Dracula’s Derby: How Bram Stoker’s vampire was born and died in the East Midlands

The city of Derby in the East Midlands of England might not initially ring any Dracula alarm bells. However, it’s home to two former theatres that can claim significant connections to Bram Stoker’s creation. This is where the first theatrical adaptation of Stoker’s novel was staged – the first ever official adaptation in any medium anywhere in the world – and also where Bela Lugosi, the actor who did most to form the popular perception of the Count, decided to call time on the character…

I’ve therefore decided to investigate Derby’s Dracula heritage, as well as the sad, intertwined histories of the two theatres. Both were once vibrant and successful, but now – like a vampire’s victim – both have had the life and soul sucked out of them…

After Bram Stoker’s death in 1912, his widow, Florence, became the guardian of his literary legacy. While most of his novels and short stories were soon forgotten by the general public (rightly so in some cases), his 1897 masterpiece Dracula was big news and there was money to be made. So in 1924, Florence agreed to a proposal for a stage version from an Irish actor/manager called Hamilton Deane. He had long had a fascination with the novel and took just a month to complete his script, writing as he suffered from a heavy cold. Deane vastly restructured the plot and the character relationships, and essentially condensed Bram Stoker’s Gothic epic into a small-scale, drawing-room drama. He also rebooted Count Dracula himself as an urbane, charming aristo in a dinner suit and cape; someone who could mingle in middle-class society and flirt with young women. This is now the popular default image of the character, but it didn’t come from Stoker – his Dracula is a repulsive, unsettling monster.

Deane (above) toyed with playing the Count himself, but then realised his script gave a meatier role to Van Helsing so he took that part and cast an actor called Edmund Burke to play Dracula. Burke, whose real name was Frederick Alkin, had a gold front tooth – which would have been a striking oddity if future Dracula actors had copied this embellishment. Although no one knew it at the time, playing Dracula was the highlight of his career.

The production debuted in Derby at the Grand Theatre with a three-night run beginning on 15 May 1924, with Florence Stoker among the audience. Why Derby? Simply because the town (Derby didn’t become a city until 1977) had a theatre that was available. The local newspaper, reporting on one of the performances, said that ‘thrill succeeded thrill’, which meant that ‘one forgets the absolute twaddle to which one is listening.’ As for the first ever actor to play an officially sanctioned Count Dracula, the reporter noted that Burke was ‘stamped with the hallmark of finish and his disappearance in a puff of smoke at the close of the third scene is a remarkable example of ingenious stagecraft.’

When I arrive for a look at the Grand Theatre in December 2021, to see where the stage incarnation of Dracula was born, I know I won’t be finding a theatre. The building is still here on Babington Lane in the city centre (see above). But more than 70 years have passed since a play was staged here. The driving force behind the theatre’s birth in the 1880s was the impresario and actor Andrew Melville, who commissioned a Birmingham architect called Oliver Essex to create a theatre with a capacity of 2,500. (Melville died in 1896, aged just 43. In a cute Dracula connection, his sons Walter and Frederick later co-owned the Lyceum Theatre in London, where Bram Stoker had worked for 27 years as business manager.)

Oliver Essex designed a striking, boldly confident theatre in the Italian renaissance style, built on land that had been the gardens of a 17th-century mansion called Babington House. The Grand opened on 25 March 1886 with a production of Rip Van Winkle, but tragedy struck just six weeks later when a major fire gutted the building. Two people were killed – actor John Adams and carpenter James Locksley, who predictably were later said to haunt the place – and a partial rebuild was needed. The theatre then reopened on 13 November with a production of the three-act opera Maritana.

As I stand at the north end on Babington Lane, looking uphill, I can see the old Grand building on my left. On the opposite side of the road today is a Post Office and a charity shop, but there used to be another entertainment palace on this spot: the Picture House cinema (1910-1960). This meant there was a period where Derbeians could find movies on both sides of the street: the Grand had a Bioscope projector installed in the 1910s, allowing a programme of short films and newsreels to be instigated. One film to be shown was the DW Griffith epic Birth of a Nation, screened for two weeks from 4 September 1916.

The Grand had many other modifications in its early years. An iron-and-glass canopy was added to the front of the building; a redecoration in 1893 saw the interior splashed with tints of terra cotta, gold and bronze green; while electricity was installed in 1897 (the same year Dracula hit the bookshops). As well as ‘legitimate’ theatre, by the post-war period the Grand was hosting many of the biggest names on the British comedy circuit such as Max Miller, Max Wall, Arthur Askey, Tommy Handley and Gracie Fields. (Another act to play the Grand was Old Mother Riley – aka the cross-dressing comedian Arthur Lucan. In 1952, Lucan’s final Mother Riley movie co-starred Bela Lugosi. He’d been cast specifically because of his associations with Dracula, more of which later…)

But the Grand’s run came to an end after being taken over by the Coliseum Syndicate in 1943. They had recently purchased the nearby Hippodrome Theatre on Green Lane, which was being used as a cinema, and they wished to convert it back to live entertainment. The Grand was to be, essentially, recycled down the road. The final show was a performance by the Ballet Rambert dance company on 9 December 1950. The stage equipment was then transferred to the Hippodrome and the Grand stood empty until 1957, when it was bought by the Mecca organisation. They gutted the interior, installed a dance floor, a revolving stage and a viewing gallery, and the building reopened as the Locarno Ballroom in 1959 (see below).

Much later, the venue was also a nightclub under a variety of tacky names – Tiffany’s, Confettis, Ritzy, Eclipse, McClusky’s – then in 2006 was converted into an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet restaurant. The building is now an indoor golf venue called, I kid you not, House of Holes. Perhaps nothing can speak more clearly of cultural vandalism than the facade of the structure today. The Grand Theatre’s ornate architecture, detailing and embossed sign are all still evident – but the ground-floor frontage has been remodelled and ruined.

This was clearly a once-beautiful building, but like so many structures in unfashionable parts of city centres the Grand’s heritage is embarrassingly ignored. If the advertising legend ‘Over 18’s crazy golf, bar and street food’ wasn’t depressing enough, there’s also the fact a remnant from the structure’s days as a Chinese restaurant has not been removed.

After taking my photographs and paying what tribute I can to where Count Dracula was first enjoyed by a live audience, I make the short walk west along Gower Street to Green Lane. Here is another building with a very strong link to Dracula: the aforementioned Hippodrome. But I’m sad to report that Derby has abandoned, neglected and abused this building even more…

The stage-play version of Dracula had been a wild success after its Derby tryout in 1924, touring the country and then going into the West End. The title role was played by various men, including future Upstairs Downstairs actor Raymond Huntley. He stayed with the production as it transferred to the States, where the script was given an overhaul by the playwright John L Balderston, but left after being denied a pay rise for the show’s Broadway booking. The producers needed a new lead actor. And they ended up recasting the role with perhaps the most iconic Dracula of all time: Bela Lugosi.

Lugosi was born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó in 1882 in what was then Hungary but is now part of Romania. His promising acting career in Budapest was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served on the Russian Front with the Austro-Hungarian Army. He then moved to the US in 1920 and gained some bit-part film roles. But his big break came in 1927 when he was cast as Count Dracula on Broadway. It changed his life. He played the Count for two years, then in 1931 reprised the role when Universal Pictures made their wildly influential movie adaptation of the play. (He’d been far from first choice for the film. But he *had* been cheap.) Lugosi’s performance – the eastern European accent, the languid demeanour, the dinner suit and cape (see below) – became a blueprint for a century of Draculas. But it rather typecast him, and while he declined to be involved with any sequels he spent much of the rest of his career in other horror films.

In 1951 the stage play had a renaissance in the UK, and in hope of securing a West End booking, the play first went out on a provisional tour. The biggest coup for the producers was that they managed to sign Lugosi to play Count Dracula. He had only returned to the role sparingly in the previous 20 years – most notably in the film comedy Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, but also in some local theatre productions in California. The initial cast was rounded out by Joan Winmill (Mary), Richard Butler (John Harker), David Dawson (Dr Seward), Arthur Hosking (Van Helsing), Eric Lindsay (Renfield), John Saunders (Butterworth) and Sheila Wynn (Lucy Seward). Winmill had auditioned to play Lucy, but was given the smaller role of a maid. In the 1940s she’d had a relationship with future US Attorney General Robert F Kennedy.

The tour ran for 229 performances from 30 April to 13 October 1951. After rehearsals in London, the production opened at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, then the cast criss-crossed the country, playing in several London boroughs, Dudley, Eastbourne, Glasgow, Middlesbrough, Belfast, Manchester, Norwich, Leicester, Sheffield, Chatham, Luton, Nottingham, Cambridge, Derby and Portsmouth.

The Derby residence was at the Hippodrome and ran for 12 performances on 17-22 September, twice nightly at 6.10pm and 8.15pm. The souvenir programme, which cost three pence and advertised that Walls ice creams would be on sale, tells us that Joan Harding had now taken over the role of maid Mary from Joan Winmill. On 18 September, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported that the opening night had been a success. ‘Horror and the macabre were the order at the Hippodrome last night,’ read the review, ‘and very effectively put over, too.’ However, the journalist had a warning: ‘I enjoy these horrific spectacles on occasions and like to take them on face value, but I would not advise anyone emotionally inclined or hysterical to visit the Hippodrome this week. There were moments when even my flesh creeped, and I’m hardened to the game.’ Lugosi, meanwhile, was praised as being outstanding. The run was also a financial triumph, with the six days in Derby being the most profitable period of the tour. The Hippodrome sold 9,564 tickets, earning £1,136 5s 3d.

The tour was not a wholly happy experience for Bela Lugosi, however. He was popular with his co-stars, impressed audiences and journalists, and took the time to give autographs and speak to young fans. But according to co-star Sheila Wynn he was upset by laughter from audiences in places such as Golders Green and Manchester. He told her that ‘Dracula is Hamlet to me’ and was hurt that 1950s houses thought the play funny rather than chilling. Lugosi undoubtedly had a reputation for taking the role seriously. At the start of the tour, he’d told the press, ‘I spend at least an hour completely silent before a Dracula performance, thinking myself into the psychological state needed for such a horror part.’ By 1951, he was in a career lull and suffering with melancholy. He was also on a downslide towards a dependence on morphine. Having his precious, career-defining role mocked was difficult to take.

As well as the hectic Dracula schedule, that summer Lugosi also appeared on British television and radio, attended civic events, was guest of honour at the opening of a factory, filmed his role in Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, attended the premiere of the Alastair Sim film Scrooge, and turned 69 (even though his ‘official’ age as reported in the press was 10 years younger). Partly due to all this activity, the tour of Dracula never reached the West End. Lugosi pulled out, suffering from exhaustion. And he did so while playing at the Hippodrome in Derby. When the tour’s producer John Mather revealed plans for added dates in Newcastle and Liverpool – but no promised West End engagement – Lugosi simply said, ‘John, I can’t go on. It’s taking too much out of me. Please finish it quickly.’ The tour ended the following month.

Bela Lugosi played Count Dracula in Derby – the town where, 27 years earlier, the character was first performed in front of a paying audience. And it was in Derby where he finally decided enough was enough and his time in the cape had to end…

The Hippodrome’s building dates from 1913 and is on the same site as Derby’s first private lunatic asylum (this is a nice bit of synchronicity with Stoker’s novel, which features such an establishment). Opening to the public on 20 July 1914, the 2,000-seater Hippodrome was originally a music hall before being converted into a cinema in 1930. After its owners, J Arthur Rank, sold up to the Coliseum Syndicate, and they salvaged the stage equipment from the nearby Grand, the Hippodrome was relaunched as a live theatre venue on 23 December 1950. The first show was a pantomime, Dick Whittington, and Dracula moved in just 268 days later.

Today the Hippodrome is a dispiriting wreck – another embarrassment for what is mostly a very fine city. How did it end up looking so bad? The theatre didn’t last much longer after Dracula’s 12 performances in 1951. Eight years later it closed down, then three years after that the venue was reformatted as a bingo hall. As I take a wander around the exterior, it’s difficult not to be saddened that this building – which clearly was once magnificent – is now like something from a post-apocalyptic movie. Windows are smashed, paint is peeling, the roof has collapsed and wild flora is everywhere. Just as with the Grand Theatre, there’s even some old signage left over from a previous incarnation: a tatty, faded marquee for the bingo company Walkers. A modern poster has recently been pasted onto the wooden hoarding at the entrance, advertising a gig for the Canadian rapper Tory Lanez. In 2019 he collaborated with Snoop Dogg on a track called Beauty in the Benz. One of the lyrics is, ‘I’ma sink my teeth in it deep, Dracula.’

