dad’s Army. Jason, was only in his twenties then, but already had a good reputation for playing old men. Jason’s euphoria at getting the role was short-lived, however. The casting director’s first choice, middle-aged Clive Dunn got back in touch and indicated that, on second thoughts, he wanted the part which would make him a star, after all. Jason was out.

He could also have very easily been a Python, having co-starred with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones in the 1967-1969 comedy sketch Do Not Adjust Your Set. But for whatever reason, Jason didn’t follow these three into the hugely successful Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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He was, at least, by the end of the Seventies, an experienced and highly recognisable comedy face. He had played the geriatric convict Blanco in the hugely successful prison-based sitcom,  Porridge. Appearing with Ronnie Barker again, Jason had excelled as Granville, the put upon Yorkshire errand boy in Open All Hours. But though now regarded as a classic sitcom (indeed, Jason appears in its follow-up, Still Open All Hours to this day), the Roy Clarke series was very slow to attract a large audience.

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It took Only Fools and Horses to make Jason a star. John Sullivan’s sitcom began in 1981 and like Open All Hours was to be a slow burner, getting what, by 1980s standards were considered low ratings. But the role of wheeler dealing market trader Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (a performance Jason based on a stylishly dressed cockney building contractor he had encountered in the Sixties) was clearly the role he had been born to play. By the end of the decade, the series was one of the most popular in the land.

Although less of a full-blown autobiography than Jason’s 2013 book, My Life, this should be enjoyed by all Jason fans featuring countless anecdotes about his experiences on the show (notably a series of practical jokes carried out with his onscreen brother Nicholas Lyndhurst) as a well as stories about his other later works including A Touch of Frost, The Darling Buds of May and Porterhouse Blue.

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Book review: Little Me. My Life From A-Z. By Matt Lucas

aBook review: Little Me. My Life From A-Z. By Matt Lucas. Published by Canongate.

“He’s a baby! He’s a baby!” These words were sung by Shooting Stars co-host Bob Mortimer just as an unusual looking man dressed in a full-sized pink romper suit homed into view.

This is probably how most of us got our first glimpse of Matt Lucas, then known as “George Dawes” (as in “What are the scores, George Dawes?”) in the anarchic Nineties quiz show, Shooting Stars. He was not, of course, a baby, but it is surprising to reflect, just how young he was. Having started performing stand-up in his teens, Lucas was already a semi-experienced performer when he first appeared on the show in 1995. He was barely twenty-one. True stardom was to come with Little Britain alongside his comedy partner, David Walliams, some years’ later.

As Lucas admits, he does tend to polarise opinion somewhat. If the sight of his grinning bald face on the front cover already repels you, this book is unlikely to change your mind.

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But Lucas certainly has a story to tell: even before his entry into the comedy world, he had to cope with sudden childhood baldness, parental divorce and family scandal, fluctuating weight and the growing realisation that he was gay. Then, there was the decade-long climb to fame, initially playing the fictional aristocrat Sir Bernard Chumley, his first teenage meeting with Walliams (they bonded by comparing their stock of celebrity impressions), George Dawes, Rock Profiles, Little Britain, Come Fly With Me and ultimately Hollywood.

Fittingly for someone who was recently jumping around in time on Doctor Who, however, Lucas avoids a chronological approach. Each chapter is in alphabetical order by subject, a technique which works very well. The second chapter B, for example, is entitled Baldy! and discusses Lucas’s hair loss while the tenth J, Jewish, discusses his racial and religious heritage. It’s not always as obvious as that however and you’ll have to find our for yourself what the chapters ‘Frankie and Jimmy’ and ‘Accrington Stanley’ are about.

There is also, the tragic end to his relationship with Kevin McGee, his civil partner who committed suicide in 2009, some time after the failure of his relationship with Lucas. Lucas makes no apology for skirting around what clearly remains a very painful subject for him and nor should he have to. When he does occasionally refer to McGee, however, it is always with sensitivity and affection.

