The Munsters’ Revenge (1981, Don Weis)

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: America during the build-up to a Halloween in the early 1980s. The story takes place in locations including the Munsters’ house, a waxwork museum, a police station, a jail, a pizzaria, the villain’s lair and – during a diversion late on in the film – a Transylvanian castle.

Faithful to the novel? The link is the character of Grandpa, played by Al Lewis. Despite it not being specified in this film, he is actually Count Dracula – albeit a benign, kindly Count Dracula who now lives with his married daughter and her family in America… Fifteen years after the end of their horror-tinged sitcom, the eccentric Munster family were revived for this one-off TV movie. Of the regular cast, only those who had played adults were retained – so we still have Grandpa, Fred Gwynne’s Herman (aka Frankenstein’s Monster, the father of the clan) and Yvonne De Carlo’s Lily (Herman’s vampiric wife and Grandpa’s daughter). However, there was a desire to keep the younger characters young. So Herman and Lily’s werewolf son, Eddie, has been recast with KC Martel, who was actually born after the original TV show had ended. And their niece Marilyn – a pretty, blonde teenager who’s the ironic odd-one-out in such a ghoulish-looking family – is now played by Jo McDonnell. The clan has also swelled with the introduction of Bob Hastings’s ‘Cousin Phantom of the Opera’, a Lon Chaney-a-like whose singing voice smashes glass.

The plot is kicked off when Herman and co visit a local Chamber of Horrors, and find that they’re represented by waxwork mannequins on display. Grandpa doesn’t think his likeness has been captured very well, saying he’s actually ‘Tall, green and handsome’. Marilyn, meanwhile, is not part of the exhibit – after all, says Herman, they don’t want to scare the customers. Elsewhere in the museum are waxworks of other horror icons such as the Creature From the Black Lagoon, the Wolf Man and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. But events spiral out of control when Herman and Grandpa are later arrested for theft… and realise that their waxwork doppelgängers are actually robots who are committing a crime spree!

In fact, the script focuses heavily on Herman and Grandpa, who get into plenty of comedy scrapes, have lots of investigating scenes and even action sequences. The other members of the family are reduced to occasional appearances, save for perhaps Marilyn who has a romantic subplot with a police detective. The two men also get a diversion to Transylvania in the final third. When Grandpa and Herman realise they need to return to the home country to collect a life-giving serum, Granda morphs in to a bat for the journey while Herman smuggles himself through customs in a casket. They soon reach their family’s castle, where they find Cousin Igor (Howard Morris) – a spoof of the sidekick character from Universal’s 1931 film Frankenstein (though that character was called Fritz). He’s not a popular figure in the local area – ‘They voted 19,000 to one to burn the castle,’ he says of a recent bond election.

Best performance: The villain behind the robots is eventually revealed to be Dr Dustin Diablo, played by Sid Caeser. Caeser was a comic actor with a stellar career on American television, and also appeared in occasional films such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Silent Movie (1976) and Grease (1978). He has fun with his goofy character, indulging in a heightened Italian accent and also using a disguise at one point. Dr Diablo is descended from a Pharoah, and now plans to steal some Egyptian jewels on display at a local museum.

Best bit: While trying to work out who has been using their likenesses for evil, Herman and Grandpa’s detective work leads them to a pizza restaurant. They decide to go undercover as waitresses, so cue the usual comedy that comes when male sitcom characters pose as women. As per the cliche, other men fail to spot the subterfuge and some even lust after them. ‘Are my seams straight?’ asks Herman at one point. ‘They are,’ replies Grandpa, ‘but your legs are crooked.’

Review: Like the other iterations of the Munsters franchise we’ve previously reviewed on this site – the 1960s cinema film, a 1990s reboot – The Munsters’ Revenge is fun if disposable. The script trades on the same central gag of Herman, Lily, Granda and Eddie looking odd and macabre but actually being sweet and loving (and blissfully ignorant of the fact that others perceive them as monsters). However, the script also features a few off-colour jokes – naive Japanese tourists, a stereotyped black criminal, a comment that the best kind of woman is one who can’t talk – which dampens the charm somewhat.

Six thousand-volt charges out of 10

Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing (2021, Steve Lawson)

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The majority of this film takes place in and around a well-to-do country estate called Hilllingham House, which is one of several residences owned by the character of Arthur Holmwood. (In Bram Stoker’s book, Hillingham is the name of Lucy Westenra’s London home.) We also see a brief scene of a vampire attack on a CGI Westminster Bridge. No dates are specified, though a mention of the Jack the Ripper murders tells us the story is set soon after 1888.

Faithful to the novel? Largely, yes, though on a small scale. Jettisoning the rest of the narrative, Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing focusses on just a subplot from the book. A young woman called Lucy Westenra (Charlie Bond) has fallen ill, so her concerned fiancee, Arthur Holmwood (Tom Hendryk), asks their friend Dr John Seward (Joe Street) for help. But when John is bamboozled by Lucy’s condition, another expert is brought in – John’s old mentor, Professor Van Helsing (Mark Topping). Anyone who’s read Dracula, or seen a vaguely faithful movie adaptation, will recognise all this as Stoker material. Lucy’s story here essentially plays out as it does in the book, but without any of the other threads – Seward’s patient Renfield is just alluded to, Lucy’s friend Mina only appears in the final scene, and the American Quincey Morris is dropped altogether. Also, while Van Helsing deduces that a vampire has been feeding on the poor girl, as he does in the novel, we neither see the creature nor learn his identity. (He oddly disappears from the narrative halfway through, unexplained.) As things progress, we hit many of Stoker’s story beats – Van Helsing uses hypnosis on Lucy, talks the others into providing blood transfusions, then finds two small puncture wounds on Lucy’s neck; she dies, but then returns as an undead creature.

Best performance: There are only four main actors in this 80-minute film. Lucy is played by Charlie Bond – who once appeared in the straight-to-video flick Strippers v Werewolves and is currently working on a film called Powertool Cheerleaders vs the Boyband of the Screeching Dead – but she has precious little to do other than be insipid or flash her fangs. Mark Topping, meanwhile, gives a mannered, ‘actorly’ and ultimately forgettable performance as Van Helsing. Tom Hendryk and Joe Street make okay stabs at playing the concerned Arthur and John.

Best bit: Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing feels like it’s playing an overfamiliar tune, but there are a few new grace notes here and there. In perhaps the biggest change from Stoker, Arthur ends up procuring victims for his doomed love to feed on…

Review: The big question with this film is: what is the point of an adaptation? Why restage something that was a very successful novel and then adapted into countless films and TV shows? The writer/director of Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing, Steve Lawson, has talked about wanting to make a Dracula film that comes at the story from a fresh angle – not a bad idea, per se. Dracula is a malleable text, which can bear any number of treatments and interpretations. There’s no reason why it can’t have an equivalent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (telling the story from a new point of view) or Wicked! (filling out backstories of established characters). To that end, Lawson scales down Dracula to just the Lucy Westenra subplot, which is a good mini-story within the wider novel and is also the reason why the eccentric Professor Van Helsing enters the stage.

By focussing on a young woman who’s mostly confined to bed and who is being transformed into a demonic creature, Lawson was aware that his film would share some echoes with The Exorcist – but the comparison does it no favours. The Exorcist is horror film full of shocks, whereas the only way in which Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing takes you by surprise is by having a fatal lack of anything surprising. You also get quickly bored of the talky scenes, static camera setups, and *endless* incidental music.

The biggest issue, however, is Lucy. The film may be called Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing, and Van Helsing is still the ‘hero’ who takes on the evil threat. But the story is *about* Lucy. She’s the vampire’s victim, and yet we barely get to know her. We don’t know who she is, or what she cares about other than she wants to marry Arthur. She falls nebulously ill as soon as the story begins, so straightaway the plot is being driven by John, Arthur and Van Helsing. This is a male-dominated film generally, in fact: the only other women are a maid who barely speaks before being killed, a random woman in the street who doesn’t speak before being killed, and Lucy’s friend Mina who’s kept off-stage until one pointless scene at the end.

This is pretty lamentable in this day and age. Compare with the BBC’s recent take on Dracula, which rebooted Lucy Westenra as a much more interesting woman and based an entire episode around her experience.

Five hallways out of 10

The Monster Squad (1987, Fred Dekker)

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: After a short prologue set in Transylvania ‘one hundred years before this story begins’, we cut to small-town America in the 1980s.

Faithful to the novel? This is a sequel to the events of Stoker’s book – though at the same time, Count Dracula is also a well-known figure in popular culture. Our heroes are a group of young high-school friends who share a love of old monster movies, including those that feature Dracula. Sean (Andrew Gower) is the leader of the gang; they dub themselves the Monster Squad and have a treehouse for secret meetings which is plastered with classic film posters. The other members are Sean’s best friend Patrick (Robby Kiger), a lad called Eugene (Michael Faustino), the chubby Horace (Brent Chalem) and an older teenager, Rudy (Ryan Lambert), who has peeping-tom eyes for Patrick’s sister Lisa (Lisa Fuller). Sean’s younger sister, Phoebe (Ashley Bank), also wants in but Sean is just embarrassed by her.