I must make a confession now: I’ve been here before. I’ve actually been here hundreds of times. Just a short walk further up Green Lane is a building owned by the University of Derby, and that’s where I did my degree. I walked up and down Green Lane, passing the Hippodrome, again and again and again from 1998 until 2001. I know Derby well, used to live here, have socialised here, have friends here. I’m very fond of the place. But I must admit that I never especially paid attention to the Hippodrome before today. Already dilapidated and unloved when Green Lane was my stomping ground, it was just another old building. I didn’t learn about the Dracula connection until many years later.

The closer I look, however, the more I’m able to picture how this place must have been in its pomp. The original architects put so much effort into the design, the detailing, the overall sense of glamour and enjoyment. (Early 20th-century architects were often heroes in this regard.) The Hippodrome was intended as a respite from the real world – whether a music hall, a cinema or a theatre, this place gave joy to people, and its founders knew how to sell the idea of escapism. As I get closer I’m especially charmed by the rows of tiling around the base of the building’s exterior. Now faded, now dirty, these would have once *gleamed*. They’re not here for functional reasons. It’s pure style.

Despite the Hippodrome’s awful appearance, there is hope. The site is now Grade-II Listed and has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2006. The last time it was used as a bingo venue was in 2007, since when a catalogue of damages – a fire in 2011, vandalism, Japanese knotweed infestation and, astonishingly, even some cack-handed ‘repairs’ by the owners that caused a partial collapse – have resulting in the hulk I find today. Thankfully, there are now moves to restore the Hippodrome, perhaps as a 1,200-seater theatre. However, another suggestion is to build a 3,500-seat music venue on a semi-derelict site next door and consign the Hippodrome to history. I hope it survives.

Today, Derby’s only major live venue is the prosaically titled Derby Theatre, which is entered via a large and soulless shopping centre. It’s been here since 1975 and has an impressive track record. In my time living in the city, this place was called the Derby Playhouse – I came often – but was rebranded after going into administration in 2008. A few weeks before my visit, I’m glad to report, Derby Theatre staged a play called Dracula: The Untold Story. The legend lives on.

Notes and sources

My trip to Derby was on Friday 3 December 2021. Photos © Ian Farrington 2021.

Different sources cite different dates for the 1924 production of Dracula. I’ve gone with the information in David J Skal’s recent biography of Bram Stoker.

I took information from these books, documentaries and web pages:

Derby: From Old Photographs (2017) by Denis Eardley

Hollywood Gothic (2004 revised edition) by David J Skal

Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula (2018) by David J Skal

A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss: Frankenstein Goes to Hollywood (BBC4, 2010)

A webpage on Derby’s three main theatres – including several excellent period photographs.

This webpage on the Grand Theatre’s history.

This online history of the Grand Theatre. And also this one.

Details about Andrew Melville and family.

This story from the Derby Telegraph about the Grand’s recent history

A page on the Picture House cinema.

Details on Hamilton Deane.

Many pages on the excellent Bela Lugosi Blog were extremely helpful, especially this superbly detailed account of the 1951 tour of Dracula.

A BBC Arts story on the 1951 tour.

A report on the current status of the Hippodrome.

No Time to Die (2021, Cary Joji Fukunaga)

SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.
No, seriously. BIG spoilers ahead if you’ve never seen this film.

Family. It’s all about family. Deep into the action-heavy third act of No Time to Die, James Bond is reunited with his girlfriend and their young daughter. He’s only recently learnt about the existence of the latter, having been estranged from the former for five years. Introducing them to his colleague Nomi, James momentarily doesn’t know what to say: ‘They’re my…’ When Nomi finishes the sentence – ‘Family?’ – the weight of it hits Bond and we see him mouth the word back to himself in bewilderment. Elsewhere in the story we also have Bond’s surrogate MI6 family – his father figure M, his bickering sister Moneypenny, his geeky cousin Q. We drop in on Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James’s childhood foster brother. And when long-time ally Felix Leiter is murdered, the killer taunts Bond about Blofeld being his sibling: ‘I had a brother,’ replies Bond before executing him. ‘His name was Felix.’ This is bold, emotional storytelling for a character who’s been typified for six decades as a loner, a widower and/or a commitment-wary Casanova. But if Daniel Craig’s five-film run in the role has taught us anything it’s that his Bond is a different beast.

Significantly, perhaps, the last four 007 pictures have all been directed by men born after the series began – men who have grown up with all the cliches and formal devices and are ready to both celebrate *and* subvert them. (No Time to Die is helmed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who was born in the same month that The Spy Who Loved Me was released. He’s the first American to direct a Bond movie.) This film, as with all the Craigs, knows how to how fun. It knows how to sell the escapist, popcorn enjoyment of James Bond – but it also wants to deepen the character stories and make us care.

Of course, another way that Craig’s era feels different from his predecessors is its self-containment. The dividing lines between previous Bond actors tended to blur – Sean Connery, George Lazenzy and Roger Moore, for example, are arguably all playing the same man in the same ongoing narrative. Craig’s 15-year stint, however, is a defined quintet of movies; a story from beginning to end, which sees Bond progress from reckless rookie through to veteran status, retirement and even death. No Time to Die is a marvellous finale to this suite, full of terrific action, winning character details, classy cinematography and superb art direction. A few imperfections here and there – the MacGuffin needs too much explaining, some dialogue clanks as it lands, the villain is tedious – don’t detract from the overall depth, breadth, joy and impressive sense of grandeur.

Eight bags of bees out of 10.

* After a sequence set soon after the previous film, we find Bond in idyllic, isolated retirement in Jamaica (an island beloved by Bond creator Ian Fleming). But he’s soon asked by old comrade Felix Leiter to help find a missing scientist who worked on a secret MI6 project to develop a new type of weapon. The weapon, Heracles, uses nanobots to target selective victims: a virus can be programmed to infect specific DNA. (A murderous virus that strikes via close contact? How very 2020s.) The mission eventually brings Bond back into contact with Madeleine Swann, the woman who he believes betrayed him five years earlier…
* This is Daniel Craig’s fifth and final appearance as James Bond (no, we’re not counting that Olympics skit with the Queen in it). He’s been absolutely magnificent, reformatting and reshaping the character for the 21st century but always staying true to the essence of the source material. Whichever actor comes next will have a very long shadow from which to escape. And whoever’s cast will certainly be a fresh start for the character, because this iteration of James Bond is killed off at the conclusion of No Time to Die – definitively so as a hail of navy-grade torpedoes rains down upon him. This is a first for the film series, of course, though some earlier movies had joked about Bond dying: Thunderball starts at a funeral for a ‘JB’; You Only Live Twice sees Bond ‘shot to death’ and buried at sea; Diamonds Are Forever contains the dialogue, ‘You just killed James Bond!’ Eagle-eared viewers of this film may spot the occasional bit of foreshadowing, such as when nearby church bells toll during the first big action sequence or when Blofeld tells Bond that Madeleine’s ‘secret [will] be the death of you.’ But killing Bond is still a very brave thing to do, not least because it defies genre expectations. (Amazingly, the twist has led to a few viewers and even some critics arguing that the films must now come to an end. It’s been bizarre how some people have forgotten that Craig’s debut was a reboot and that the next film can simply follow suit.)

* Blofeld is back from Spectre, still played by Christoph Waltz, but he only gets one substantial scene. We see him locked up in a baroque, solitary-confinement prison cell in Belmarsh Prison in south-east London – kind of like Hannibal Lecter without the Gothic embellishments. James comes to interrogate him when it appears Blofeld is somehow still running the evil Spectre organisation…
* The headline bad guy is Rami Malek’s loopy terrorist Lyutsifer Safin. (That’s right: his name is the Russian for Lucifer. Subtle.) He first appears in the film’s flashback prologue, which is surely the weirdest opening to any Bond movie: Safin shows up at Madeleine’s childhood home to assassinate her parents; the sequence is like a slasher film with the bemasked Safin as the faceless, remorseless killer. Sadly, when we cut to the modern day, Rami Malek is pretty poor, giving a performance so far detached from the real world that it loses any believability. During his first scene with dialogue, as he poses as a new patient for psychologist Madeleine, the affected manner and pretentious delivery mean you soon stop caring about what he has to say. Incidentally, there are quite a few hints that Safin is actually Dr No, the villain that featured in the first James Bond movie – there’s the use of the word No in this film’s title, the pattern of dots in the title sequence which echoes the opening of the 1962 film, the fact Safin wears a Japanese Noh mask (despite the white actor, Dr No himself is of Asian heritage), his elaborate base of operations full of workers in hazmat suits… But he isn’t. He’s just a little man who wants revenge for something that happened a long time ago.
* Safin has a henchman called Primo (Dali Benssalah) who attempts to kill Bond early on. He has a sci-fi, electronic, computerised false eye – so obviously Bond calls him Cyclops at one point.
* The Russian scientist who develops the weapon of mass destruction at the heart of the story, Dr Valdo Obruchev, is played a tad too eccentrically by David Dencik. He’s only a notch or two more serious than a Sacha Baron Cohen character. At first he appears to be working for Spectre, but then he double-crosses them and kills off the entire organisation. He’s really in league with Safin.
* A character initially introduced as a dopey CIA stooge, Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), is later revealed to be one of Safin’s men.

* Returning from Spectre is Dr Madeleine Swann, played again by a delicate, subdued Léa Seydoux. She’s forever dressed in white, befitting her surname… at least until a dramatic switch to black when the shit hits the fan. Soon after the events of Spectre, Bond and Madeleine are a loved-up couple. She encourages him to say goodbye properly to the former love-of-his-life, Vesper Lynd, but Bond soon comes to believe Madeleine is still a Spectre agent. Five years later, we discover that Madeline was innocent – and now has a young daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet). At first she denies that Bond is the father, but the truth is obvious. (In the opening flashback, Coline Defaud plays Madeleine as a child – a good match, casting-wise. Remi Malek still plays Safin, despite being only four years older than Léa Seydoux!)
* Lashana Lynch stars as Nomi. A cool and capable MI6 agent, she first appears incognito in Jamaica where she engineers a meet-cute with Bond so she can warn him off. She also reveals that she’s not just any old double-O agent… she’s the new 007. (Cue idiots online getting upset because a black woman has been given a prominent role.) He says it’s just a number, but the signal that the world is moving on does rankle Bond. Later, after he’s welcomed back into the MI6 fold, the two agents team up for the final assault on Safin’s base. In a gesture of respect, Nomi requests that James be reassigned as 007. Despite the appalling lack of plausibility – covert military organisations do not jumble up codenames on a whim seconds before a mission! – it’s a nice piece of writing. Lynch is very impressive throughout. It’s a shame this will probably be her only appearance in the series.
* When Bond arrives in Cuba, he’s partnered up with a CIA contact called Paloma, played by Daniel Craig’s Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas. The two gatecrash a Spectre party, hoping to extract the Russian scientist Obruchev. Paloma seems giddy at the chance to work with the famous James Bond but he’s concerned about her inexperience (‘I’ve had three weeks training!’ she boasts). He needn’t have worried: from her first appearance, sipping a Dr Pepper’s at a bar, to her final shot (‘Ciao!’), Paloma is the greatest character in the entire Bond film series who only appears in one sequence. (Her section of the film is just 12 minutes long.) Dressed in a really spectacular cocktail dress, Paloma is an adorable ball of nervous energy, potent sexuality and kick-ass action. During the fight at the Spectre party, she beats up henchmen and fires a machine gun and smirks and makes middle-aged bloggers go weak at the knees.

* The core MI6 team are back (probably for the final time as far as the actors are concerned). Chief executive M (Ralph Fiennes) is put out when he learns that the long-AWOL Bond is interfering with MI6 business, which leads to a string of testy scenes between the two men (all brilliantly played: Craig and Fiennes have a superb connection). But part of the tension is self-inflicted: M feels huge guilt because Heracles was his baby and now it’s in the hands of a terrorist. In No Time to Die, Ralph Fiennes becomes the second person in a Bond movie to drop an F-bomb (‘Oh for fuck’s sake’). The first was his predecessor as M, Judi Dench, in Skyfall.
* We see techno-boffin Q (Ben Whishaw) at home preparing for a dinner date with a gentleman caller when Bond and Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) show up and monopolise his time. ‘It’s never nine-to-five, is it?’ he sighs.
* Moneypenny herself still seems superfluous, sadly. Upon the character’s reintroduction in Skyfall, she should have been rebooted as M’s deputy or something with more agency. As it is, she’s a secretary who’s spent large chunks of the last two films following men around while they decide things.
* Chief of staff Tanner (Rory Kinnear) appears for a fourth consecutive Bond movie.
* Away from the Secret Intelligence Service, returning to the series after a gap of 13 years is Felix Leiter. He’s played for a record third time by Jeffrey Wright – but the record will go no further, as Leiter is killed when he and Bond are betrayed by Logan Ash. As always, Wright brings an agreeable earthiness to the role.