Like anyone, Lucas has a love/hate relationship with his own fame. He is perhaps more comfortable in the US where he is better known for his brief appearance in the huge comedy movie hit Bridesmaids opposite Rebel Wilson than for anything else. Indeed, as he himself admits, with the UK version of Little Britain a decade in the past now and the failure of his recent series Pompidou, he is less familiar to younger viewers now than he once was. Indeed, of the two Little Britain stars David Walliams is by far the better known member of the duo now.

Despite this, it is hard to imagine the man who created The Only Gay In The Village or George and Marjorie Dawes, ever disappearing quietly from our screens anytime soon.

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Book review: How To Be Champion by Sarah Millican

how-to-be-champion.jpgBook review: How To Be Champion by Sarah Millican: My Autobiography. Published by: Trapeze.

There is undoubtedly something very likeable about Sarah Millican. As with Jimmy Carr, she is blessed with an uncanny ability to switch from being sweet one moment to filthy the next. This tendency is certainly deployed to good effect in this autobiography.

On the other hand, despite being probably the most successful female stand-up in the UK, she retains a down to earth ordinary quality which Carr and most other comedians lack. Millican would doubtless be embarrassed by the comparison, but it is something she has in common with the late Victoria Wood.

It is undoubtedly a result of her background. In her early forties now, South Shields born Millican lived a relatively normal university-free existence for years, only turning to stand-up comedy as a means of coping with the collapse of her first marriage in her late twenties. Success came fairly quickly and she won the Edinburgh Best Newcomer award in 2008 beating off competition from the likes of Jon Richardson, Micky Flanagan and Zoe Lyons. Since her the success of her 2012 BBC TV series, The Sarah Millican Television Programme she has been unstoppable. She is now married to comic Gary Delaney (a regular on Mock The Week).

This is a funny, occasionally moving book perhaps slightly let down by its adoption of the overused self-help book format, a technique currently deployed seemingly by every comedy autobiography under the sun. Millican is very open about her difficulties with the harsher side of fame, refreshingly honest about her total lack of desire to ever have children and is clearly achingly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of often misogynistic abuse frequently directed at her by critics on Twitter and elsewhere. She quotes a breathtakingly rude Telegraph review of her 2013 Who Do You Think You Are? appearance by Christopher Howse (who she doesn’t name although I am happy to) in full. Referring to her “piping Geordie voice and dumpy frame,” it is less a piece of journalism, than a sustained and wholly unwarranted personal attack. Howse should be utterly ashamed of himself.

However, this is generally a light, enjoyable read from one of Britain’s comedy national treasures.

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Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered  in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a  majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Book review: How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb (Published by: Canongate)

It’s probably more than a decade now since most of us became familiar with the comedy actor Robert Webb.

As Jez, the more laid-back but less responsible half of the flat-share arrangement in Channel 4’s longest running sitcom Peep Show between 2003 until 2015, he was the perfect foil to David Mitchell’s more intelligent but thoroughly anal Mark Corrigan. Although brilliant, Peep Show was never a ratings success. It did, however, lead directly to the sketch show The Mitchell and Webb Look which, though patchy as many such shows are, pushed the duo into the mainstream.

Webb’s career is obviously linked to Mitchell’s: the two met at Cambridge in the Nineties and are currently appearing together again in Simon Blackwell’s aptly named comedy, Back. A straight comparison of the two men’s careers has led many to assume Webb is the lesser talent of the two. Mitchell has been a prolific columnist and clearly has a massive aptitude for comedy panel shows. Aside from his spectacular victory in the 2009 Let’s Dance for Comic Relief and his early performance in the TV series The Smoking Room, most of Webb’s biggest successes have been with Mitchell.

But any lingering doubts anyone might have about Webb’s talent should be vanquished by a reading of this genuinely funny and touching memoir. The title might seem to count against it: the “how to” prefix has been overused in comedy books in recent years (How Not To Grow Up by Richard Herring, How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Grown-Up by Daisy Buchanan, How To Be A Bawse by Lily Singh and the forthcoming How To Be Champion by Sarah Milican) but in fairness to Webb, the title is pretty essential to the book’s structure. The seemingly well-worn “having an imaginary conversation with one’s younger self” device, previously deployed by Miranda Hart, amongst others, is also used well here.