One day, Sean’s mother (Mary Ellen Trainor) gives him a diary she found in a yard sale – and it turns out to be the diary of the famed vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. (Nice touch, this, acknowledging Bram Stoker’s use of diaries in his novel – though, actually, Van Helsing is one of the few main characters who doesn’t keep one.) The boys ask a seemingly creepy but actually sweet local man (Leonardo Cimino) to translate it into English, and he reveals that the diary details an attempted destruction of Count Dracula in the 19th century. As we saw in a prologue scene, Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) and his colleagues had tried to vanquish the vamp using a special amulet composed of ‘concentrated good’, which once every 100 years has the power to cast demons into a limbo world.

Now, in the 1980s, as Sean and his pals attempt to track down the amulet for this century’s attempt at defeating evil, we also see Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) assemble an Avengers-style supergroup of villains. All have associations from famous horror films: a Mummy (Michael MacKay), the Gill-man (a Creature From the Black Lagoon avatar, played by Tom Woodruff Jr), the Wolf Man (Jonathan Gries when he’s human, Carl Thibault when he’s hairy) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Tom Noonan). Drac also hypnotises three American schoolgirls (Mary Albee, Joan-Carrol Baron and Julie Merrill) into being modern equivalents of his Brides from Stoker’s novel.

Best performance: Andrew Glover is a watchable lead as the proactive, savvy and caring Sean.

Best bit: This film has a love for the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 40s, but it’s not just empty homaging. It’s more playful than that. The script was written by two young filmmakers called Shane Black and Fred Dekker, the latter of whom also directs. (Yes, that’s right: Black and Dekker.) Long-time friends, they’ve worked together on several projects, most recently a pretty poor Predator sequel. Of the two, Black has been the more successful, writing and sometimes directing very enjoyable movies such as Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys. In part, his films are so entertaining because the script is always aware of cliche. Black knows how to introduce a familiar idea or situation… but then pull the postmodern rug from under us, subvert our assumptions and reverse the expectation. In The Monster Squad, we see this storytelling device a number of times. The creepy, old man who lives in a scary house down the road… is actually a nice, decent, helpful guy. The first time the monster-obsessed, bravado-fuelled boys encounter a real bad guy… they run for their lives. And then, in the most cine-literate example, we have the moment when Frankenstein’s Monster encounters a little girl.

When Universal Pictures first adapted Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in 1931, they included a scene where the Monster – newly brought to life by Henry Frankenstein – escapes the laboratory and wanders the countryside. He finds a young girl, who is playing a game by throwing flowers into a lake. But the naive Monster misunderstands what she’s doing and, thinking it’s part of the fun, throws the child into the water. She drowns, which later motivates the local villagers into hunting for the Monster (flaming torches and all) and killing him. The scene was shocking in 1931, so much so that some prints were edited on the whims of local authorities. But it became a standard story beat in the Frankenstein myth.

The Monster Squad plays with that notion brilliantly. This version of the Monster is played by the 6’5″ Tom Noonan, who a year earlier had been an altogether more sinister villain in the Hannibal Lecktor thriller Manhunter. Count Dracula has corralled him into joining his gang… and then the Monster encounters Sean’s young sister, Phoebe, in a forest. We’re primed to think the worse: Phoebe is surely a goner! But no, this Frankenstein’s Monster is actually a reluctant bad guy. He and Phoebe quickly become friends and he even teams up with Sean and co to defeat Dracula. (A vaguely similar gag had appeared in Mel Brooks’ comedy film Young Frankenstein, in which the Monster and the little girl ended up playing on a seesaw together.)

Review: There was a trend in the 1980s for films about smart kids getting into outlandish adventures. There was the 50s-set gem Stand By Me; the science-fiction masterpiece E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; fantasy variations like Labyrinth and The Neverending Story; a classy Australian film called Frog Dreaming; and the madcap and gleefully comedic The Goonies. The spirit of the latter lives strong in The Monster Squad, which likewise centres on a small group of male friends (with a sister/girlfriend roped in too) who head off on a quest that leads to them squaring up to a gang of scary villains. There are other similarities too: both friend groups feature an overweight boy, while actress Mary Ellen Trainor appears in both films as a mother of one of the kids.

Like in The Goonies, the tone here is absolutely spot on. The Monster Squad is not a typical ‘kids film’ – there’s no Disney-style cosiness, but there is a self-aware slant to the dialogue and the characters. Films in the 1980s could did this kind of thing so well. They were able to avoid taking themselves too seriously, but never descend into self-parody either. The Monster Squad is a comedy, sure, but it’s played with authenticity. So the young boys are not Hollywood, sweetness-and-light children – they swear, they lie to their parents, and they criticise each other. To put it another way, the act like normal teenage boys. In constantly lively dialogue – another Shane Black trademark – Sean and his pals bicker about pop culture and swap coarse insults (including some homophobic language which wouldn’t fly today). Even the adult characters are fun, especially a droll policeman investigating Dracula and his cohorts (‘I don’t know if you’re aware of this but we’re going at 100mph,’ he tells a colleague while they drive along. ‘I notice little things like that. I’m a very good policeman’). The film is also decorated around the edges with an epic score and some impressive special effects.

Eight stupidity problems out of 10

The Comic Strip Presents… Mr Jolly Lives Next Door (1988, Stephen Frears)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: Due a misunderstanding, two men who run an escort agency accept a job to ‘take out’ Nicholas Parsons…

Written by: Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall and Rowland Rivron. Directed by: Stephen Frears. Broadcast: 5 March 1988, Channel 4 (after limited cinema screenings in November 1987). Series: 3. Episode: 2.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
Adrian Edmondson (20) and Rik Mayall (14) are the stars of the show – they co-wrote the script and play the craven, grubby, gurning and shrieking owners of Dreamytime Escorts. (We never learn their names.) These are men who will mug a child for his lunch, who brew their own beer with Fairy Liquid added for fizz, and who will vomit on policemen. Dreamytime, a company with a tawdry office above an off-licence, is also a peculiar agency. Rather than offering the traditional female companionship, this pair coerce their customers into paying for drunken nights out. The plot kicks off when the men intercept a message meant for Mr Jolly, the man who has the office next door. The message offers a large amount of cash in return for ‘taking out’ the actor, quiz-show host, radio presenter and general all-round showbiz personality Nicholas Parsons. Tickled by the idea of night on the town with a celebrity, the two men head off to BBC Television Centre and pick up a bemused Parsons… 
* Ian Bartholomew (1), who appears as a copper in the opening scene, later played wife abuser Geoff Metcalfe in Coronation Street. The Dreamytime duo have been called in to identify a dead body – it’s of an old client who was killed in a drunken game.
* Philip Locke (1) is pathologist Sir Larry, who has a fondness for playing with dismembered limbs.
* Thomas Wheatley (1) plays Heimi Henderson, who runs the off-licence beneath Dreamytime HQ. He’s preparing for a grand opening, and has hired Nicholas Parsons as a celebrity guest, but is being hassled by some gangsters who want protection money… The year before Mr Jolly, Wheatley had played a small but memorable role in the Bond movie The Living Daylights.
* Peter Cook (1) offers a seal of approval from a previous comedy generation by guest-starring as Ralph Jolly. Mr Jolly occupies the office next door to Dreamytime and is a permanently angry contract killer who spends his days carving victims up into bloody chunks of flesh… A gangster employs Jolly to kill Nicholas Parsons, in order to ruin Heimi’s grand opening event, but the instructions and the payment are intercepted by the Dreamytime pair who misunderstand what ‘take him out’ means… Cook wasn’t what you’d call a naturalistic actor, especially if unexcited by the material (check out his dead-behind-the-eyes performance in Supergirl, for example). But here he has a full-bloodied commitment to his grotesque character.
* Basil Ho Yen (1) is Japanese businessman Mr Yakimoto, a victim of Dreamytime’s habit of draining customers’ pockets. (‘Another French bastard,’ snarls Mayall’s character when he hears the guy’s name.)
* Co-writer Roland Rivron (4) has an uncredited cameo as a barman, and also appears as a musician in a nightclub scene. He also provided the film’s music score with Simon Brint.
* Harriet Thorpe (2) appears very briefly as Brenda, a landlady who kicks the escorts out of a ‘traditional old English pub’.
* Jennifer Saunders (20) plays a waitress in Neon Tepee, a Native American-themed night club – it’s one of the smallest roles of her career. Monica dresses like a Hollywood Pocahontas and is clearly bored with her job. She has an envelope for Mr Jolly, so asks the Dreamytime men to pass it on. They instead open it, find £3000 and spend the cash on booze.
* Michael Cule (1) and Dawn French (20) appear in one scene as Mr and Mrs Cooper, a middle-aged couple who have won an evening out with Nicholas Parsons in a competition. However, on their way to meet him at the BBC, the Coopers’ microcar is knocked off the road by the Dreamytime Escorts van and they’re both killed in an explosion.
* Nicholas Parsons (1) is a great sport, playing himself and being the terrified straight man in the middle of all the chaos. (The actor had form for this kind of thing: his big break had come in the 1950s as the straight man to comedian Arthur Haynes.) He’s been employed to be the star guest at Heimi’s grand opening, but then a bounty is put on his head. He also has to spend an evening with two winners of a competition – the Coopers don’t show up, however, and he assumes the Dreamytime men are the winners. Unsure, he nevertheless takes the men for a meal at the Dorchester – where one of them sets fire to his farts – then they all go back to Nicholas’s house, where his drinks cabinet is raided and his furniture broken.
* Peter Richardson (21) plays the softly spoken gangster, Mr Lovebucket, a dappy gent with a New Romantic haircut whose biggest love in life is his cherished Citroën DS. He has several goons played by Gerard Kelly (2), Gordon Kane (2), Basil Otoin (1) and Granville Saxton (1). After his message for Jolly gets waylaid, he finds the Dreamytime pair and intimidates them into murdering Nicholas Parsons… Eventually, all the characters end up back at the Dreamytime office building for a climax of death, destruction, violence and explosions.