Action: After an atypically calm opening 13 minutes, No Time to Die’s first big action comes when repeated attempts are made on Bond’s life as he visits Vesper’s tomb in the beautiful ancient town of Matera, southern Italy. (Why is she buried there? Answers on a postcard please.) The sequence begins with a bomb, then takes in Bond crouching behind a bollard to avoid being run over, leaping off a high stone bridge, being chased on a motorbike, driving his bike up a very high sloping wall (a flamboyant stunt done for real), and using the hidden machine guns in his souped-up 1964 Aston Martin DB5. After the title sequence, there’s a Mission Impossible-style break-in at a secret MI6 laboratory. The Spectre party develops into a breathless action set-piece – shot on a marvellous recreation of a Santiago de Cuba city block built at Pinewood Studios – involving fighting, shooting, stunts, explosions and the effortlessly cool moment when Bond and Paloma stop for a quick drink at the bar. Later, Bond and Felix are trapped on a sinking ship. Bond, Madeleine and Mathilde flee in a 4×4 as Logan Ash and his goons give chase through Norwegian fjords and woodlands; the sequence then develops into a misty, stealthy cat-and-mouse game in the forest. Later, in order to get to Safin’s private island, Bond and Nomi use a ‘stealth bird’ (a two-person glider). The action climax of the film, as the two double-Os sneak into Safin’s base, often has the feel of a shoot-’em-up videogame, especially a 106-second long take following Bond up a stairwell.

Comedy: Dry is the order of the day, but there are some laughs. Hugh Dennis from many British TV comedy shows cameos as an MI6 scientist who pulls pranks on his colleague. ‘Who’s the blonde?’ asks Bond when he sees Felix has a new sidekick. When Nomi stops pretending to be a Jamaican local and removes her wig, Bond laments, ‘Well, that’s not the first thing I thought you’d take off.’ Nomi later threatens to put a bullet in Bond’s knee: ‘The one that works.’ Every moment of Bond’s time with Paloma pings with zippy comic energy (WHEN DO WE GET HER SPIN-OFF SERIES??!?!). Bond returns to MI6 HQ in Whitehall after five years away, and is miffed that he has to give his name to the security guard at reception. He’s allowed in, where staffers are bemused to see two 007s at the same time. After Bond gets the better of some verbal banter, Nomi tells Moneypenny that she understands why the latter shot him once. ‘Everyone tries at least once,’ replies Moneypenny. There’s a sweetness in Bond’s interactions with his daughter, Mathilde – especially as he cooks her a crêpe breakfast. When the odious Obruchev makes a racist comment, Nomi asks him, ‘Do you know what time it is?’ She then says, ‘Time to die,’ and pushes him off a high walkway into a toxic pool of water.

Music: Hans Zimmer’s score is urgent, sometimes brassily bombastic, and extensively quotes melodies from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (a previous Bond movie also built on an emotional storyline that saw Bond form a family only for that to be torn apart by a tragic death). As in 1969, the lyric ‘We have all the time in the world’ is quoted in dialogue; as in 1969, its use is ironic. Zimmer – the preeminent film composer of his era – was surely always going to write a Bond score. It’s a perfect match of man and material. The film’s theme song is by Billie Eilish and is oomph-less twaddle.

Personal connection: I first saw this film at the gorgeous Everyman Canary Wharf with my pal Fraser Dickson on Monday 11 October 2021. The film had been delayed approximately 27 times for various reasons – from November 2019 to February 2020 to April 2020 to November 2020 to April 2021 and then finally to October 2021 – so finally getting to see it in a cinema was fantastic. I then went back alone to see it a second time a few days later. Sat behind me was a family whose mother constantly had to explain what was happening to the 10-year-old daughter. (I had them killed, obviously.)

The Comic Strip – ranked

On this website, I spent 2021 watching and reviewing all the films and TV episodes made by the Comic Strip team of comedians. To celebrate the project’s conclusion, here’s a handy ranking of all 47 in order of personal preference… (Full-length reviews can be accessed by clicking on the titles.)

47. The Pope Must Die (1991)
The Comic Strip team’s ‘showrunner’, Peter Richardson, and his co-writer Pete Richens had initially attempted to make a Vatican City satire for Channel 4. However, when the network declined the project on legal grounds, the script morphed into a one-off movie script. Starring Robbie Coltrane as a lowly, folksy priest who’s accidentally elected Pope, the film is a disaster. Never truly funny and featuring a plethora of production flaws, The Pope Must Die has a real feel of ‘Will that do?’ about it.

46. The Yob (1988)
Taking inspiration from the 1986 film The Fly, this entry tells a morality tale – or at least it think it does. Whereas The Fly had seen a hubristic scientist merged with a common house fly in an experiment gone wrong, The Yob goes for social satire and instead conflates two humans: a pretentious music-video director and a loutish Arsenal fan. The film’s political intent is frustratingly childish, essentially taking aim at *everyone*, and with no likeable or even interesting characters on show it’s very difficult to invest in what’s happening.

45. Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)
Made by the Comic Strip’s regular writing/directing team of Peters Richens and Richardson, this cinema film has a very shaky premise. We’re told that, despite what it says in the history books, Winston Churchill was actually a gung-ho 30-year-old American in a tight vest, who went around machine-gunning bad guys and quipping like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Extrapolated across an entire movie, this sketch-show gag doesn’t especially make sense and soon runs out of comedy milage. Many of the performances are ear-scrapingly awful too.

44. Five Go to Rehab (2012)
The core members of the Comic Strip group marked 30 years of their TV series by reprising their famous spoof of Edin Blyton’s Famous Five – but now the characters are middle-aged, cynical, psychologically damaged and, in some cases, alcoholic. The joke doesn’t fly and the result is a film that’s sadly more embarrassing than subversive.

43. Didn’t You Kill My Brother (1988)
Alexei Sayle featured far less frequently in this series than some of his fellow Comic Strip founding members, but he’s the star and co-writer here in a story about a pair of twins. One is a left-leaning reformed convict, the other a Kray Brother-style gangster. Sprawling and often whimsical, as well as pointedly political, the film never really coalesces into something satisfying.

42. Redtop (2016)
An on-the-nose slice of political satire, which pokes fun at the phone-tapping scandal at News International. Guest star Maxine Peake is having fun as a flighty, capricious Rebekah Brooks, but the script jumps around, nervously trying to cover as much ground as possible, so there’s little development of any comedy.

41. Five Go Mad on Mescalin (1983)
The gang’s first sequel saw them return to Edin Blyton characters they’d played a year previously. Whereas the original Five Go Mad episode had been fresh and incisive and funny, Mescalin pushes the joke too far and loses any subtlety.

40. Eddie Monsoon – A Life? (1984)
Adrian Edmondson wrote and stars in this fake profile piece. A journalist details the life, career and current woes of a crass celebrity called Eddie Monsoon – a man who has worked for fascists, shot at children on live TV, and pulled off suicide pranks. The plot is derived from real life, as this film is poking fun at Channel 4’s reluctance to air a controversial Comic Strip Presents idea, but the result comes off as bitter and gets less and less funny the longer it drones on.

39. The Beat Generation (1983, pictured above)
Early episodes of the Comic Strip Presents series could feel like sketch-show ideas stretched out to 30 minutes. The Beat Generation – a black-and-white parody of hedonistic, 1960s poets – is one of the clearest examples. The performances are good and there’s some style, but the lack of a true storyline or any character depth means it meanders too much.

38. Four Men in a Plane (2000)
This was a follow-up to a short film from two years earlier and sees four obnoxious alpha males from England opting for a private plane ride in North Africa rather than a 16-hour bus ride. When the inevitable happens and they end up stranded in the desert, it’s very difficult to sympathise.

37. Spaghetti Hoops (1990)
Nigel Planer plays a fictionalised version of Roberto Calvi, the chairman of an Italian bank that collapsed in 1982 after many of its funds had been channelled through the Vatican City. Like The Beat Generation, this was also shot in black and white – though here that may have been a cost-saving measure. (Judging by the poor locations and set dressing, the money had run out for the production team as well as Planer’s banker.) The comedy doesn’t really punch through.

36. Space Virgins from Planet Sex (1993)
Much like the Carry On movie series, the Comic Strip films were sometimes parodies of specific genres. Here, we get two for the price of one: a James Bond figure investigates an alien invasion. However, while the Bond scenes are critical but still affectionate – and are generally funny as well as having something to say about the genre’s cliches – the sci-fi sequences reek of patronising aloofness. Stars Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders must parade around in some hackneyed costumes, delivering B-movie dialogue that has no respect for its source, while at the same time Peter Richardson, Robbie Coltrane, Ade Edmondson and others get to playfully send up James Bond.

35. Susie (1984)
A languid drama about a flighty young schoolteacher (Dawn French) and her three very different suitors. There are echoes of Thomas Hardy and the French New Wave, but like several of the early Comic Strip Presents films, Susie suffers from vague storytelling. Watchable but lacks oomph.

34. Summer School (1983)
Written by Dawn French, this social-studies satire doesn’t really hit the mark – despite some good ideas in the mix. A group of middle-class people choose to live in a semi-authentic Iron Age village as part of an experiment, but food shortages and sexual tensions soon break through the veneer of chumminess. By the end, you don’t feel like the script knew where it was going.

33. War (1983)
A scattergun satire of warfare sees the cast play multiple roles in a rambling, episodic narrative that contains a few laughs here and there.

32. Sex Actually (2005)
The erotic secrets behind the curtains in suburban Berkshire are exposed in this one-off from 2005. Sheridan Smith guest stars as a young, rich widow who attracts the attentions of her new neighbours. The laughs don’t land as hard as they should, but there’s a Poirot-style mystery to be untangled.

31. Wild Turkey (1992)
On Christmas Eve, a New York couple are shocked when they realise that the turkey they’ve bought is not only still alive… but can talk… and is obviously angry at the thought of being eaten. The ghoulishness that may have crept in to such a story is downplayed, and the script and actors instead go for a light-comedy tone as Sue and Jim attempt to reason with a gun-toting Turkey. Paul Bartel and Ruby Wax guest star as the couple, while new regular Phil Cornwall – in his biggest Comic Strip role yet – tries his best to play an articulate avian despite being lumbered with a fake, plastic beak. Some ideas work, some don’t.

30. Funseekers (1988, pictured below)
The team headed to Spain to film this comedy about an 18-30 Club-style package holiday. Various threads weave about – a pervy tour guide, a pair of fun-loving brothers from Romford, a member of the group who’s secretly too old, a young holidaymaker with a spiritual connection to a local pregnant woman – and there are some laughs.

29. Demonella (1993)
Jennifer Saunders wears a series of sultry cocktail dresses to star as the Devil, who gives a struggling Tin Pan Alley music publisher the hit of his career. There’s a light, likeable vibe and the cast is strong, though the story never surprises you.

28. Les Dogs (1990)
A piece of television so dense that it’s difficult to judge. In a deliberately surreal storyline, a businessman (Peter Richardson) walks away from a car accident and stumbles across a wedding reception. While chaotic comedy goes on around them, the bride – played by singer-songwriter Kate Bush – has some indefinable pull over the infatuated businessman and we eventually start to infer a past connection. It’s all very dreamlike, but like most dreams its power fades away as you try to remember what happened.

27. Four Men in a Car (1998)
The first film after a five-year gap saw the group’s big hitters – Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders – reunite for an odd little story about four businessman who car-pool for a relatively short drive. Obviously, things go wrong and the quartet are soon tramping over the countryside in a blizzard, lost and injured and desperate to get to Swindon. It passes the time without ever hitting the high notes.

26. Jealousy (1993)
An oddball tale about male obsession and paranoia, Jealousy has some fun sequences and a very watchable lead performance from Peter Capaldi (in his only Comic Strip role).

25. Consuela (Or ‘The New Mrs Saunders’) (1986)
Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders co-write and star in what is essentially a faithful remake of Rebecca, with the names changed and some comedic twists added. The pair would later do many movie pastiches for their BBC sketch show. This dry-run is funny, though you do wish it went a bit further at times.

24. Queen of the Wild Frontier (1993)
When two escaped prisoners show up at her farm, Fiona Farringdon-Cock does not turn them in, but instead invites them to a boozy dinner with her and her sister. Fiona is a lonely soul in need of some companionship, but will she regret trusting these strangers? A low-key story set against sweeping countryside and the scale of a massive police manhunt, Queen of the Wild Frontier has an agreeable tone and a decent lead performance from Julie T Wallace.

23. Eat the Rich (1987)
The mainstays of the Comic Strip team mostly just take cameos in this uncompromising comedy movie about capitalism and cannibalism. Al Pillay stars as a waiter who’s sacked for answering back to the posho customers at an upmarket eatery. Alex then starts a revolution with the help of various other misfits he collects along the way, and the group eventually take over the restaurant and serve up a scathingly satirical menu. Crude, crass and often fraying at the edges, the film nevertheless packs a lot of rock’n’roll energy into its runtime.