The book is boosted by Webb’s vivid recollections of his painful teenage years, doubtless helped by his enjoyably pretentious diaries (“Is there any romance greater than the one a teenage boy has with his own loneliness?”) which he bravely reproduces fragments from here. He is also refreshingly open about his drinking problems and his early experiments with homosexuality.

But as with Hugh Laurie who, likewise, has always been in danger of being overshadowed by his brilliant co-star, this book serves as a valuable reminder that Robert Webb is a major talent in his own right.

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Book review: A Very Courageous Decision. The Inside Story of Yes Minister, by Graham McCann

Published by: Aurum Press.

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Two truly great British sitcoms appeared in the Eighties.

Blackadder began in 1983, getting into its stride two years’ later. But the first, Yes, Minister, had began almost at the very start of the decade in February 1980, having been postponed for a year after industrial action had prevented its broadcast in early 1979. Yes, Minister would thus appear on screen under Margaret Thatcher but it had been conceived under her predecessor, Jim Callaghan.

It didn’t matter. The greatest political comedy of the Thatcher era was non-partisan. Jim Hacker, though a “Jim” who eventually became Prime Minister was not supposed to be Callaghan. Indeed, he wasn’t originally even supposed to be a ‘Jim’. Creators Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn had planned the series around a ‘Gerry Hacker’ MP’ who is elevated to the Ministry of Administrative Affairs. When Paul Eddington, best known for his recent role as the amiable but henpecked Jerry in The Good Life was cast, the name was changed to remove any association being made between what would turn out to be the two most famous roles of the actor’s career.

The casting turned out to be a masterstroke but it was the writing that provided Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister with its backbone. Antony Jay (an older man and a Tory who died in 2016) and Jonathan Lynn (a left of centre figure, still in his thirties when the show began) wisely decided to make their minister’s party affiliations unclear. There were occasional references to contemporary politics. For example, Sir Humphrey refers to a potential triumph for Hacker: “this could be your Falkland Islands,” although on a different occasion criticises another suggestion as “a Bennite solution.” In another episode, they also meet a London “loony left” councillor called Ben Stanley (“that odious troglodyte with the wispy moustache. The press hate him”).  In reality, the moustached left-winger Ken Livingstone led the Greater London Council at the time. The name “Ben” does sound a lot like “Ken”. While the missionary David LIVINGSTONE famously met the explorer Henry STANLEY. So is Stanley, supposed to be Livingstone? I think we can presume so.

That said, such references (which McCann doesn’t mention in this book) are rare. The story was really about the battle between transient “here today, gone tomorrow” politicians in government and their battles with the mandarins of the civil servant personified by Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) who basically seek to obstruct everything and prevent any real change from ever occurring.

The series had surprisingly few teething problems other than the initial selection of an unsuitable director for the pilot episode. Eddington, a wartime conscientious objector and leftist political animal was initially keen on the role of Humphrey, recognising the part had the best lines. Thankfully, he was persuaded instead that he was perfect for the role of the initially well-meaning but increasingly cynical Hacker.

Hawthorne, brilliant as Sir Humphrey, became famous for his part in exchanges like this one from the first episode:

Hacker: Who else is in this department?
Sir Humphrey: Well briefly, sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Hacker (slightly taken aback): Can they all type?
Sir Humphrey: None of us can type. Mrs Mackay types: she’s the secretary.

The South African born Hawthorne reportedly lacked confidence perhaps stemming from a fear of his homosexuality becoming public. This eventually happened, much to his annoyance, at the time of his Oscar nomination for The Madness of King George in 1995. A less political man than Eddington, he was reportedly occasionally irritated by the latter’s supreme confidence.

The trio was completed by Derek Fowlds as Sir Bernard. A man until then, best known for co-starring with Basil Brush, Fowlds, the only one of the three still alive, comes across as a man refreshingly lacking in vanity.

Veteran comedy writer Graham McCann does a good job of detailing the history of the two series here. He goes too far in rating the series’ wider significance however : “Government in those days (1980), was rather like a tree falling in a forest with no one there to witness it,” he says. This is largely still true. Great as Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were, they didn’t change the world all that much.

There are unfortunately constraints on just how much sitcoms can really do. Just as there are with ministers.

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