Best bit: There are several contenders, from the fact the crew managed to film a scene outside the actual 10 Downing Street to the sheer poetry of Adrian Edmondson’s line, ‘Never ever bloody anything ever.’ But the moment when Rik Mayall does a graceful pratfall out of a first-storey window takes some beating. As a piece of majestic physical comedy, it’s up there with Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther films.

Review: ‘Insanity is a very high art form,’ Rik Mayall once said. ‘If everyone was insane, I wouldn’t be here.’ Able to combine anarchy with archness, mania with maudlin, immaturity with intelligence, Mayall was a unique performer: there really was no one quite like him. Of all the members of the Comic Strip troupe, he was perhaps blessed with the most talent and had the biggest impact on the general public (certainly in the 1980s). Ever since his death from a heart attack on 9 June 2014, the world has been a noticeably poorer place. We’ve missed his exhilarating spirit and his peerless ability to create comedy that was uncompromising, confrontational – and yet never cruel.

In the early days of the Comic Strip club, according to Jennifer Saunders, Mayall was treated as the ‘golden boy of comedy’, with everyone aware of his potential. Dawn French has added, ‘He had the most attention, deservedly so, because he was not only hilarious, but also quite beautiful with the clearest, hugest eyes and the most expressive face.’ As the team’s success grew, Mayall was *the* frontrunner. As well as his work with the Comic Strip and with comedy partner Ade Edmondson, he co-created, co-wrote and starred in the sitcom The Young Ones; found solo success with his nerdy comedy character Kevin Turvey; played small roles in cult movies Shock Treatment and An American Werewolf in London; guest-starred in other comedians’ TV shows such as Wood and Walters, Whoops Apocalypse, The Lenny Henry Show, Cannon and Ball, and Blackadder; and headlined ITV sitcom The New Statesman.

This dazzling activity actually prevented Mayall from appearing in as many Comic Strip projects as Edmondson, Saunders, French and Peter Richardson. But he was far from alone in carving out a separate career. The Comic Strip was a proving ground and, as the 80s developed, many members started to get their own TV series. French and Saunders’ sketch show began in 1987, for example, while Alexei Sayle’s started in 1988. And after two series of The Young Ones, Mayall, Edmondson and Nigel Planer teamed up again for the surreal and untamed 1987 sitcom Filthy, Rich & Catflap.

For Mayall and Edmondson, Filthy, Rich & Catflap was, essentially, a continuation of previous work. Their roles as out-of-work actor Richie Rich and his minder Eddie Catflap were not a million dead milkmen away from either The Young Ones’ deluded poet Rick and punk student Vyvyen or the actors’ live-show comedy act The Dangerous Brothers. All these characters had penchants for violence, vomit-humour and vulgarity; there was a gleeful childishness as knob gags alternated with cartoonish fighting. Having worked together since the mid 1970s, Mayall and Edmondson had the most amazing chemistry and timing – as a powerhouse combination, they were able to create high-energy, hilarious comedy and make it look *effortless*.

All of this feeds into Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, which the stars co-wrote with their friend Rowland Rivron. The men who run Dreamytime Escorts are older versions of Rik and Vyvyen; or Richie and Eddie without the notoriety; or the Dangerous Brothers if they had a job. They are unrelentingly odd characters, without any obvious redeeming features. They’re selfish, ignorant, rude, dirty, grubby, hyperactive, pervy alcoholics – and yet, because of Mayall and Edmondson, we kinda like them and we side with them when the gangsters come calling. Much like the actors’ previous co-written Comic Strip film, Dirty Movie, what also impresses about Mr Jolly is the plotting. It would have been so easy for the characters’ ramshackle tone to be carried over to the scripting, but in fact this story is tightly constructed so that a network of characters continually cross paths in entertaining ways.

Nine Tom Jones songs out of 10

Next: My Comic Strip Presents… reviews take a short mid-year break and will return with The Yob on 4 July 2021

The Comic Strip Presents… More Bad News (1988, Adrian Edmondson)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: Five years after being featured in a fly-on-the-wall documentary, the heavy metal band Bad News reunite for a one-off gig…

Written and directed by: Adrian Edmondson. Broadcast: 27 February 1988, Channel 4. Series: 3. Episode: 2.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Adrian Edmondson (19), who wrote and directed this follow-up to 1983’s Bad News Tour, reprises his role as Bad News leader Vim Fuego (real name Alan Metcalfe). We learn that the metal group had some success after their appearance in a Channel 4 documentary, but then split up after six months. Now, a new documentary is bringing them back together… Before the idea of reunion came along, Vim had been working as a painter/decorator and playing some low-key gigs in wine bars. He’s also become metaphysical and can now talk to dead rock stars. John Lennon has been kind enough to help him with a suspiciously familiar-sounding piano ballad called Imogen.
* Peter Richardson (20) plays drummer Spider Webb, who since Bad News’s split has settled down, got married and had kids. The four former members of the band meet up at an Indian restaurant, where Spider insists on ordering 100 pints of lager. (Channel 4 are paying, after all.) But the reunion often descends into drunken arguments, with some members arrested for fighting and some ending up in hospital.
* Nigel Planer (14) is rhythm guitarist Den Dennis, who has been working for Vim’s painting/decorating business. He’s just finished a job on Corsica Street when he pops round to Vim’s and realises that a camera crew are making a new documentary. After the reformed group have released a single, Den and the others attempt to buy some copies in a record shop. They eventually purchase all they can afford (347 copies), which inadvertently gets them disqualified from the charts – but not before Den gets embarrassed by the name of their record label: Frilly Pink.
* Rik Mayall (13) again plays bassist Colin Grigson. Colin, who sees himself as the Keith Moon of the band, lies that after the group split up he hung around with punks, dyed his hair various colours and almost had a drugs overdose. In fact, he went back to college and is now a bank clerk. When he’s ambushed by the film crew, he’s in a business suit and has short hair so nervously claims to be his own twin brother, Trevor, then sneaks off to get his heavy-metal wig. Later, when Bad News are in the studio, Colin quits after Vim makes another crack about his poor bass-playing… but sheepishly returns because he’s under contract.
* Jennifer Saunders (19) is back as Sally Friedman, the ‘so-called rock journalist extraordinaire and self-confessed rock’n’roll addict’. She’s hosting the new documentary about the group, trying to find out why they split and arranging for a reunion gig at their old stomping ground (a pub called The Flying Horse).
* Jools Holland (2) appears as himself in a clip supposedly from the 24 January 1983 edition of Channel 4 music show The Tube. (In fact, The Tube wasn’t on that night. The scene has been staged especially for this film.) Bad News mime along chaotically to their hit, also called Bad News, then Jools attempts an interview. But the group just bicker and snipe at each other.
* Judy Hawkins (2) plays Spider’s laid-back wife; she’s the same woman we saw with Spider in the prevous Bad News film.
* Unlike the other main cast members, Dawn French (19) has a new character this time. She stars as Rachel, a rep from record company Frilly Pink who stitches up the over-eager group with a pernicious contract that’ll earn them practically nothing. She then announces that she’s landed them a prestige slot at the mega, open-air festival Monsters of Rock…
* Anthony Head (2) has a minor role as Bad News’s new producer.
* Gerard Kelly (1) is the exasperated director trying to make the band’s first music video. The video, for the song Warriors of Genghis Khan, is overblown, crass and sexist in the stereotypical style of heavy metal.
* The sequence at the Monsters of Rock festival features several celebrity cameos. DJ Tommy Vance (1) introduces Bad News on stage, while we see talking-head interviews with Marillion singer Fish (1), Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott (1) and Phil Collen (1), Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne (1), Rudolf Schenker from the band Scorpions (1) and Motörhead’s Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor (1) and Lemmy (2). All of them are extremely critical of Bad News.