22 & 21. South Atlantic Raiders (1990)
When the team switched allegiances from Channel 4 to BBC2, they launched their new batch of comedies with this two-part epic. A CB radio nut makes contact with a woman on the Falkland Islands and comes to believe that the Argentinians have launched another invasion. So along with a ragtag group of associates he decides to rescue her. The result is a madcap adventure story with lots of movement, funny characters, impressive location filming and effective incidental music.

20. The Bullshitters: Roll Out the Gunbarrel (1984, pictured below)
A sarcastic spoof of the ITV crime show The Professionals, this one-off special stars co-writers Keith Allen and Peter Richardson as agents pulled out of retirement to save a kidnapped woman. Cop-show cliches from the 1970s swim around with machismo, homoeroticism and digs at pretentious actors. The more outlandish it gets, the funnier it becomes.

19. Private Enterprise (1986)
In this music-industry drama, Peter Richardson stars as an opportunistic con man who acts as manager for a pop group… without their knowledge. Poking fun at celebrity artifice, with a decent plot that develops across half an hour, this is very enjoyable.

18. Oxford (1990)
Partly salvaged from the then-unmade script for The Pope Must Die, this one sees Lenny Henry guest star as an American comedian making a film in Oxford. We soon delve into the university’s history of KGB spies, while Jennifer Saunders plays a woman trying to get accepted on a poetry course. Decent stuff.

17. A Fistful of Travellers’ Cheques (1984)
There are other things going on, but the backbone of this film – the first Comic Strip project to shoot overseas – is a spoof of the Spaghetti Western genre. Two Spaghetti buffs (Rik Mayall and Peter Richardson) travel to the south of Spain, where their favourite films were made, for an elaborate cosplay experience. The attention to detail is admirable, the use of authentic locations really socks home, and while some of the other characters are little more than single-gag ideas, this is still tremendous fun.

16. Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown (1993)
The two lead characters from The Bullshitters were reprised nine years later, but this time they’re part of an ensemble of TV detectives. Alongside the uber-macho Professionals avatars are comedy versions of Department S’s Jason King, The Sweeney’s Jack Regan and Spender’s Freddie Spender, all teaming up to investigate a string of murders. Plenty of humour is created from the clash of styles – especially between the flamboyant 1970s tecs versus the dour and introspective modern one – and the cast feel like they’re having a great time.

15. Slags (1984)
Part post-apocalyptic sci-fi spoof, part remake of West Side Story, this moody story written by Jennifer Saunders is a wonder. The costumes, set dressing and especially choice of locations work really well to support a plot based around rival urban gangs, while there’s lots of grotesque humour and even some romance.

14. The Comic Strip (1981)
The gang’s first foray on film was this eccentric short directed by Julien Temple, shot in and around their Soho comedy club before their television careers bloomed. The script tells a loose story about a young woman searching for her sister, but really it’s just an excuse for some self-contained stage routines and lots of eccentric, nightmarish comedy. Weird and wonderful.

13. Gregory: Diary of a Nutcase (1993)
In this bullseye critique of the power of horror films, we see video diaries shot by Adrian Edmondson’s Gregory, a seemingly affable man going about his life. However, Gregory has a deep and dangerous fascination with the latest serial-killer movie, and it inspires him down a very dark path… We crosscut between amateur-on-purpose camcorder footage and polished clips from Gregory’s favourite film, which is a very smart approximation of the 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs. Social commentary plays alongside some very enjoyable ersatz-Hollywood excess.

12. More Bad News (1988)
A sequel to an earlier Comic Strip film, this is a faux-documentary about the British heavy-metal band Bad News. Adrian Edmondson (who wrote and directed), Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson use their mutual trust and comic timing to great effect – both when they’re being followed by a fly-on-the-wall camera team… and when they take to the stage for real at the Castle Donington Monsters of Rock festival and play live in front of 60,000 people.

11. GLC: The Carnage Continues… (1990)
A semi-sequel to an earlier episode called The Strike, this outlandish film reimagines the career of London politician Ken Livingstone as if he were the subject of a crass Hollywood blockbuster starring Charles Bronson. Robbie Coltrane stars as Bronson as Livingstone, while other members of the team are also doubling up: Dawn French as Cher as Joan Ruddock, Jennifer Saunders as Brigitte Nielsen as Margaret Thatcher, Peter Richardson as Lee Van Cleef as Tony Benn. Superb.

10. The Supergrass (1985)
After two series of short films on Channel 4, the Comic Strip team stepped up to the cinema form with this mystery film set on the Devon coast. Ade Edmondson stars as Dennis, a young man who tells his girlfriend he’s working for drug smugglers – but he’s overheard by the police, who force him into taking two undercover officers on his next run. Made with a tad more depth than the TV films, and with a plot that nicely (if predictably) develops across three acts, The Supergrass is charming and entertaining.

9. The Hunt for Tony Blair (2011, pictured above)
Easily the strongest of the post-1993 occasional specials, this stylistic comedy drama is about the Iraq War scandal. Shot in moody black and white to evoke a film-noir feel, and surrealistically reset in the early 1960s, the film focuses on Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair must go on the run when the police attempt to arrest him for murder (ie, war crimes), but he soon finds his former allies have turned their backs on him. The political satire is smart, the visuals are terrific, and Stephen Mangan is excellent as Blair.

8. Five Go Mad in Dorset (1982)
The first film in the long-running Comic Strip Presents… TV series is a sublime pastiche of the Famous Five stories. In a seemingly bucolic world of country lanes and picnics and, of course, lashings of ginger beer, a group of overgrown children stumble across a criminal plot… Attacking the genre’s dodgy politics with gusto, the cast pitch their performances brilliantly.

7. Dirty Movie (1984)
A gleefully silly comedy from Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, who co-write and take the lead roles in a story about a cinema owner and a pornographic film. Taking inspiration from silent-film humour, the script is a tightly plotted engine for laughter and the whole thing motors along brilliantly. Even the fact there’s no real ending is turned into a gag.

6. The Crying Game (1992)
The merging of English football with celebrity culture was hugely topical in 1992, in the wake of Gazza’s tears at Italia 90 and the dawning of the Premier League. Here, the Comic Strip gang play it largely straight – no pun intended – for a wry drama telling the tale of a high-profile soccer star with a secret in his private life. There are many well-aimed digs and insightful comments, as well as a convincing lead performance from Keith Allen.

5. Mr Jolly Lives Next Door (1988)
Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall co-write and star in this chaotic, punky comedy about two men who run an unusual escort agency. Using the duo’s signature cartoon violence and excess, the story powers through several hilarious scenes and situations – all ably supported by guest turns from Nicholas Parsons (playing himself) and Peter Cook. At the centre are Rik and Ade at their sensational, uncompromising, childish, stiletto-sharp best.

4. Red Nose of Courage (1992)
The team tackle early 90s politics with this surreal tale about John Major… who moonlights from his job at the family circus to become Prime Minister. Major (an uncanny Adrian Edmondson) also falls in love with the leader of the Labour Party, but she only knows him as Coco the clown. A marvellous blend of whimsical ideas with genuine pathos.

3. The Strike (1988)
Perhaps the team’s most famous project, The Strike tells the behind-the-scenes story of a Hollywood-produced epic about the 1980s UK miners’ strike. Plenty of laughs are generated from seeing a crass interpretation of real events – Peter Richardson, for example, has great fun playing Al Pacino who is incongruously cast as Arthur Scargill in the movie – and you really sense that the whole team is totally committed to the project. Sensational.

2. Bad News Tour (1983)
A caustic yet still affectionate piss-take of heavy-metal hubris, Bad News Tour features a struggling rock band who get one solitary gig in Grantham. Written by Adrian Edmondson, himself a decent musician, the film is full of laugh-out-loud comedy, perceptive insights and sly satire, as well as managing a little bit of genuine emotion. The cast is dominated by Comic Strip heavyweights and they use their terrific chemistry to excellent effect.

1. Gino – Full Story and Pics (1984, pictured below)
Half an hour of crazy situations and vivid characters, all carried off with such panache. Keith Allen’s Gino is on the run from the police for a crime he possibly didn’t commit, but his fleeing brings him into contact with a succession of people who help or hinder. There are great roles for Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders, Robbie Coltrane, Rik Mayall, Dawn French and guest star Lionel Jeffries, while the comic energy is admirably high throughout. Shot with directorial style and often very funny as well as intelligent, Gino – Full Story and Pics could easily have been expanded into a full-blown movie.

Just for fun, here’s a top 10 of the performers who clocked up the most appearances in this series…

1. Peter Richardson – 46
2. Adrian Edmondson – 34
3. Jennifer Saunders – 33
4. Nigel Planer – 31
5. Dawn French – 29
=6. Robbie Coltrane – 22
=6. Rik Mayall – 22
8. Keith Allen – 17
9. Steven O’Donnell – 15
10. Kevin Allen – 13

The Comic Strip Presents… Redtop (2016, 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: Phone-tapping is rife at Britain’s biggest newspaper, but the company’s chief executive remains blissfully unaware…

Written by: Brigit Grant, Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Peter Richardson. Broadcast: 20 January 2016, Gold. 

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Russell Tovey (1) plays Andy Coulson, the editor of national newspaper The Sun. Despite being based on events from the noughties, this story plays out in a heightened, theatrical world modelled on the 1970s – newspaper offices are cluttered rooms with cigarette-stained colour palettes, men dress in ill-fitting, cheap suits, and people dart around on roller skates to disco music. As we begin, Coulson bursts into his boss’s house on a dark, stormy night and cries that they’re in trouble for hacking into people’s phones in order to gather stories. We then cut back to see the career of his boss: the executive Rebekah Brooks… Tovey is fun as Coulson, playing the role with a lot of obnoxious, alpha-male swagger. In the real world, Coulson (born 1968) was editor of the News of the World from 2003, but resigned in 2007 after a scandal over the newspaper using information gathered from illegally listening into private phone messages. Coulson denied any knowledge of the practise. Six months later he began working for the Conservative Party as director of communications; then, once the Tories entered government in 2010, he ran 10 Downing Street’s press and public relations. But he resigned in 2011 and was arrested on phone-hacking charges. PM David Cameron disowned him and in 2014 he was sent to prison after being found guilty.
* Mark Williams (1) appears as former Police Commissioner Hamish Pritchard, who in the present-day scenes is Brooks’s butler. He was sacked for corruption.
* Maxine Peake (1) plays the lead character, who’s being punningly referred to in the film’s title: Rebekah Brooks. She’s a naive, ruthless and utterly selfish sociopath from Warrington who, as ‘a young girl full of hopes and dreams’, hitchhikes to London and bags a job working for tycoon Rupert Murdoch. She works her way up to a position of power in Murdoch’s media company, but problems begin when her staff start illegally hacking into celebrities’ phones to listen to private messages… In reality, Brooks (born 1968) joined the News of the World in 1989, eventually rising to become the youngest ever editor of a British newspaper in 2000. Three years later, she switched to editing the News of the World’s stablemate The Sun for six years, then became CEO of parent company News International. She now runs the latter’s successor, News UK. In 2014, she was cleared of phone-tapping charges after her defence – that she’d had no knowledge of the activities while editor – was accepted.
* Nigel Planer (31) plays Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-American newspaper magnate. In this fictional take, he’s presented as a doddery old man in a wheelchair who’s at the whim of his much younger wife… Murdoch (born 1931) built up an enormous, multinational media empire after running a local newspaper that had been owned by his father in the 1950s. By the turn of the millennium his corporation owned British newspapers The Sun, the News of the World, The Times and the Sunday Times, as well as having a huge stake in broadcaster BSkyB.
* Eleanor Matsuura (1) has great fun as Wendi Dong, Murdoch’s wife. In reality, Wendi Deng (sic; born 1968) is a television executive and film producer who was married to Rupert Murdoch between 1999 and 2013. In the surreal world of Redtop, she’s been rebooted as a former Bond girl who dresses in a Kill Bill jumpsuit and aggressively threatens anyone who questions her or her husband. (This latter joke references a famous moment in 2011 when Deng attacked a comedian who’d thrown a pie at Murdoch during a parliamentary committee hearing.) The performance is very funny, deftly pushing the racial stereotype to ludicrous levels.
* Alexei Sayle (9) guests as Colin Goodman, an ace reporter who is pulled off bigger stories so he can write Brooks’s memoir for her. But this puts him in prime position to be framed for phone tapping and take the fall for Brooks and Coulson – the latter offers him £80,000 to do the prison time… The real Clive [sic] Goodman (born 1957) was jailed in 2007 for intercepting phone messages involving the Royal Family and sentenced to four months in prison.
* Catherine Shepherd (2) is Rebekah’s put-upon secretary, Julie.
* Harry Enfield (3) plays Rebekah Brooks’s husband, the actor Ross Kemp. ‘Hello, darling,’ she says when he phones her from work. ‘What’s the plotline for EastEnders next week?’ Enfield, bald-cap and all, plays the role in an exaggerated comic manor, riffing on Kemp’s EastEnders character, Grant Mitchell. The real Ross Kemp (born 1964) played Grant from 1990 to 1999, 2005 to 2006 and briefly in 2016. He was married to Rebekah Brooks between 2002 and 2009.
* Johnny Vegas (1) plays a veteran Sun reporter called Johnny.
* Steven O’Donnell (15) appears as Raffle, a former cabinet minister who’s brought down by a tabloid story.
* Dominic Tighe (1) and Sadie Tonks (1) play David and Samantha Cameron, who visit the Murdochs and suck up to them – even doing humiliating dances – in the hope that their newspapers will support David’s bid to be Prime Minister. Rupert wants a controlling stake in BSkyB, which will require a change in the law, and David sees no problem with that… David Cameron (born 1966) became Leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, then was PM between 2010 and 2016 (initially as the head of a coalition government). He resigned after being on the losing side of the UK’s in/out referendum on membership of the European Union. He married Samantha (born 1971) in 1996.
* Lewis Macleod (1) gives possibly the most irritating performance in Comic Strip history (at least partly on purpose) as Alan Rusberger, the editor of the Sun’s left-leaning rival The Guardian. He’s a smarmy, effete, cravat-wearing man who oversees a hippie-happy office where the staff have sing-songs and ‘even the black girls are called Emma’. The real Alan Rusbridger (born 1953), to use his real surname, was editor from 1995 to 2015.
* James Buckley (2) plays rock star Blitzy, who despite his Sid Vicious image is actually a secret trainspotter – a scandal that would embarrass the group and end his career. His reporter fiend Johnny refuses to run the story, but when it does hit the front page Blitzy is soon found dead.
* John Sessions (3) plays the Sun’s accountant. When he questions Johnny’s expenses claim, Johnny tells him that cocaine and hookers aren’t cheap. The actor also appears as Sir Edward Chapman, the head of security at Buckingham Palace.
* Stephen Mangan (3) plays Rebekah’s ‘first love’, former Prime Minister Tony Blair. He’s now launching a music career, even appearing on The Old Grey Whistle Test, when he bumps into his old friends Wendi and Rebekah… Blair (born 1953) was Leader of the Labour Party from 1994 to 2007, serving as PM for the last 10 of those years. In 2014, newspapers reported rumours that Blair had an affair with Wendi Deng. Mangan, of course, had played this role in a previous Comic Strip film. Although the two productions are stylistically very different, as are Mangan’s interpretations of the character, there’s a back reference when Blair says, ‘After years on the run, I badly needed a new image.’
* Co-writer Brigit Grant (1) appears as a reporter.
* Peter Richardson (46) does an impression of Bob Harris, the host of The OId Grey Whistle Test from 1972 to 1976, when Tony Blair makes an appearance on the show.
* As this was the first Comic Strip film to be made after his death, we end with a title card paying tribute to Rik Mayall.