Best bit: After the fictional band’s successful debut in 1983’s Bad News Tour, the actors felt there was more potential in the idea. So they jumped at the chance when they were invited to perform – in character as Bad News – at the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington. Playing in front of 60,000 metal fans on 16 August 1986 was, remarkably, the band’s first ever live gig. Also on the bill that day were Def Leppard, performing for the first time since drummer Rick Allen lost an arm in a car accident, and German band Warlock, who became the festival’s first act with a female singer.

Bad News’s Castle Donington set was filmed by the Comic Strip Presents crew and forms the climax of this sequel film. It’s prefaced by a sequence of the band driving up to Leicestershire in a battered old van they’ve rebranded Beast (‘Very metal, very heavy, very Bad News,’ smirks Vim). Then, after finally getting past security at the gate and soaking up the atmosphere of such a massive venue, Bad News take to the stage… Dodging bottles of piss being thrown by an unremitting audience who were in on the joke and keen to cause havoc, the group launch into a performance of the song Bad News. Reality and fiction are blurring enjoyably here – the characters attempt to seize their moment in the sun, while the actors play up for the cameras and the crowd. Rik Mayall falls over and loses his bass, Peter Richardson smashes up his drum kit, Adrian Edmondson gamely tries to be the confident frontman, Nigel Planer looks bemused.

Review: More than a year after the broadcast of the first Bad News film, a competitor appeared on the scene with the release of Rob Reiner’s movie This Is Spinal Tap. Spinal Tap covered notably similar ground to Bad News Tour – both are fly-on-the-wall satires of naive British metal bands – and its success soon eclipsed the Comic Strip team’s efforts. Some people down the years have even assumed Bad News was derivative, despite coming first. Adrian Edmondson, the driving force behind Bad News, joked in 2018 that, ‘It was a really, really funny film, but why the fuck did it have to happen just after our film? Couldn’t they have held off for five years?!’

But the similarities didn’t end with 1983’s Bad News Tour and 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap. Both fictional bands have also had lives outside of their debut films. The actors behind Tap – Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer – have reformed sporadically for new albums and gigs, even playing at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992. Bad News, meanwhile, used the Castle Donington appearance as a springboard for a new phase of activity. They played a handful of other gigs in 1986/87 and also recorded an eponymous debut album, which was released in October 1987.  

Life began to imitate art. Edmondson and Mayall have both talked about how their characters’ disagreements sometimes crept into reality, with the *actors* as well as the characters getting tetchy with each other over sound levels and the like. But perhaps art was also imitating art… Roughly concurrently with their time in Bad News, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer were enjoying huge success with their characters from the BBC sitcom The Young Ones. Like with Bad News, they even took them out on tour and recording a single (with Cliff Richard). In 1988’s More Bad News, we can maybe detect the two groups merging slightly. The trio’s performances and the group dynamics are now much closer to The Young Ones’ Rick, Vyvyne and Neil – a bit more anarchic, a bit more childish, a bit more violent. And, while still very funny, a tiny bit less fresh.

Eight winos, junkies and just general, all-round fuck-ups out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… Mr Jolly Lives Next Door

I Had a Bloody Good Time at House Harker (2016, Clayton Cogswell)

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: We see flashbacks to 1912, the 1970s and the 80s, as well as some short scenes in Romania, but this low-budget horror comedy is mostly set in the modern day in the US town of Leechwood. (The production was largely based in Wisconsin, but also shot in California when hit by some adverse weather conditions up north.)

Faithful to the novel? As we start, Count Dracula is dead, vanquished by Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker, Van Helsing and their colleagues – in other words, this is a sequel to the events of Stoker’s book. However, in 1912, Jonathan, Mina and their young son are hunted down in American by a new vampire king… We then cut to the 21st century, where the Harkers’ great-great-grandsons and a pal are restaging this century-old encounter with costumes, Heath Robinson special effects and dramatic music.

The modern-day Harkers are brothers Charlie (Noel Carroll) and Gerry (Jacob Givens), while their friend, Ned Morris (Derek Haugen), is presumably descended from book character Quincey Morris. They now run the historic Harker house as a tourist attraction and are workshopping a piece of theatre which they hope will cash in on the family’s vampiric connection. However, the woman from the authority that awarded them a grant of $50,000 is angry that the house is in a state of disrepair. She orders them to pay the money back within a week.

Gerry also has hopes that his acting career is about to take off. He’s recently starred in a soppy TV movie (the ‘Billy Elliot of baton-twirling films’) but is down-heartened when its trailer is ridiculed by punters in his local bar. Charlie, meanwhile, is a troubled soul who always carries a pencil with him as a kind of security-blanket substitute. Also in the mix is the brothers’ sister, Paige (Whitney Moore), who is getting married to a local cop called Wayne (Nathan Lorch). This causes great distress for Ned because he’s been in love with her for a very long time.

While the men worry about how to save their business, a serial killer breaks into House Harker looking for victims! Despite being terrified, Gerry, Ned and Charlie accidentally kill the madman before he attacks them, but in cleaning up the mess and disposing the body, then unintentionally make him look like the victim of a vampire. Before the boys know it, the local area is awash with rumours and media coverage about bloodsuckers, and they realise this will do their business a world of good. So Gerry calls an actor friend called Tanner (Damian Beurer) and asks him to come to town to pose as a vampire… Meanwhile, however, a real vamp has been awoken in Romania – and is drawn to Leechwood by Dracula’s skull, which has been in the Harker family’s possession for over a century.

Best performance: It’s impossible to split the three leads, who work so well as a team. All three actors had behind-the-scenes roles – Carroll and Haugen are credited with the original story, while Caroll was also a producer and post-production supervisor; Givens wrote the screenplay – and have worked together often on the comedy YouTube channel GoodCopsTV. That familiarity and trust is clearly evident in their performances as Charlie, Gerry and Ned. The characters are extreme and hyper, but there’s also genuine pathos here. These men are likeable and so is their relationship.

In fact, they often remind you of another trio of male friends from a supernatural film – the all-time classic Ghostbusters. The sensitive, thoughtful, off-kilter Charlie is the equivalent of Harold Ramis’s Egon Spengler; the ambitious, optimistic Gerry resembles Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stanz; while the impulsive, ramshackle yet ultimately romantic Ned is House Harker’s version of Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman. Also, Paige fulfils a similar role to Ghostbusters’ Dana (Sigourney Weaver) – an outsider to a degree, but neither an idiot nor a character who has no agency in the story.

In her enjoyable book on 80s cinema, Life Moves Pretty Fast, the journalist Hadley Freeman writes about Ghostbusters representing ‘an ideal of masculinity’. She argues that a big reason for this is the authentic friendship between Egon, Ray and Peter. They may tease each other, and disagree, but they’re friends at the start of the story and remain friends throughout. There’s no ‘over-compensation of macho-ness, no competitive banter… no cruelty’; neither is their gang treated as something ‘special that needs to be protected from all outsiders who threaten it – namely, women’. (This fuss-free security was mirroring real life: the story goes that Bill Murray barely read the script before agreeing to star in Ghostbusters, so much did he trust co-writers Aykroyd and Ramis.) It’s the same with I Had a Bloody Good Time at House Harker, which creates plenty of comedy and as well as some genuine emotion without ever losing sight of the fact that Charlie, Gerry and Ned are friends for reasons.

Best bit: I’m tempted to say ‘all of it,’ such was the buzz of excitement I felt at discovering this gem of a movie. Contenders for the most impressive element include the gleeful instances of Evil Dead II-style, tongue-in-cheek violence; a scene in a cafe where Paige sticks up for her bullied older brother; a soppy author who writes bland vampire books being killed *horrifically*; an innovative camera shot that spins round 360 degrees to dramatise someone being ‘head over heels’ in love; and the way the complicated action climax is seeded very early on. But we must make a fuss about the filmmaking style, which is fun, lively, dynamic, witty and exciting. Your current blogger has, for his sins, sat through dozens of Dracula-related movies. Many, many, many of them show almost no ambition when it comes to cinematic tools. For whatever reason – budget, schedule, lack of talent – they tell their stories like recorded stage plays, quickly filming with a handheld camera and harsh lighting. House Harker, however, is very different.

A huge influence must be Edgar Wright. (If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.) The stylistic devices he uses so well in films such as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz crop up here too: whip-pans, fantasy sequences, comic cutaways, slickly constructed montages where shots filmed on different locations match perfectly in the edit. The whole film sings with a comedic rhythm that doesn’t occur naturally; it has to be planned, discussed, decided upon, embedded into the writing, the playing, the camerawork and the editing. An enormous amount of work has gone into making this film so enjoyable.

Review: Wholly unexpectedly, this film is an absolute treat – joyful and absurd in the very best ways. The creative team have spoken about wanting to make something ‘silly but heartfelt’ and that’s precisely what they achieved – a comedy horror that’s funny and charming and features some thoroughly enjoyable blood-splattering. I Had a Bloody Good Time… is made with a genuine sharpness. Every scene has tautness and pace and never gets close to being boring. Wonderful.