Best bit: Throughout the story, Rebekah Brooks affects an ignorance of any wrongdoing by her reporters – she even shields her eyes or covers her ears when phone tapping is hinted at. At one point, her secretary is listening to a private phone message that Paul McCartney has left for his then wife, Heather Mills (‘We can work it out,’ he sings), and even then Rebekah is none the wiser. (The tape deck is clearly from a 1980s Commodore 64, by the way.) How is the newspaper getting so many great stories? Brooks just thinks her reporters are really clever.

Review: The use of the 1970s aesthetic – the faded fashions, the Dallas-style title sequence, the Life on Mars set dressing – essentially copies the same trick from a previous Comic Strip Presents film. The Hunt for Tony Blair, which was a black-and-white, film-noir account of Tony Blair taking the UK into the Iraq War, was also retelling recent British history through a stylised lens. However, the gulf in quality could hardly be more obvious.

Setting The Hunt for Tony Blair in a hazy version of the early 1960s had worked. It allowed the script to spoof some very serious, severe, even tragic events via a cosy, innocent prism, and this clash heightened the comedy. But Redtop is about shady, questionable, corrupt practices. Moving the story to the sleazy, sexist 70s gives us no ironic contrast. Exaggerating the evils of phone hacking neither makes them funny nor comments on them insightfully.

Redtop is also scuttled by an attempt to acknowledge and poke fun at a large list of incidents, aspects, famous moments and real-life people – so much so that nothing is developed or allowed to land. The script is a roller coaster of short, choppy scenes and the storyline jumps around frantically. It’s like watching a sketch show where we cut away from each sketch before it reaches a punchline.

The messy, unpolished feel to the storytelling is not helped by information often being relayed in lazy voiceover from Brooks and Blair (or worse, by lots of captions which are thrown up on the screen to explain who someone is or where we are). Viewers who know and remember the phone-hacking scandal in detail will be able to box-tick as all the characters and controversies are name-checked, but the comedy is perfunctory and the film becomes irritating very quickly.

Four Page 3 girls must not be left unattended in the reception out of 10

Next: A ranking of all 47 films and TV episodes made by the Comic Strip team…

The Comic Strip Presents… Five Go to Rehab (2012, 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: Thirty years after their last adventure together, siblings Julian, Anne, Dick and George – and a dog called Timmy – reunite for a camping holiday…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Peter Richardson. Broadcast: 7 November 2012, Gold. 

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Phil Cornwall (9) and Stephen Marcus (1) appear as a pair of simpleminded criminals, Rooky and Dirty Douglas, who essentially fulfil the same roles as Ron Tarr and Nosher Powell’s characters in 1982’s Five Go Mad in Dorset. Five Go to Rehab is the second follow-up to that earlier film, timed to mark its 30th anniversary. Tarr had died in 1997; Nosher Powell was now 84 and had been retired for a decade (he died the following year).
* Adrian Edmondson (34) stars as Dick. He was once a member of the adventure-loving Famous Five gang but now, in middle age, he’s an assistant manager of a plastics-moulding company in Dorking. As he’s not seen his siblings in a long time, Dick has spent the last 14 years organising a reunion in Dorset (‘a place of childhood memories,’ he calls it). However, the others have all moved on with their lives, so are not enthusiastic when Dick says he wants them to go ‘cycling and camping and swimming in ice-cold rivers and just relive our happiest days by being the Famous Five all over again!’ (In the original Famous Five books, only three of the children are siblings: Georgina, aka George, is their cousin.) For Edmondson, returning to a character after 30 years had its downside. ‘I made the mistake of looking at some rushes this morning,’ he said during filming. ‘I wondered who that fat bloke was, then I realised it was me!’
* Peter Richardson (45) returns as Dick’s brother, Julian, who’s now a furtive alcoholic. In the years since we last saw him, Dick has been to Equatorial Guinea and was involved in some form of dodgy voluntary work with Mark Thatcher. As this story begins he escapes from Kneecap Hill, a dry-out clinic in Dorset that has ‘Stop drinking!’ signs on its walls, but there are a pair of sinister henchmen on his trail… Director and co-writer Richardson joked to a journalist on set that his co-stars ‘started taking the piss out of me from day one’. He added: ‘They show me none of the respect that I get from young actors who are keen to please me. This lot tell me the whole time that I’m crap. It’s been horrible!’
* Dawn French (29) plays George again. Since the last Five Go film, George has led a colourful life – she moved to the south of France, married four rich, older men, had affairs, became an alcoholic… When George arrives at Kneecap Hill clinic, she stumbles across what appears to be a secret museum, but is warned off by Dirty Douglas. Later, when Dick lays out his itinerary, she balks at riding a bicycle again and drives to the campsite instead. There’s then a panic when her pet Timmy – presumably not the same canine as 30 years earlier – is dog-knapped. ‘Don’t worry, George,’ says Julian. ‘We’ll get another dog.’ (Remarkably, this was only Dawn French’s second Comic Strip appearance in 19 years. In the 1980s she’d been a fixture, appearing in 20 of the team’s first 21 film and TV projects.)
* Jennifer Saunders (33) is back as Anne, who never did become the subservient housewife that was predicted in the earlier films. Instead she’s been through the emotional ringer, and even went to prison after setting fire to her nanny. She is now a radical vegan – the nanny was torched for being a secret meat eater – which plays as a joke about how much these once-conservative characters have changed… Jennifer Saunders and Adrian Edmondson had been married for 27 years by the time of Five Go to Rehab. They had been good friends, as well as comedy colleagues, before any romance developed and Saunders has said that it was initially awkward to tell the other members of the Comic Strip group about the relationship. She’s joked that they feared the pairing would seem almost incestuous. Well, in Five Go to Rehab they’re playing brother and sister. 
* Robbie Coltrane (22) essays the same two minor characters he played in 1982: a woman who once owned a village shop but who’s now a landlady running a £45-a-night B&B, and a pervy gypsy who lives by the side of the road. Later, when the Famous Five’s popularity is questioned in the light of modern children’s fictions such as Harry Potter, George exclaims, ‘Real children can’t play Quidditch!’ Fans of postmodernism will note that the line is said by Dawn French, who appeared in the third Harry Potter movie, while Robbie Coltrane played gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid in all eight films.
* Rik Mayall (22) appears in a Five Go episode for the first time, playing a gangster called Mr McVitty. With his slicked-back hair and sharp suit and flick-knife at the ready, McVitty is searching for Julian who is wanted by some pissed-off Africans… This was Mayall’s final Comic Strip project: he died on 9 June 2014 after suffering a heart attack. He was 56 and the world has never been quite the same since.
* Felix Dexter (1) is McVitty’s partner, Mr Chendri.
* When the Five share a picnic under a tree, they witness some old-fashioned police officers arriving in 1950s cars and arresting some ne’er-do-wells. It then turns out that everyone, including the Inspector – played by Nigel Planer (30) – and the constable – Stephen Mangan (2) – are actors hired by Dick to recreate the feel of a Famous Five adventure. (He pays them £1,000 plus the cost of the car.) Once the ruse is outed, the actor posing as the constable starts flirting with Anne, boasting that he was once a Big Issue seller in an episode of Casualty. As she’s a damaged soul, she responds by attacking him and calling him a cocksucker. (Planer later cameos as a secretive barmaid too.)
* In search of the missing Timmy, the Five eventually end up trapped inside a museum diorama – a bucolic scene showing a picnic, which is part of a series of displays on classic children’s characters. Then it’s revealed who’s responsible: Toby Thurlow, played by Daniel Peacock (11). Toby was a feature of the earlier Five Go films where he was an arrogant little oik who wanted to be the gang’s friend. Now wealthy and owning a private museum, he has already acquired representations of Noddy and the Secret Seven – other Enid Blyton creations, of course – and wants the Famous Five to complete his set… (In the fiction of Five Go to Rehab, the Famous Five really are famous. Stephen Mangan’s copper-cum-actor has heard of the gang, for example, and knows all about their exploits.)

Best bit: Released eight months after the broadcast of Five Go to Rehab, Edgar Wright’s comedy film The World’s End covered similar ground. It tells the story of a reunion of five school friends who, in adulthood, have drifted apart. However, not all five are equally invested. The organiser of the anniversary pub crawl, Gary King played by Simon Pegg, is desperate to recapture the fun they all used to have. But for the other four, it’s an awkward revisit to a past they’d kinda forgotten. Gary quotes half-forgotten in-jokes and wants to act like he’s still a teenager, but his friends find it all a struggle.

Both Five Go to Rehab and The World’s End are playing with the dangers of retrospection. Whether we view a period of our personal history as the best years of our lives or something to forget, there’s always a risk in the type of idealised but naive view that Dick has in Five Go to Rehab. He can’t see why someone wouldn’t want to relive their youthful happiness, but for a variety of reasons, Anne, Julian and George are now very different people. It just isn’t the same any more. As Richardson said at the time of filming, ‘When you go back to the past, you find things have always changed, and everything seems in the wrong place. It’s like when you return to your childhood home, the house always seems much smaller than you remembered.’

Outside the fiction, if we were to be brutally honest, this also feels the case with the Comic Strip gang. The main actors were mostly in their 50s by now – Richardson was 61 – and the uneasy feeling that they shouldn’t be dressing up as children any more applies in real life as well as fictionally. All had successful careers, performing and writing, in comedy and straight acting, on stage and TV and film, and most of them had been appearing under the Comic Strip banner less and less frequently since the 1980s. Perhaps Five Go to Rehab is proof that some things are best left in the past. Perhaps Peter Richardson, the only member of the team to work on each and every project, is really the Gary King of the group, keen to round up his old pals for another journey into nostalgia.

Review: This first Comic Strip “triquel” – following on from 1982’s Five Go Mad in Dorset and 1983’s Five Go Mad on Mescalin – was the team’s first episode on a new channel. Their televisual home had previously been Channel 4, aside from a brief shift to BBC2 between 1990 and 1993. But the cable station Gold, formerly known as UK Gold, had been showing repeats of the Comic Strip films for several years and now paid for the premiere rights to Five Go to Rehab.

Gold’s schedules have always been typified by reruns of classic British comedy, so it’s appropriate they should purchase a short film that trades so heavily on past glories. Like an ageing rock band trotting out their early hits, Richardson, French, Edmondson and Saunders gamely put on shorts and clomp around the Dorset countryside, while artificially aged footage from 1982 acts as flashbacks to the youths of both the characters and the actors. Five Go to Rehab is an attempt to short-circuit the Comic Strip canon by returning to the gang’s first TV project, while also commenting on the passage of time. It’s a shame it doesn’t really work.

There are some good ideas in the mix, such as how drastically three of the characters have evolved over time. Enid Bylton’s originals were frozen in time, cursed to always be children, so the script imagines surprisingly grown-up lives for these icons of innocence. There are also more jokes about the Famous Five’s less-than-progressive attitudes – such as the xenophobia that slips out during the final scene – though this element has been downplayed from the earlier films. Sadly, however, everything suffers from a lack of hilarity, an air of unfounded smugness, and a general sloppiness to the storytelling. Various plot threads are undeveloped or abandoned, but there is time for some very lame and middle-aged comedy about unreliable Sat-Navs and crop circles.

Five homophobic ways of thinking out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… Redtop

Acknowledgement: The 2012 quotes from the actors are taken from this story on the Independent website.

The Comic Strip Presents… The Hunt for Tony Blair (2011, 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: Charged with murder, the British Prime Minister goes on the run…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Peter Richardson. Broadcast: 26 August 2011, Channel 4. 

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Robbie Coltrane (21) plays Inspector Hutton, who arrives one night at 10 Downing Street to arrest the Prime Minster, Tony Blair, on charges of murder. ‘Tell Gordon to run the country and keep trusting the bankers!’ cries Blair to his wife as he flees the building… Despite featuring real-life politicians from the turn of the millennium, this film is set in a quasi-1950s world of bakelite TVs and telephone boxes and steam trains. Hutton, for example, is a hat-and-mack-wearing detective from Scotland Yard in the mould of the Agatha Christie character Chief Inspector Japp. His name is a reference to the real-world Lord Hutton, a former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland who was appointed in 2003 to head an inquiry into the death of scientist David Kelly. Kelly had killed himself soon after testifying before a parliamentary committee looking into the legality of the Blair-led Iraq War – a BBC journalist had outed him as a source casting doubt on the government’s case.
* James Buckley (1) appears as Hutton’s theatre-loving sergeant.
* Stephen Mangan (1) stars as Tony Blair. When the PM evades the police and escapes Downing Street, he needs help so tries ringing some powerful associates – Melvyn Bragg, Bernie Ecclestone, George Bush – but they all turn their backs on him… Mangan is absolutely tremendous. He’s not giving a sketch-show impression of Blair, akin to how Jon Culshaw played the role in Peter Richardson’s 2005 movie Churchill: The Hollywood Years. Instead, he captures the chummy charm of Call-Me-Tony, using his natural affability and comic timing to great effect, and makes us believe in the character… Blair (born 1952) became Prime Minster when he led Labour to a landslide election victory in 1997 and was in Number 10 for a decade. Before Mangan came on board, the role had been offered to Michael Sheen, who by then had played Blair three times – in a TV film called The Deal (2003) and in the movies The Queen (2006) and The Special Relationship (2010).
* Catherine Shepherd (1) plays Cherie Blair (born 1954). Here, she’s a housewife-type who complains that the washing machine needs mending; in reality she’s a successful barrister who married Tony Blair in 1980.
* Rik Mayall (21) appears as Professor Predictor, a balding man in a wheelchair who performs on stage at a variety show and wows the crowd with his precognitive abilities. He has previously foreseen the abdication of Edward VIII and the death of James Dean, and now claims that Paul McCartney will one day marry a woman with one leg. When asked about the Iraq War, however, with an incognito Tony watching on, he can’t sense where any weapons of mass destruction may be. A shot then rings out… The character is a clear parody of Mr Memory, a very similar stage magician in the 1935 film The 39 Steps (played by Wylie Watson).
* Ronni Ancona (1) pops up briefly – and, it must be said, rather pointlessly – as the actress Barbara Windsor (1937-2020), who just happens to be hanging around outside the theatre where Professor Predictor is appearing. She offers Tony some help and kisses him as a distraction when the police race past.
* Nigel Planer (29) summons up plenty of oiliness for a very effective impersonation of Peter Mandelson. In reality, Mandelson was Blair’s friend and confidant but here he’s someone who manipulates both the police and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, for his own ends. Through Mandy’s meetings with Hutton, we see flashbacks to Blair’s rise to power – these scenes spoof events both genuine (a broken pact between Blair and Brown) and fictional (Blair killing his predecessor as Labour leader, John Smith). The real Mandelson (born 1953) had been a PR man and one of the key forces behind the 1990s rebranding of the Labour Party. He later served in the Cabinet, though had to resign twice, and is now a peer.
* Tony Curran (1) plays Robin Cook (1946-2005), who was Foreign Secretary from 1997 until 2001 then Leader of the House of Commons until he resigned in 2003, citing his grave concerns over the government’s pro-war stance over Iraq. He died in 2005 after suffering a heart attack while out hiking. In the meta-fiction of The Hunt for Tony Blair, this tragedy is rewritten as a comedy scene where Blair accidentally pushes an irate Cook off a mountain. ‘Yes, I do worry about Robin Cook and John Smith,’ Peter Richardson once said about representing real people in a comedy. ‘There’s no suggestion [Blair] actually did murder these people; it’s ridiculous and not true.’ He added that he’d chosen not to cover the controversial death of David Kelly because ‘it was too real and too serious’.
* Ford Kiernan (1) has a few scenes as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who plays second fiddle to Blair but then plots to take over as PM… Brown (born 1951) was once a close friend and political comrade of Blair’s. He had strong personal ambitions, but when John Smith died suddenly in 1994, Brown allowed the more popular Blair a free run at the leadership – on the proviso that Blair would support him as the next leader. Brown didn’t take over until 2007 and was then Prime Minister for three years.
* In a flashback to Blair’s time in Number 10, Peter Richardson (44) plays US President George W Bush… as rethought as an East Coast mobster. While in London, Bush summons Blair to come and meet him, and uses all his threatening, Italian-American, designer-suit sleaze to co-opt Blair and the UK into a plan to invade Iraq (‘I’m gonna fuck I-raq,’ he says. ‘Don’t cross me on this one’). Richardson revels in the character, essentially playing Bush as if he were Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Bush (born 1946) was president from 2001 until 2009.
* Steven O’Donnell (14) appears as Bush’s right-hand man, Donald Rumsfeld (1932-2021; US Secretary of Defence, 1975-1977 and 2001-2006), repurposed here as a Mafia heavy.
* Ross Noble (1) plays a socialist hobo – a former trade-union leader, we later learn – who Blair encounters on a train. Clutching Das Kapital in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, this man threatens to reveal Blair’s location to the police… So Blair pushes him from the speeding train to his death.
* Gary Beadle (9) cameos as the butler at Chequers – the British Prime Minister’s country residence since 1921 – who won’t let acting PM Gordon Brown in because he clearly has psychological issues.
* While on the lam, Tony returns to an old flat hoping for refuge, but finds that his friend Carole Caplin – played by Morgana Robinson (1) – has taken up residence. Cherie had tried to evict her, but Carole has changed the locks. She’s flirty and sultry with Blair, then he realises she’s also called the cops. The real Carole Caplin (born 1962) was a close advisor to the Blairs, but scandal hit when Cherie was found to have done a business deal with Caplin’s partner, a convicted criminal called Peter Foster. (Foster later claimed Carole and Tony had an affair, though very few people believed him.)
* Harry Enfield (2) plays Alastair Campbell (born 1957; Blair’s head of PR and communications from 1994 until 2003) as a sweary, ranting Grant Mitchell type.
* Jennifer Saunders (32) stars as a ghoulish, decaying Margaret Thatcher, who since being ousted from politics has become a recluse in a spooky mansion. There’s quite a lot going on in this sequence, not least a number of movie references. Saunders was asked to play the ageing Thatcher (1925-2013; Conservative Prime Minster from 1979-1990) as Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard… but with the look of Bette Davis in 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Of course, this wasn’t the first time the actress had taken on the role in a Comic Strip project. She’d given us an arch Hollywood interpretation of Maggie in GLC: The Carnage Continues… then appeared very briefly as a reasonably straight version in Red Nose of Courage.) When Blair arrives at the property – shades of Rebecca‘s Mandeley, here – he finds Lady Thatcher watching old war footage on a home cinema screen, much like Sunset Boulevard’s faded movie star Norma Desmond rewatches her old hits. Also like Desmond, she’s deluded and believes a comeback is within her grasp: ‘The mummy must return! To clear up the mess that the children have made while I was gone!’ The scene eventually pivots into a psychosexual drama as the former and current Prime Ministers sleep together… Given the chance to camp/vamp things up under layers of make-up, Saunders is very funny.
* John Sessions (2) plays Norman Tebbit (born 1931; Conservative minister 1981-87), here reimagined as Thatcher’s solitary servant. Sessions plays the role akin to Erich von Stroheim’s butler Max in Sunset Boulevard.

Best bit: The film is shot stylishly in black and white, a mode that evokes several slices of movie history. The madcap energy of the plot and the parade of comic characters give the feel of an Ealing comedy, while the expressionist camera angles, high-contrast lighting, smoky locations and doom-laden incidental music remind us of film noir (especially 1949’s The Third Man, which is name-checked at one point: it’s the title of Mandelson’s memoir). But the biggest influence lurking in the shadows of this piece is the Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 Steps.

Released in 1935 and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, The 39 Steps was groundbreaking. The Hollywood script doctor Robert Towne once said that ‘all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps’ and this bold claim stands up to scrutiny. The film blueprinted a new type of adventure movie, a heady mixture of comedy, espionage, sex, eccentricity, multiple locations and action set pieces – all pulled off with panache. From the James Bond series to modern superhero blockbusters, a huge chunk of popular cinema has been gliding along in the wake of this Hitchcock classic.

The Hunt for Tony Blair sees an encounter with a stage performer who’s able to predict the future, a journey on a train speeding out of London, and a general air of breathless pursuit and a deepening mystery – all trademarks of The 39 Steps. Of course, one big difference from the earlier film is that the lead character in 1935, Richard Hannay, was innocent.

Review: By now, the Comic Strip team and their creative leader, Peter Richardson, were old hands at this format. The Hunt for Tony Blair is the fifth project in the canon to retell a period of 20th-century history through a warped lens of satire. The Strike and GLC: The Carnage Continues… imagined the edgy politics of the 1980s if filmed by a crass Hollywood film studio; Red Nose of Courage tackled the Tory government of the early 90s via the medium of the circus; while Churchill: The Hollywood Years took us back to an ersatz Second World War where history was not what we thought. Richardson also dabbled with outlandish celebrity spoofs in Stella Street, a BBC2 comedy series he co-wrote with Comic Strip alumni John Sessions and Phil Cornwall.

This latest example of quasi-docudrama succeeds on multiple levels. The use of the black-and-white, 1950s vibe allows the script to poke fun at some very serious matters with its tongue in its cheek, and a lot of comic dynamism is generated from this clash of the frivolous and the factual. The large cast is well chosen with everyone making an impact, while Richardson’s direction is crisp and, even with so much *stuff* going on, the film is never rambling or loose. There’s a genuine unity of purpose behind the writing, acting and staging.

Nine people who have heard of Billy Bragg out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… Five Go to Rehab

The Comic Strip Presents… Sex Actually (2005, 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 young couple move into a quiet cul-de-sac, and soon attract the attention of the neighbours. But what happened to the previous owners of their house?

Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Peter Richardson. Broadcast: 28 December 2005, Channel 4. 