Nine Satanic sons of bitches out of 10

The Comic Strip Presents… The Strike (1988, Peter Richardson)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: A writer finds his screenplay about the recent miners’ strike compromised during filming…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Peter Richardson. Broadcast: 20 February 1988, Channel 4. Series: 3. Episode: 1.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Like several of her colleagues, Dawn French (18) plays multiple roles here, à la a Monty Python project. As well as a Welsh pensioner, an old crone in a tavern and the singer Cher – it’s that type of film – she appears mostly as a character called Verity. Verity is the personal assistant to a brash American film producer who’s bought a script called Strike, which is based on a notorious period of British history… In 1984, the trade union leader Arthur Scargill had initiated a major industrial action, essentially attempting to close down the UK’s coal production as a protest against planned pit closures. The strike wasn’t supported by everyone – some miners continued to work – and there were violent clashes with police, sent in by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Soon after being declared illegal (there’d been no national vote on the issue), the strike ended in 1985 and the union’s power was diminished
* Keith Allen (6) also has several parts. In the opening scene, he’s a film executive who suggests the Bronx-raised Method actor Al Pacino should play Barnsley-born socialist Arthur Scargill in Strike. Later, Allen appears as a camp actor, an architect, and – during a scene set at an Oscars-like awards ceremony – Jack Nicholson.
* Nigel Planer (13) plays a couple of other minor roles too (including a miner), but his chief character is film director Bernard. ‘He’s a champagne socialist,’ Planer told TV Times in 1988, referring to the character’s hypocrisy: he may wear Soviet symbols on his pastel suit and talk a good talk, but he drives a BMW convertible and has a car phone. Bernard says he wants to make an authentic film about the plight of the miners, and that he’ll protect the script from studio interference, but then the first time he pushes back he’s paid off and fired.
* Robbie Coltrane (12) is the loudmouthed and uncouth movie mogul Goldie, who thinks Strike will do great box-office business in the states. His company, Golden Pictures, have made their name with ‘violent sex films’ but now want a prestige project. Nevertheless, Goldie can’t help but dumb-down Strike’s script, even suggesting that it should include a mining disaster. He also casts Meryl Streep – a part has to be created for her, but she’s ‘available in July’… Later, Coltrane also plays a nasty coal miner in Strike and Marlon Brando at the awards ceremony.
Alexei Sayle (3) plays Paul, the idealistic, working-class writer behind Strike. Travelling from his Welsh home to London, Paul hooks up with Bernard, but the pair encounter problems when Goldie insists on severe changes to the script. Full of doubt, Paul decides to remain on board after getting a £25,000 fee… Sayle had shied away from Comic Strip projects since the group moved on from their Soho club days – this is actually his first role in the group’s TV series – but he’s very appropriate casting. Dawn French once said that Sayle was the only genuinely political member of the Comic Strip gang, and he brings a lot of authentic anguish to the role. We believe in Paul and his frustrations with the plastic Hollywood machinery.
* Adrian Edmondson (18) plays three minor roles, including Strike’s bearded art director who laments all the double glazing in the Welsh village being used as a filming location. So he decides to style the movie as if it were the 1930s and redresses a videoshop as a blacksmiths. (In reality, the village was near Merthyr Tydfil. ‘I thought there would be resentment over us making a funny film about the strike,’ Robbie Coltrane has said. ‘But the people were fantastic – they aren’t bitter at all.’)
* Peter Richardson (19) had a busy time on this project: as well as co-writing and directing, he plays the major role of Al Pacino – and, of course, Pacino playing Arthur Scargill in the footage we see of Strike. (Why Al Pacino? The gag is a bit of free association – Pacino starred in the 1983 film Scarface, so here he is playing Scargill.) Upon arriving in Wales, Pacino objects to his grand hotel and instead insists on having a local woman evicted from her cottage. He researches his role by reading a book called Socialism for Beginners, but doesn’t like the fact that Scargill is a loser so arranges for the Strike script to be rewritten with a happy ending. He also campaigns behind the scenes to have his co-star’s dialogue minimised… Richardson (36 at the time) does an incredible job as Pacino (who was 47). It’s part impression, of course, full of the errs and umms and mumbles and furtive glances that Pacino had used in so many fine films. But it’s also scathing pastiche.
* Derren Nesbitt (2) plays Pacino’s put-upon chauffeur.
* Kevin Allen (5) has various one-scene roles.
* Steven O’Donnell (1), amongst other characters, plays Gerry – a slovenly, crass, American director who takes over the filming of Strike after Bernard is fired. ‘Goddamn union bastards, can’t stand ’em,’ is his view of his subject matter.
* Jennifer Saunders (18) appears as Meryl Streep, who play Scargill’s wife in the film within a film. Streep arrives at her Welsh hotel with a crate of oranges, then we see her marking up her script with little drawings of the fruit. Later, while filming a scene for Strike, Pacino objects angrily to her peeling one, clearly annoyed that it will draw attention away from his performance. This joke is a complex nexus of references. While writing the script, Peter Richardson had remembered reading in Time Out magazine that Meryl Streep had a reputation for using props to upstage other actors, specifically by peeling an orange. The fruit also links back to The Godfather films, in which Al Pacino had played Michael Corleone. That series uses oranges as a visual motif – they often appear on screen just before a death. No wonder Al’s so spooked… Saunders, who is nine years younger than Streep, is tremendous casting. She has always had a remarkable ability to morph into other people, and this role is no different. And it wasn’t the last time she impersonated Streep: in 2019, Jen spoofed the star’s role in the musical film Mamma Mia! for a Comic Relief sketch.
* Rik Mayall (12) appears in two minor roles in the film within a film: a hunchback in a pub and the Speaker of the House of Commons. The actor was used to comedy scenes in a fake House of Commons – the previous year his Whitehall sitcom The New Statesman had begun on ITV. It’s a shame that Mayall doesn’t appear more in The Strike, but he was especially keen to be involved. ‘We dropped everything to be in that film,’ he said once.
* Kat Mansoor (1), then a child actor and now a documentary producer, plays Arthur’s daughter, Tammy.
* Michael White (7) appears in the awards scene. (By the way, mention is made of them being ‘the Motion Picture Academy Awards’, but the venue is plastered with Bafta logos.)
* Ronald Allen (5) plays the Prime Minister in Strike.
* Daniel Peacock (9) and co-writer Pete Richens (2) appear as workmen.

Best bit: The opening third of this hour-long film is a behind-the-scenes story, following noble writer Paul and confident director Bernard as they try to maintain their vision in the face of Goldie and Pacino’s idiotic whims. But after 23 minutes, we change tact – and we start to see lengthy clips from the film everyone is making. The intercutting is excellent, allowing us to essentially follow both the ‘real’ and the ‘fictional’ stories at the same time – it’s a deft piece of writing. We also, of course, understand just how awful the movie Strike has become…

Paul’s fervent, hard-hitting script has had its heart cut out, and the end result is stunningly hackneyed, sickeningly patronising and enormously unrealistic. Populated by characters with American accents who live in a Hollywood-filtered, ye-olde world of taverns and cottages, the film has rebooted Arthur Scargill as part romantic lead, part action hero, while the permanently dirty miners are now stock movie villains who hang around in sinister gangs. Things climax with Scargill making an impassioned speech in parliament. Absurd, extreme, sensationalist, all this stuff will strike a chord with anyone who’s seen Hollywood films that take American-biased liberties with British history.

Review: In her autobiography, Dawn French writes about Peter Richardson. ‘He didn’t really seem to have watched telly, so he didn’t have the same references as the rest of us,’ she says of her long-time colleague. ‘His natural ability for parody was film-based.’ This may explain why The Strike – perhaps the most famous of all Comic Strip films – is a scalpel-sharp satire of movieland excess. Well versed in cinema form, culture and history, Richardson here knows exactly how far to push the central joke – to the extremes, certainly, but not so far that the hamfisted approach stops being funny. The film was lauded right away, winning the Rose d’Or television award for 1988. (Reportedly, Peter Richardson gave the $5,000 prize money to Arthur Scargill.) It’s very easy to see why. There’s a supreme confidence on show, in the writing, in the staging, in the performing, in the commitment to the gag. Marvellous.

Nine drugs and a panty raid out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… More Bad News

Every Star Wars film – ranked

To celebrate this year’s May the 4th, here are all the live-action Star Wars films in my order of preference.

14. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
I first saw this infamous TV movie on a pirated video about 20 years ago. I’d heard it was awful and misjudged and corny. What I hadn’t realised, however, was just how *boring* the thing is. Not even a cartoon interlude, a cameo from Bea Arthur and the notorious moment when Carrie Fisher sings the Star Wars theme tune can prevent this being 90 of the most tedious minutes you can spend.

13. Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984)
When I was a Star Wars-loving child, my passion was facilitated by VHS. Born in 1979, I grew up with a video recorder at home and was allowed to rent one tape per week from our local video shop. So when I spotted a movie all about Ewoks, I assumed it was a bona fide Star Wars adventure. The fact that Luke, Han, Leia and the rest were absent didn’t seem to matter. Watching it now, I can see it’s pretty tatty stuff – a cash-in TV movie that was given a cinema release in the UK.

12. Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985)
Better than the first Ewok film by a couple of notches, the sequel is more in keeping with those kids films of the 1980s that weren’t afraid to be a bit spooky – like Return to Oz, Labyrinth and The Goonies.

11. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Oh, Phantom Menace. Because of my age, this was actually the first new Star Wars film I saw at the cinema. I went with my mate Will Haywood and we picked a Monday morning screening, hoping it would be quieter. (It was.) The film had been released in America a few months beforehand – remember when blockbusters had that kind of delay? – and we’d all heard about the poor reviews. Nevertheless, on that day in August 1999 I enjoyed the experience very much indeed. Then the bias and expectation faded away, and so did the film’s lustre. You know what, though: I don’t think it’s *all* bad. Liam Neeson’s quite fun. The design work is spectacular. Darth Maul, though underused, is great. And of course there’s John Williams’s score. However, the script is still utterly appalling – both in terms of its story construction and in the way it’s told – while there are cast members who just aren’t good enough.

10. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
The bar wasn’t set very high – be better than The Phantom Menace! – and Attack of the Clones only just cleared it. This is a more impressive movie, thanks to a meatier plot, more jeopardy, a touch of darkness and some successful comedy. I also like Obi-Wan Kenobi going off on a film-noir subplot, while the Yoda-gets-out-his-lightsaber scene has always struck me as joyful. But all that has to be balanced against yet more terrible writing and acting, most notably in Padme and Anakin’s anus-scrapingly horrible romantic scenes. Also, the swathes of videogame special effects certainly have an effect but don’t leave you feeling special.

9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
There’s no other Star Wars film where the critical consensus leaves me so bewildered. Many, many people adore this film, but I just can’t see what they see. For me, Rogue One is a muddled mess. The lead character is cold and unlikeable, and she gets dragged along by events rather than trying to achieve things. The whole story is built on explaining away a minor plot hole from the 1977 movie. Some of the cast seem bored and lifeless. And it was a mistake to use CGI to recreate a long-dead actor. Admittedly, it’s not all bad news – the film ramps up the excitement levels in the final act, while some of the supporting characters are fun. But this grim, humourless film doesn’t seem very Star Wars-ish to me. Feels more in keeping with the spin-off novels that have flourished since the 1990s, books that focus on mythology and continuity at the expense of derring-do.

8. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Hmm. The expectation was enormous, of course, as this was the much-heralded finale to the nine-film symphony of Star Wars ‘episodes’. Shame it wasn’t better, really. Whereas the finest Star Wars is free-spirited, buccaneering and driven by storytelling clarity, this film reeks have having been churned up by a committee with short attention spans. Let’s have a Lando cameo! Let’s give Poe a girlfriend! Let’s ignore plot threads from the previous film! Elements are thrown in willy-nilly. There are too many characters, some without any real purpose. Following the central plot is like watching a game of snakes-and-ladders – it all feels arbitrary and is made up of short-term tasks rather than character development. Even worse is the plethora of cloying continuity references. Nevertheless, I did have a lovely evening the night I saw this film at the cinema. I went with my pal/colleague Fraser Dickson (he and I have been to see all the Disney-era Star Warses together). As excited as we were to finally complete the Skywalker nonagon, the movie came a distant second to the lovely meal we’d had beforehand at the pub owned by Ian McKellen in Limehouse.

7. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
This one also felt huge at the time – in those pre-Disney days, it seemed fairly certain that this would be the last ever Star Wars film. Given the significance, I was thrilled to be able to see it in special circumstances. Not only did I go to the first screening on the first morning of the film’s general release (10.10am on Thursday 19 May 2005), but the venue was the grand and storied Odeon Leicester Square. My friend Simon Guerrier had arranged the tickets and we took our seats in the packed house with some nervousness. When the film began, and the caption ‘A long time ago…’ came up, someone shouted out, ‘I’ve seen this one!’ which broke the tension brilliantly. In the cold light of day, you wouldn’t call Revenge of the Sith a ‘great’ film. But it is a good one. Easily the best of the prequel trilogy, the movie succeeds because it’s a tragedy. There’s an inevitability that hangs over the whole thing, and we watch on helplessly as events spiral out of control.

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
It’s fair to say that The Last Jedi has divided opinion, right? Some people have *lambasted* it, while others have called it the best of the series. My feelings have wavered a bit over the last three and a half years. In the cinema, I felt underwhelmed – there were plenty of elements I’d loved, but I kept thinking about all the things that don’t work. The half of the story featuring Poe, Leia, Finn and new character Rose had so many flaws – bad pacing, characters keeping things secret for no reason, an irritating diversion to a CGI casino planet – that I came away a bit sad. However, a few months later, a rewatch improved things and allowed me to focus on the great stuff. Every scene with Luke, Rey and/or Kylo is absolutely terrific, feeling both Star Warsian and daringly fresh at the same time. The whole movie has momentum and bags of fun, while the action is great. It’s not my favourite film directed by Rian Johnson – go Knives Out! – but The Last Jedi is a lot better than I’d first given it credit.

5. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
I can probably specify the very moment I became a film geek. As a young child – about six, say – I was already keen on watching rented VHSs again and again. Two series that I loved seeing were the Star Wars trilogy and the two Indiana Joneses that existed at that point. These films seemed the epitome of excitement. And while this may be my rose-tinted mind playing tricks on me, I believe I can remember realising that Han Solo and Indiana Jones were played by the same actor. It was an epiphany; I felt like I’d uncovered an amazing truth that had evaded everyone else. This realisation only increased the appeal of both Han Solo, already the coolest character in all of popular culture, and Harrison Ford. So when, more than 30 years later, the part was *recast* for a prequel, I felt a pang of anxiety. How dare they even try?! This is stomping over sacred ground. However… I was wrong. While obviously not topping the original, Alden Ehrenreich gives a tremendous performance as the young Han. It’s all there: the swashbuckling heroics, the playful cheek, the romantic streak, the hubris and failure. But because this is a younger Han, he’s more optimistic and idealistic. The film itself is also a marvel. A science-fiction Western-cum-heist movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story rattles along with a huge amount of panache and joie de vivre. *Very* Star Wars.

4. Return of the Jedi (1983)
I don’t think I’m in a minority when I say that Return of the Jedi is my least favourite of the original trilogy. But unlike many, this has nothing to do with Ewoks! I first saw this film at a young age, so they’ve never bothered me. No, I think it’s just a slight sense of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ – a feeling not helped by the repetition of having a second Death Star to attack. But this is still a 10-out-of-10 film: thrilling, exciting, very entertaining. When I was watching it endlessly as a kid, I was always bored by the grown-up, talky stuff between Luke and the Emperor, but those scenes are now some of my favourites. And speaking of drama that flies over the heads of a youngster, I now think Return of the Jedi has the most moving line of dialogue in all of Star Wars. When Luke pleads with Darth Vader to ‘search his feelings’ and realise there’s still good inside him, Vader says softly, ‘It’s too late for me, son.’ Oof! What a brilliant bit of writing. Those six words justify the entire six-film Anakin/Vader story arc. Meanwhile, the Death Star assault still stands as one of the most impressive special-effects sequences ever filmed – after nearly 40 years, the model work is still better than anything seen in a modern Marvel superhero flick.

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
My single favourite moment from any film ever made is in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s the final scene. The character of Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally tracked down the long-missing Luke Skywalker. She lands the Millennium Falcon on a rocky, deserted island and slowly begins to climb up to the top of a huge hill. John Williams’s score swirls and dances around, building tension and mystery. Then Rey crests the hill and sees a figure in the middle distance. The man has his back to us, his head covered by a hood. He turns, cautiously, then pulls down his hood. We see his grey beard and straggly hair and world-weary eyes.… In this moment I had completely forgotten I was a 36-year-old sitting in a cinema. For a few seconds, I was totally ‘in’ the fiction. The man wasn’t the actor Mark Hamill in costume and make-up and standing under movie lights; it was the Jedi knight LUKE SKYWALKER, a hero of both the Rebellion and my childhood. I don’t know how else to explain it – for a beat or two, the notion that this was a film had faded away. Bear in mind that – brilliantly – no images of Luke had been used in the trailers or posters or advance publicity. So there was an unexpected *vividness* to seeing Luke again. It seemed so real. To be honest, even without this moment, I would still love this film utterly. My mate Fraser and I went on the first evening of the general release, but there’d been screenings since midnight the night before. So after a day of avoiding social media and spoilers, we headed up to a gorgeous Everyman cinema in central London full of nerves. Two hours later, we walked back out onto Baker Street in a daze. The Force Awakens is *stunning*. Great storytelling, compelling characters, slick action, winning comedy, a reverence for what’s gone before but a willingness to push things deeper. Profoundly wonderful.