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Rik Mayall (20) and Doon Mackichan (6) play married couple Bilbo and Diana who live in the village of Great Wittering. He’s a conceptual artist who married her because she ‘sucked him off’, but they are – as they sing at one point – hopelessly devoted to each other. Nevertheless, at one point Charles convinces his sexy new neighbour Angie to pose for a painting, but then panics when Diana returns home unexpectedly.
* Peter Richardson (43) and Cleo Rocos (1) are seen watching a village cricket match, then return later as part of a group of carol singers (which also includes guitarist Jeff Beck (5) in his latest Comic Strip cameo). Richardson can also be heard as a TV golf commentator.
* Sheridan Smith (1) plays lead character Angie, who buys a house in the village with her South American boyfriend, Luccio. The house has a room that could be converted intro a kid’s bedroom, but the previous owners – Ron and Helen, who have died mysteriously – clearly used it as a sex dungeon. Angie is a recently widowed woman with a large inheritance, and a ditzy-blonde, flirty vibe. She’s immediately popular with her neighbours – in part because she flaunts some cleavage around – but considers people in their 40s to be ‘just waiting to die’… Sheridan Smith, who was born in the same year as the Comic Strip gang’s first film, feels a good fit for the team. As well as good dramatic actor, she’d impressed in comedies such as The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, and Love Soup. But she perhaps goes a bit too obvious while playing Angie; the Babs Windsor waddle and cutesy voice means we never really sympathise with the character.
* Tamer Hassan (1) plays Luccio. Noticing that all the houses in the cul-de-sac have pampas grass in their front gardens (Angie points out how phallic the plant is), he realises that something unusual is going on in this area. Then neighbour Roy innocently asks him if he likes dogging. On Christmas Eve (this episode is a quasi-Christmas special, being broadcast on 28 December), Luccio gathers all the main characters together. He reveals that he’s actually Inspector Luccio Alphonzo Marquez Ricardo Jose Delamarco, a representative of the Bogota police. This Colombian Columbo then lays out what he’s discovered: all the residents of the street are swingers, previous tenants Ron and Helen were murdered, and the killer is in the room… (While fun, this classic crime-drama denouement would work better with a more capable actor doing the explaining.)
* Nigel Planer (28) appears as Graham, a creepy man dressed in kinky leathers. He lives on the Grove too, but is not invited to join in with the others’ sexy activities because he doesn’t have a wife. (Nigel Planer later appeared in a 2013 episode of Jonathan Creek alongside two of his Sex Actually co-stars: Sheridan Smith and Rik Mayall.)
* Phil Cornwall (8) and Glenna Morrison (1) are married couple Roy and Jane from No.5. When we first meet Roy, he’s the estate agent selling the house to Angie and Luccio – he deliberately doesn’t tell them he’s a neighbour for fear of putting them off. We later learn that Roy has the biggest collection of pornography in Berkshire (‘and probably Buckinghamshire too’): Chinese, 50s gang bang, pre-war orgies, rare 60s girl-on-girl, beastiality, et al. But his smugness deserts him when Jane shags some builders he’s hired… so he demands they give him a 20-per-cent discount on their quote.
* Rebecca Front (1) and Robert Bathurst (1) are clearly having fun playing Carol and Charles, who have been married for 20 years. He’s a judge and a golf fan, but the two constantly bicker – so much so that the tiffs often become cruel and comically violent. Things get even more heated when Charles realises that it’s the first Thursday of the month – and therefore the day he, Carol, Roy, Jane, Bilbo and Diana are meeting for their monthly swingers night. He’s pissed off because it clashes with the play-off at the US Open (a slight misunderstanding of golf, here: when a play-off is needed, it happens on a Sunday).
* Steven O’Donnell (13) appears briefly as a builder called Brian.

Best bit: Despite its title and subject matter, there is of course not much actual sex on display in this comedy. Jane has her fun with two hunky builders; there are brief flashbacks to an orgy. But mostly the episode plays on suggestion and innuendo. In fact, if anything, there’s a running joke that the swingers’ sexcades are not really that erotic. When the six friends get together on the first Thursday of the month, none of them has much enthusiasm for the evening. With Helen and Ron gone it’s just not the same any more. Charles laments that he misses Helen’s arse…

Review: For the first time in this series, the fiction invades the title sequence. For more than 20 years, the Comic Strip short films had begun with an animation showing a bomb dropping onto the countryside. In early examples, we were looking down on a map; then, from 1986, this was replaced by an illustration that uses Donald McGill colours to evoke a sense of old-fashioned, idyllic Britishness. In Sex Actually – the first Comic Strip TV project for almost six years – we stay with the illustration a few beats longer than usual and then start to notice movement. Cricketeers are playing on a village green and a sports car is zipping down a country lane.

This cute deviation from the standard format draws us into the story, which is set in suburban, middle-class, green-belt Berkshire. But this is not the cosy, safe world it first appears. Characters are just as obsessed with sex as they are with presenting a respectable image. It’s a twisted Abigail’s Party crossed with a murder mystery crossed with the letters page of Readers’ Wives. The result is one of those comedies where, while it passes the time and features some fun performances, you keep expecting the hilarity to kick in and it never does.

Six carol singers out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… The Hunt for Tony Blair

Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004, 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: During the Second World War, a United States Marine Corps officer defends the UK from the scourge of Nazism. His name? Winston Churchill…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Peter Richardson. Released: 3 December 2004. 

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Jon Culshaw (1) wheels out an impression that will be familiar to listeners of his radio sketch show Dead Ringers and appears briefly as Tony Blair (born 1952), who had been UK Prime Minister since 1997. As the film begins, it’s the 21st century and Blair is told an astonishing secret about the UK’s most revered wartime leader. We then cut back to 1940…
* Christian Slater (1) is the star of the show, playing Winston Churchill. It turns out that established history is wrong, and the fat, old, cigar-smoking guy we all think of as Churchill was just a stooge: an after-dinner speaker called Roy Bubbles. In fact, Churchill was really an American GI who runs around in a tight T-shirt, shooting guns, smirking, and saying things like, ‘You wanna war, Adolf? You got it, pal!’ The story is set before the Americans have joined the Second World War. After capturing the Enigma codebreaking device and delivering it to the British, Churchill is frustrated by the nation’s lack of urgency in fighting fascism. It doesn’t help that the King and the military are openly pro-German. But he does meet and fall in love with a young woman, who he later realises is Princess Elizabeth. Then he learns that the German high command are in London and threatening the Royal Family… Slater is actually good value as this quasi-Schwarzenegger figure and deserves a better script. He’d appeared in some excellent films, such as Heathers and True Romance, and has a genuine movie-star appeal. He also pronounces the word Nazi as ‘narzy’ – like the actual Winston Churchill did. Speaking of whom, Churchill (1874-1965) was… oh, you know.
* Henry Goodman (1) pops up a couple of times as a wheelchair-bound US president – obviously a version of wartime president Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945) whose inability to walk while serving in the White House was kept secret from the public. Mark Caven (7) plays his Chief of Staff.
* Romany Malco (1) is Churchill’s best mate, a fellow marine called Denzil Eisenhower. His presence as a black actor works as a joke about war films. Even though the US armed forces during the Second World War included many black servicemen – around 1.2 million, in fact – movies have often downplayed their role and/or completely erased them from history. So including Denzil here is historically authentic and a comment on those films’ blinkered casting choices. (‘Oh, I’m just the token black guy in this war?’ he jokes at one point.) Having said all that, he’s quite an irritating and disposable character. He also leads a bewilderingly misjudged scene at a royal party where he and Churchill perform an anachronistic jazz-rap song to an enthusiastic crowd of dignitaries.
* Neve Campbell (1) plays the sensible and idealistic Princess Elizabeth, the heir to the throne. (In a gag that was reasonably topical in 2004, she’s referred to as the ‘People’s Princess’.) Energised by the war effort, Elizabeth volunteers to serve using the alias Jane Commoner: ‘Have you been a soldier long?’ she asks the recruiting officer out of habit. But later – after the subplot of her going undercover has been forgotten about – Elizabeth is kidnapped by Adolf Hitler, who plans to forcibly marry her and combine their two empires… Campbell, most known for the Scream movies, uses a pretty good royal accent. Princess Elizabeth (who was born in 1926, so this film ages her up somewhat) became Queen Elizabeth II when her father died in 1952.
* Bob Mortimer (1) and Vic Reeves (1) play two camp royal servants, Potter and Bendle. A defence of irony would no doubt be used if we accused the characters of being homophobic.
* Harry Enfield (1) appears as a befuddled, grumpy and hopelessly naive King George VI. Enfield later assayed much the same kind of role in the Channel 4 comedy show The Windsors when he played George’s grandson Prince Charles. The real George VI (1895-1952) became King when his brother Edward VIII abdicated in 1936.
* Jessica Oyelowo (1) plays the king’s flighty, flirty second daughter, Princess Margaret, who plans to marry Hugh Hefner and be a Playboy bunny for six months… Margaret (1930-2002) was a notorious good-time girl, but like her sister was much younger in reality than is being portrayed here. (The porn baron Hugh Hefner (1926-2017), who’s only mentioned, has also been aged up: he was actually 14 at this time.)
* Leslie Phillips (3) plays the Nazi sympathising Lord W’ruff, a member of the UK Cabinet. Given that the English ‘Winston Churchill’ is just a stooge, it’s odd that we never learn who the *real* Prime Minister is. W’ruff has arranged for Adolf Hitler and his closest fellow Nazis to fly into England for a meeting with the King. At one point, W’ruff hands Potter a copy of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf (or ‘Me In Camp F’ as the latter calls it in a very lame joke) and it’s clearly a glossy, modern paperback. This is hardly a cinematic crime, of course, but a poorly chosen prop is emblematic of a film where the directorial focus is never sharp enough.
* Rik Mayall (19) is the most experienced Comic Strip veteran in the cast. (Admittedly, some would not consider this movie to be part of the Comic Strip canon, but it was made by the same writers and director and in the same vein. If we do count it, this is the first project in which Peter Richardson does not appear on screen.) Sadly, Mayall plays a fairly pointless character who has no impact on the story. But, Mayall being Mayall, he’s still one of the few true positives: his character, Baxter, is an arrogant, pervy, racist army bigwig who takes a shine to the incognito Princess Elizabeth. (Why doesn’t he recognise one of the country’s most famous women? Answers on a postcard please.)
* Mackenzie Crook (1) appears as Jimmy Charoo, an ‘Irish Cockney’ and ally of Churchill’s. He lives in East End of London – on Ye Olde Dick Van Dyke Street, which gives you some idea of the sophistication of the humour. As well as the obvious Mary Poppins references, this sequence is poking fun at the happy, dancing, drunken working-class characters in the 1990s film Titanic.
* Antony Sher (2) stars as a necessarily comedic version of Adolf Hitler, who secretly comes to London to meet with King George. Before he and his entourage reach the Palace, however, we must sit through an interminable set of scenes trying to squeeze comedy out of a car not starting and Third Reich officials having to flag down a taxi and catch a night bus. (Hitler is also mistaken for Charlie Chaplin and assures people that he has a full set of testicles: cutting-edge comedy, this is not.) The stage actor Antony Sher, who was knighted in 2000, is from a Jewish family, which adds an interesting flavour to the spoof. In reality, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was… oh, you know.
* Phil Cornwall (7) plays Hitler’s right-hand man, Martin Bormann. Cornwall gets some humour from the darkest of characters by playing him with a gruff, aggressive, EastEnders accent. In reality, the reprehensibly evil Bormann (1900-1945) was one of the highest-ranking Nazis and had unchecked power to run domestic issues in Germany and enact the barbaric persecution of Jews and others.
* Miranda Richardson (6) plays Eva Braun, Hitler’s secret girlfriend. She poses as his sister in public, but in private the two engage in sex games (she dresses up in lederhosen, they play strip poker). Braun (1912-1945) was a German photographer who was Adolf Hitler’s long-time companion. They married in secret as the Allies approached Berlin, then killed themselves two days later.
* Paul Putner (1) has one scene as a bus conductor; Steve Pemberton (1) has a small role as a royal train waiter called Chester; Sally Phillips (1) appears as a cafe waitress; Robert Carwithen (5) plays a soldier; James Dreyfus (1) is Mr Teezy-Weezy, a man who gives Hitler a haircut.
* Steven O’Donnell (12) pops up as Hermann Göring, another of Hitler’s cronies. He’s obsessed with alcohol and fallen women. The real Göring (1893-1946) was in charge of the German military during the war, but fell out of favour with Hitler and spent more and more time acquiring stolen artworks. He survived the war, but was soon tried and convicted; he killed himself before his execution.
* Joseph Goebbels – played by another Jewish actor, David Schneider (1) – officiates the wedding of Adolf Hitler and Princess Elizabeth. He wears a Devil costume for on-the-nose comedy reasons. Goebbels (1897-1945) ran the Nazis’ propaganda machine.

Best bit: The scattergun humour on show in this film takes in several targets, such as movie spoofs (Brief Encounter, Apocalypse Now, Pearl Harbor and more), Blackadder-style anachronisms, cartoon violence and jokes about cross-dressing. But very little of it lands. This is partly down to the gags simply not being funny (and certainly not inventive) and partly down to performances that are often hammy and misjudged. One mildly funny joke that does raise a laugh sees Winston Churchill playing pool with the little models on a military planning board while he describes how to win the war.

A side note: By the time Churchill: The Hollywood Years was released, Christian Slater was appearing in the West End. He’d been cast in a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue (coincidentally, just 60 seconds walk from the Raymond Revue Bar, where the Comic Strip gang was formed). Your current blogger was once standing outside a pub on Rupert Street when he saw Slater walking around the side of the Gielgud Theatre to reach its stage door. The star was on his mobile phone, so when a couple of middle-aged, male autograph hunters tried to get his attention he just kept walking. At the stage door, however, he was asked for a photo by some teenage girls and immediately put his phone away and turned on the charm.