2. Star Wars (1977)
I don’t remember my first viewing of the original Star Wars. You may as well ask me to recall my first night at home after being born. I would have been about five years old, watching a rented VHS at home, so the film has essentially always been in my life. As a child, I saw it so many times that at one point I was able to show off to school friends by reciting the entire script (at least until they got bored and told me to stop). These days, I only go back to it every few years, but – like with any great movie – Star Wars always works, always draws me in, always entertains me. But why? What’s so special? Many people have pointed towards the mythological underpinnings – all that Joseph Campbell stuff about story arcs – and that’s certainly a big factor. There’s a noble young hero, a wise old mentor, a dressed-in-black villain, a princess that needs rescuing, a roguish sidekick, comedy characters, henchman, battles, challenges, sacrifices and quests. But if Star Wars were *just* these cliches, we wouldn’t still be talking about the film now. What George Lucas and his team did was imbue the whole thing with pace, momentum, fun and *heart*. Above all else, Star Wars is exciting. The lead cast perfectly understand the tone, playing it sincere but not po-faced, while the filmmaking craft – the sets, the costumes, the special effects, the incidental music – creates a fascinating fictional world that feels like it stretches off into infinity.

1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back takes everything that had worked in the first movie, improves it, then adds more. There’s still the exuberance and flamboyance, the action and comedy, the sense of adventure and the battle between good and evil. But this first sequel – surely one of the best sequels ever made – also adds new environments, new threats, new characters (first appearance Yoda makes) and a new, more dynamic visual style. Crucially, the film also deepens the emotions and complicates the subtext. As I child I was always fascinated by the sequence on Dagobah when Luke, while training to be a Jedi knight, seems to encounter Darth Vader. In moody, dreamy slow motion, the two men fight with lightsabers – and Luke manages to decapitate his opponent. However, under the helmet’s mask, Luke sees his own dead face staring back at him. What did it mean?! As I grew older and rewatched The Empire Strikes Back, of course the thematic nuance became more and more compelling: Luke is seeing a premonition; he’s in danger of becoming another Vader. Another area of the film that improves the older you get is the endlessly joyful bickering between Han and Leia, who trade His Girl Friday quips and sarcasm that ooze with sexual tension. When I reviewed The Empire Strikes Back for this website in 2015, I half-jokingly scored it 11 out of 10. I still stand by that.

Eat the Rich (1987, Peter Richardson)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: After losing his job at a fancy restaurant, a young man decides to start a revolution…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Peter Richardson. Released: 17 August 1987.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Al Pillay (6; credited as Lanah Pellay) stars as Alex, a waiter at an opulent yet chaotic restaurant in London called Bastards. (Sample menu options: sliced baby koala, leopard’s head a la surprise, baby panda…) Alex is thoroughly bored with his job and the dullards he has to serve, but after answering back one too many times (‘Oi! Where’s my fucking tip?’) he’s sacked. A sign is hung outside (‘Wanted – black waiter, must be good-looking’) and Alex is kicked out onto the street. He has no money, no home. After witnessing a terrorist siege at the Israeli embassy, he snaps when he can’t claim any unemployment benefit – so he grabs a gun, goes on the run, and decides to start a revolution. Assembling a small group of like-minded souls, Alex eventually returns to Bastards and kills everyone in sight. The revolutionaries then rebrand the restaurant as Eat the Rich and serve up an unusual menu… The camp, Grimsby-born Al Pillay, who has used various professional names, started her career while a young man called Alan. Drag-act performances in working men’s clubs led to a short music career, then a meeting with comedian Keith Allen and through him Comic Strip leader Peter Richardson. Richardson was a fan straightaway, seeing star quality, and wrote parts for Pillay in a few Comic Strip films. The roles in the Channel 4 projects were secondary or fleeting, but when it came to Richardson’s second movie as a director he resolved to build the script around Pillay’s persona. Some thought it an odd move (‘Can’t you get Lenny Henry?’) but Richardson recognised something authentic in the performer. Pillay, however, was just about to go through a significant change. About a week before filming, the actor announced that he was now a she and started taking sex-reassignment medication. Richardson has since said that this made things ‘fraught’ on set, with Pillay taking offence if anyone used a male pronoun by accident.
* Sean Chapman (1) plays one of Alex’s fellow waiters, a slick, handsome man called Mark who fancies moving into acting. Chapman had a busy 1987: he also starred in the horror classic Hellraiser.
* Rupert Vansittart (2) appears as a restaurant punter called Rupert. (This is a film with many performers using their real name for characters.)
* Derren Nesbitt (1) – previously the blond Nazi officer who rumbles the interlopers in action movie Where Eagles Dare – plays Bastards’ manager. (A personal aside: in 2003, I worked with Nesbitt when he recorded a Doctor Who audio play. He’s the only person I’ve ever heard say, without any irony, ‘Sinatra said to me…’)
* Ronald Allen (4) plays Commander Fortune, the director general of MI5. He inhabits a shady, paranoid world of secret plans and spy cameras, but we soon learn that he’s actually an undercover KGB agent out to undermine the British establishment. As ever, Allen plays it silky smooth.
Kevin Allen (4) appears briefly as a waiter.
* Christopher Malcolm (2) is John Steinbeck, a brash American film director who’s dining at Bastards. His latest hit movie was called Interesting Teenagers. (The writers are no doubt having a pop at John Hughes here.)
* Lemmy (1) plays Commander Fortune’s right-hand man, Spider, who organises a terrorist incident in an attempt to topple the government. Lemmy, who of course was the frontman of rock band Motörhead, also wrote the film’s title song. And this wasn’t his first time working with members of the Comic Strip team: Motörhead are the musical guests in the best episode of The Young Ones alongside Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Alexei Sayle and Robbie Coltrane.
* Nosher Powell (3) plays the UK’s new Home Secretary – also called Nosher Powell. Like the actor, this Nosher is a tough, brash, no-frills Cockney. He hates the poor (‘You’re all lazy bastards!’), wants to close hospitals to save money, is openly racist and misogynistic, and solves a potential train strike by threatening to beat up the union leader. (That’s right, reader: he’s a Tory.) We first see him dealing with the terrorist incident organised by Spider. An armed group have taken over the Israeli embassy, but Nosher piles in, knocks heads together and talks to the combatants like they’re children (‘You, give him back his country…’). This bravado only makes him more popular with the public and the press, which only makes Commander Fortune and Spider more intent on bringing him down… The real-life Powell had a long career as a stuntman and bit-part actor, as well a sideline as a professional boxer. HIs thrillingly eclectic CV takes in a wide range of projects from the 1940s to the 21st century: Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, Passport to Pimlico, the 1958 Dracula, Lawrence of Arabia, Dixon of Dock Green, The Saint, The Avengers, The Dirty Dozen, Oliver!, The Italian Job, Carry on Henry, On the Buses, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Star Wars, Superman, The Sweeney, Blake’s 7, Flash Gordon, The Two Ronnies, and many James Bond films.
* Ron Tarr (3) also uses his real first name to play a homeless man who befriends Alex and soon joins his embryonic revolution.
* Neil Cunningham (3) appears as a TV reporter.
* Sandra Dorne (2) gets her first Comic Strip-related role since 1982 – she stars as Sandra, Nosher’s wife, who is upset when he cheats on her so starts to sleep with their butler.
* Miranda Richardson (1) – who had recently wowed as the petulant Queen in Blackadder II and was about to give a stellar performance in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun – features in a surreal scene when Alex and Ron try to get some money from the DHSS. Behind the glass screen, the staff live in a world of colour, glamour, sun-beds and cocktails, and dispassionately refuse to issue any Giros to the homeless. So Alex kills them.
* Jools Holland (1) appears as a callous reporter/photographer from The Sun.
* Marika Rivera (2) is party hostess Marika.
* Fiona Richmond (2) plays Fiona, a glamorous woman who is sent by Fortune to seduce Nosher. The plan is to arrange for the press to rumble their bunk-up, but the ‘scandal’ actually increases Nosher’s popularity. Discarded by Fortune, and now pregnant by Nosher, Fiona then falls in with Alex and his growing group of agitators… The actress had appeared in a previous Comic Strip film, but also had another connection to the group. In the 1970s, she’d had a long relationship with the pornography baron Paul Raymond, whose Soho strip club provided the Comic Strip team with their first live venue. (Incidentally, if you’ve been clocking the names in this blog you’ll have spotted that Eat the Rich is a film directed by Peter Richardson, written by Peter Richardson and Pete Richens and starring Peter Richardson, Miranda Richardson and Fiona Richmond. Rich stuff indeed.)
* Jimmy Fagg (2) plays Jimmy, a happy-go-lucky fella who is asked more or less at random to join Alex’s revolutionary band. Thankfully he says yes.
* Simon Brint (3) is restaurant pianist Dickie. Brint also co-wrote the film’s original score with Rowland Rivron (3), who cameos as a tabloid reporter.
* Several Comic Strip regulars appear in small roles – sometimes very small roles. Robbie Coltrane (11) is a loudmouthed Bastards customer called Jeremy; Dawn French (17) plays Steinbeck’s associate, Debbie Draws; Nigel Planer (12) appears in the DHSS scene; Rik Mayall (11) uses all the slimy charisma he can muster to play party-goer Micky; Jennifer Saunders (17) is Lady Caroline, the woman he tries seducing (‘Great tits!’); Daniel Peacock (8) plays the Powells’ butler, Terence; Adrian Edmondson (17) is Eat the Rich customer Charles; and Peter Richardson (18) has just one line as another patron of the restaurant, Henry. Also, co-writer Pete Richens (1) has a cameo as a cafe owner.
* There are several celebrity cameos peppered throughout, most of them musicians – Angie Bowie (1), Miles Copeland (1), Hugh Cornwell (1), Shane MacGowan (1) and the rest of the Pogues, Paul McCartney (1), Sandie Shaw (1), Koo Stark (1) and Bill Wyman (1). Most are restaurant punters; the Pogues play the terrorists, while McCartney gamely appears as a confused guest at a state dinner with the Queen.

Best bit: This is an openly political film: the script tells a story of the downtrodden fighting back against the privileged classes. It was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, during the French Revolution, who said, ‘When the people shall have no more to eat they will eat the rich!’ Taking that maxim literally, this movie sees Alex and his followers secretly serve up a cannibalistic diet to the naive ruling classes. As they stuff their faces in the rebranded eatery, eager to be seen somewhere that’s suddenly fashionable, the toffs and celebs don’t know they’re eating previous customers and members of staff. In the kitchens, we see dismembered legs being forced into meat-grinders, then Jimmy complains that they’re ‘running out of manager’.  

Review: This demented movie – rough around the edges, down-and-dirty, very rock’n’roll and slightly sleazy – has a fantastic ‘punk’ energy. Like punk music, it might be raw and unpolished – and not everything works – but you can’t help but admire the film’s unconventional and uncompromising qualities. Eat the Rich isn’t charming or charismatic; there’s no attempt to court your approval. But all this only makes you like the film and the eclectic cast even more.

There aren’t many filmmakers who would have employed drag-act performer Al Pillay, ex-stuntman Nosher Powell and glamour model Fiona Richmond as the leads in a satirical comedy, while only featuring talents like Ade Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Rik Mayall in one-scene cameos. But Peter Richardson wanted to populate his madcap, unruly movie with actors who came with baggage. ‘Most of the people in this film have a story bigger than any I could write,’ he once said. Casting decisions have been made based on people’s real-life personas rather than conventional acting ability. And on that score, Eat the Rich succeeds. While you can’t imagine them in a more straightforward drama, Pillay, Powell and Richmond are watchable and often funny.

Seven heroes (just for one day) out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… Strike!

The Comic Strip Presents… Private Enterprise (1986, Adrian Edmondson)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: A huckster spots an opportunity to make a fortune by marketing a new pop band… without the band’s involvement…

Written and directed by: Adrian Edmondson. Broadcast: 2 January 1986, Channel 4.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
Peter Richardson (17) is lead character Keith, an ex-con who now works as a delivery driver for the Moving Stationary Company. One day he’s dropping off a palette of toilet rolls to Elephant Recording Studios when he hears lowly pop band Toy Department taping their new song. Curious, he swipes a cassette copy of their single. Then later, after crashing his van outside Hard Corps Records, he sees an opportunity. Swanning into a meeting with a music executive called Derek, Keith blags a recording deal for Toy Department – despite having never met them. But then he learns that the band’s singer has quit and the others have gone off on a tour of Sweden! So he skilfully convinces Derek to launch the group as ‘mystery band’. The public can have fun guessing their real identities: ‘It could be Boy George for all they know. Mick Jagger, Neil Kinnock, Mark Thatcher…’ (‘Could it be Prince Andrew?’ says Derek, warming to the idea.) The promotion is a huge success – the press love the concept, advance sales break half a million – and Keith is given a £25,000 fee. Things get tricky, however, when Derek insists that the band reveal themselves and go on tour…
* Malcolm Hardee (2) has one scene as a workman taking delivery of some loo rolls from Keith. Keith pretends to accidentally give him too many, then charges him £10 for the extras and pockets the cash.
* Chris Langham (1) plays cynical music producer Nigel, who tells Keith that no one will buy Toy Department’s new song because it’s ‘too fucking modern’.
* Rik Mayall (10) plays the lead singer of Toy Department, a Boy George lookalike called Ali Kitson. Kitson is a moody man, and very demanding of his colleagues. We later hear that he’s left the band, who have gone off on tour without him. He returns to the story when he realises his music is being used without his consent…
* Simon Brint (2) and Roland Rivron (2) are other members of the band.
* Jennifer Saunders (16) is Keith’s girlfriend, Debbie. She angrily objects to his friend Brian staying over at their flat – even though she does like him – because it breaks Keith’s parole conditions and could see him jailed again.
* Adrian Edmondson (16) plays Brian, a cheerful, diehard leftie who soon gets involved in Keith’s plan and even joins him on a cross-country tour of music venues. (They systematically blow them up, thereby postponing Toy Department’s debut gig.)
* Roger Sloman (1) is Keith’s boss at the delivery company, Mr Pinder, who suspects him of skimming goods and pocketing the money.
* Kevin Allen (3) appears as a hopeful musician in Derek’s waiting room.
* Serena Evans (6) is Hard Corps receptionist Louise.
* Nigel Planer (11) plays the louche head of Hard Corps Records, Derek. When Keith says he’s Brian Epstein’s brother, Derek dryly points out that he’s the 47th wannabe music manager to claim that. Nevertheless, Toy Department’s demo sticks in Derek’s head – so he offers Keith a contract. As a tax loss, they need a single within a fortnight.
* Lionel Jeffries (2) has a heavyweight cameo as an incredibly well-informed barman in Islington who’s able to tell Keith all about Toy Department’s tour of Sweden with a new singer (which keeps the band ‘off-stage’ for the rest of the story).
* Dawn French (16) plays Keith and Brian’s probation officer, the permanently disappointed Miss Nayler. Having seen Keith with stacks of cash, and suspecting both men of criminality, she eventually calls the cops.

Best bit: The con hits a bump in the road when Derek wants Toy Department to go public. At first, Keith suggests they simply send robots out on stage (preempting Daft Punk by several years). But Derek is insistent, so a press conference is called and the media are told to expect appearances from Toy Department’s ‘Stig’ and ‘Alex’. To get round this problem, Keith and Brian – with backstage help from Debbie – dress up as outlandish and fashion-fopp pop stars. Keith’s persona is a copy of Toy Department’s former singer (who he caught a glimpse of at the studio), while Brian looks more like The Human League’s Phil Oakey. The camera drifts between the press conference and the backstage area, seemingly through a wall, as the performance is carried out.

Review: The Comic Strip team liked their satires of the music industry. Private Enterprise is the second example, and like the first – 1983’s Bad News Tour – it was written by Adrian Edmondson. There were also plans for an episode in the second series about a hippie rock festival, but this was never made. (‘Well, I’m pissed off because the group didn’t want to do my script,’ Nigel Planer told a journalist in 1983.)

However, unlike Bad News Tour’s sense of youthful ambition, which harkened back to the we-can-do-anything spirit of 1970s punk, Private Enterprise is a thoroughly 1980s story. This script is concerned with money, power, fame and artifice; it’s ridiculing the loadsamoney, greed-is-good, yuppie culture. The music industry on show here is a world of liars and opportunists, without an ounce of passion or artistry. Superstars are cynically created for profit – an idea that pre-dates The X Factor by a couple of decades – while the film also explores the fickleness of fame and hollow celebrity.

But, for all this political content, Private Enterprise is also a whip-crack-fast piece of storytelling with a solid plot and plenty of fun. After two series, a special and a movie, the Comic Strip format has evolved now, and scripts are tighter and leaner. Some of the early episodes, while still enjoyable, tended to drift; they were one-joke sketches that didn’t develop. Now, however, the team know how to pace their scripts, how to keep things moving, how to build character arcs. As well as writing Private Enterprise, Adrian Edmondson was the director too, and he does a really smart job of maintaining the comic energy throughout. Not a moment is wasted.

There’s also possibly a wheeze going on with the character names. The two friends who pull off the con are called Keith and Brian – surely a reference to the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Brian Jones. Elsewhere in the story, we have Nigel and Derek. Could these be a sneaky reference on Ade Edmondson’s part? Soon after Bad News Tour was broadcast, the American film This is Spinal Tap was released and coincidentally covered very similar ground. Its fake rock band also has members called Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls.

Eight no-hope generations articulating the violence of oppressive economic strategy out of 10

NextEat the Rich