Review: British comedy cinema had an odd 2004, with highs (Shaun of the Dead) and lows (Sex Lives of the Potato Men). While Churchill: The Hollywood Years wasn’t the worst film released that year, it’s not far off.

There are some major issues. For one, the central conceit simply doesn’t work. We’re told early on, in scenes set in the 21st century, that the famous image of Winston Churchill was incorrect and he was actually a gung-ho American in his 30s. Fine. As a joke about Hollywood films that overstate the US’s involvement in historical events, which after all is what the movie is all about, it works. But then we cut to the 1940s and *everyone* knows the truth. The American Churchill appears in the newspapers and meets the Royal Family and is chummy with Fleet Street hacks. How is this meant to be a secret?

Of course, one obvious answer to this criticism is that Churchill: The Hollywood Years is a spoof – specifically a spoof of crass films. So does it matter? Well, yes. Comedy isn’t an excuse for sloppiness – there must still be an internal logic, even if it’s surreal or silly. The original draft script of Churchill featured scenes set outside the fiction, and showed a Hollywood film producer balking at a fat, old hero for his movie and insisting on (mis)casting Christian Slater. This framing device – familiar to Comic Strip buffs from the 1988 episode The Strike – was unwisely dropped. It would have at least added some context and justification.

A even bigger problem is the overall comedic tone, which is *all over the place*. Jokes range from cartoon excess to references only Brits of a certain age will get, from fart gags to political satire, from undergraduate humour to under-five pantos. Almost none of them is funny, and some are actively annoying. Peter Richardson had wanted the Comic Strip series to be an ‘alternative Carry On’. With its historical setting, puerile humour, self-indulgent actors, corny jokes, depressing sense of that’ll-do, and distinct paucity of series regulars, here he got his Carry On Columbus.

Three wanking hands out of 10

NextThe Comic Strip Presents… Sex Actually

The Comic Strip Presents… Four Men in a Plane (2000, 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 quartet of bullish businessmen share a plane across North Africa – but things soon go wrong…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Peter Richardson. Broadcast: 4 January 2000, Channel 4. 

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Adrian Edmondson (33) returns as Ian Crisp, his character from 1998’s Four Men in a Car. Ian and three fellow yuppies bump into each other one Tuesday afternoon at Stansted Airport. They’re there to catch a flight to North Africa so they can attend a feasibility conference, but after landing several hundred miles away from the venue they face a 15-hour coach trip in sweltering heat. So the four men pool resources and hire a local pilot to fly them there in a small aircraft… After more than 20 years of working together, the key Comic Strip performers are able to bounce off each so well and everyone in this quartet gets their moments to shine. Having said that, it wasn’t all sunshine and flowers behind the scenes: tension on set led to a huge row between Adrian Edmondson and co-star/director Peter Richardson, with Ade initially refusing to play a scene a certain way. 
* Nigel Planer (27) is Tim Goodman once again, a man who suffers early on because he’s two air miles short of the 1,000 he needs for an upgrade on his flight to Africa. Aboard the plane, he isn’t allowed to join the others in the posh section and he misses out on the free drinks and face sprays. Instead, Tim must squeeze into economy with loads of rowdy Millwall fans.
* Rik Mayall (18) plays Alan Sellars, another of the businessmen. He’s having a good, old time flying premier class on the airline and then splashing the cash to hire the local pilot in North Africa, but the men’s trip takes a dark turn when the local pilot dies mid-flight… Alan, Ian, Tim and their friend Tony are stranded in the rocky desert with a dead body, a plane they can’t fly, and no supplies. Even worse, they’ll now miss the feasibility conference. They’re soon bickering and disagreeing over how to get back to civilisation, and the problem increases when the only available drink – Tim’s bottle of Fanta – is spilt during a row.
* George Antoni (4) appears briefly as an airport porter: Alan has hitched a lift on his buggy because he’s claimed to be disabled.
* Peter Richardson (42) technically plays a new character here: in Four Men in a Car, he was Steve; now he’s the very similar Tony Grace-Masters. We first see him arrogantly reprimanding a shop assistant for not maintaining eye contact, then on the flight to Africa he openly watches pornography with the volume up high. After the boys get stranded in the desert, Tony films their attempts at survival on his camcorder – at one point he falls off a small cliff while lining up a shot – and also records some embittered video diaries. Eventually the boys realise that, while they can’t fly the plane, they can drive it. But do they know which way to head?
* Dave Haskell (2) has a small role as a man working in a tie shop at Stansted. Ian wants a new Simpsons tie – specifically Sideshow Bob – but can only get a South Park one.
* Whereas the first Four Men episode had featured two significant characters played by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, Four Men in a Plane increases the frequency of females but vastly downsizes their agency. The parade of one-note women who are there to look attractive includes Frankie Park (2), Sandra Cush (1) and Helen Landau (1) as stewardesses; Chickpea (1) as a receptionist; Louise Taylor-Smith (1) as a supermodel; Xanthe Milton (1) and Ean Ravenscroft (1) as sales assistants; Malin Coleman (1) as a masseuse; and Jeanie Gold (1) as a passenger.
* Fabian Gottlieb (1) plays Pico, the very cheap pilot the boys hire from a dusty, isolated air strip in North Africa. He’s clearly desperately unwell as soon as they clap eyes on him, but the businessmen don’t seem to worry about the risk of letting him fly a plane.

Best bit: The first shot of Four Men in a Plane is a 111-second, uninterrupted take in Stansted Airport’s main concourse. The Steadicam operator glides around, finding and introducing us to the each of the four main characters as they prepare for the flight to Africa. Dozens of extras – or possibly real commuters – fill the background, while Rik Mayall even enters the scene on a golf buggy. Choreographically impressive, this shot is a conscious homage to Hollywood long takes such as the opening of Orson Welles’s 1958 film Touch of Evil.

(Also worth mentioning is the gag that comes when Ian uses Tony’s camera to record a private video diary and confesses that he once accidentally ran over and killed three people and then buried their bodies in the New Forest. The episode could do with more of the savage humour seen here.)

Review: The first Comic Strip episode of the new millennium – yeah, yeah, some people say the new millennium started in 2001 – is a sequel, though the events of Four Men in a Car are barely acknowledged and the four businessmen act like they only vaguely know each other. (Peter Richardson is also playing a new character.) The Comic Strip team have done several sequels in their time, and arguably each one has been step down in quality from its predecessor. Four Men in a Plane does not buck the trend.

The opening act is almost entirely laugh-free, as we dawdle through innumerate situations about which airport lounge the men have access to or which section of the plane they can sit in. All this comedy about very middle-class concerns – status, money, being better than others – is a very long way from the early, exuberant, punk-inspired days of the collective. Perhaps this is understandable. Times move on, and so do people. By now, Peter Richardson was 48 years old; Nigel Planer 46, Adrian Edmondson 42 and Rik Mayall 41. All were well off and successful. Four Men in a Plane is comedy made by people not really fighting against anything: hence, jokes about not having enough air miles.

The second half of the film then, of course, moves into new territory as the four characters are stranded in the African desert with no food or water. We’ve seen this kind of story before – Tim even references one of the bastions of the genre, the 1958 war movie Ice Cold in Alex – but at least the situation cranks up the energy and allows the four actors to let rip.

Five restructuring mergers out of 10

NextChurchill: The Hollywood Years

Star Trek: Enterprise – season four (2004-05)

Over the last few months I’ve watched all of the TV series Enterprise – or, as it was known from 2003 onwards, Star Trek: Enterprise. To mark the show’s 20th anniversary, here’s what I thought of the final season, episode by episode…

* Storm Front. Picking up the WTF? cliffhanger from the previous season, P51s are flying in the skies of Earth and Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) is being held by Nazis… one of which is an alien. Meanwhile, Enterprise is banged up and the crew can’t understand why Winston Churchill is broadcasting on the radio but there’s news of battles in America. Of course, we’ve time-travelled to an alternative version of the 1940s. Christopher Neame plays a German officer in league with aliens who have supplied weapons and who now offer viruses that will only attack non-Ayrans. A hoary old sci-fi idea but done with a bit of fun and emotion.

* Storm Front Part II. The story continues, necessarily more clunkily this time as the mechanics of the plot dominates. At the conclusion, the time-travelling agent Daniels returns from previous seasons to make a ghostly appearance and (finally) round off the Temporal Cold War story arc.

* Home. The crew arrive back on Earth (the proper one in the year 2154) and are welcomed as heroes. The focus this week is on character stories: Archer hangs around with a boring ex, while Dr Phlox (John Billingsley) suffers racism (dramatised by that old TV cliché: aggressive strangers in a bar)… But the pick of the stories concerns Sub-Commander T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) and chief engineer Trip Tucker (Connor Trinneer) and their nervy steps towards a proper relationship as they visit her mother (guest star Joanna Cassidy).

* Borderland. In what was surely an attempt to court dubious Star Trek fans, Next Generation star Brent Spiner crops up in this one. He’s playing Dr Arik Soong, an ancestor of Dr Noonien Soong (the creator of his Next Gen character Data). Arik is a prisoner but a scientific genius. Archer needs his expertise when a group of augmented humans cause havoc and their mission leads to another old slice of Star Trek continuity: the green-skinned Orion race seen occasionally in the 1960s show. Oh, and the Klingons show up too. Bits are okay but the augmented characters are dreary.

* Cold Station 12. The story continues… tediously, as the untrustworthy, dodgy criminal Arik turns out to be untrustworthy and dodgy. It’s also still fascinating how Enterprise is willing to all but ignore some of its regular characters. Ensign Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) and Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) have barely said a word so far this season – the two actors of colour on the show, perhaps coincidentally.

* The Augments. The conclusion of a three-episode arc continues to pile on the old Trek continuity as Khan, the villain of the 1982 movie, and his ship Botany Bay are mentioned. The lead augmented human, Malik, turns even nastier and tries provoking a war. The side issue of Trip and T’Pol’s awkwardness now that she’s married to someone else is more successful.

* The Forge. This season, for good or bad, does feel like it’s had a kick up the arse. There’s an intent, a drive. This episode begins with a terrorist attack on Earth’s embassy on Vulcan that kills dozens. The investigation then taps into the big season-four theme… references to old Star Trek episodes. Before you can say ‘pleasing the fans’, T’Pau – a one-off character from 1966 – is being discussed as a suspect.

* The Awakening. A slower episode continues last week’s storyline as Archer has imaginary conversations with a long-dead Vulcan elder and T’Pol struggles with her mother’s choice to support rebels. Then the present-day Vulcans get aggressive, leading to another cliffhanger: Enterprise heads off to stop an invasion… [Shrugs shoulders.]

* Kir’shara. Part three of another little mini-arc. The focus now swings to Vulcan and Andorian warmongers. Boring.

BEST EPISODE: Daedelus. The inventor of the ship’s teleportation device, now an elderly man in a wheelchair, comes for a visit. Tucker is again the heart of this show: his reverence for Emory Erickson is quite touching, while he also tries to get T’Pol to discuss her mother’s recent death. The episode seems like it’s going to be a laid-back character piece, then a sci-fi plot kicks in when a crew member is killed by a ghostly force. A nicely old-fashioned Trek episode. This type of plot could easily have been done for The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine.

* Observer Effect. A fun set-up sees Tucker and Hoshi infected with an illness on an alien planet, while Lieutenant Malcolm Reid (Dominic Keating) and Mayweather have been possessed by mysterious beings intent on observing how the humans deal with the crisis. Later, these two dispassionate aliens transfer to other bodies, but the plot moves too slowly to be compelling and the po-faced sentimentality grates.

* Babel One. Archer and co welcome aboard some aliens who communicate by insulting each other. They’re due to conduct negotiations with the Andorians, but their ship has been attacked – and semi-regular Andorian leader Shran ain’t happy. Even when the true bad guys show up, the prejudice continues. Rote storytelling that asks us to care about a row between thin-skinned, racist characters.

WORST EPISODE: United. The Andorian and Tellarite races are now at war, manipulated by a mysterious force – who we recognise as the Romulans. However, due to this show’s dogged desire to write aliens as bigoted reactionaries, Andorian Shran wastes time by challenging a rival to duel. And for reasons that passeth understanding, Captain Archer offers to take the rival’s place. Ghastly episode.

* The Aenar. A three-part story concludes with a limp, interest-free episode that sees the Romulans continue their mission to conquer and divide, while Archer and Shran seek out some reclusive Andorians who might be involved. The most notable aspect is Trip asking for a transfer to another ship after a cooling with T’Pol.

* Affliction. Finally free of the recent story arc, the ship returns to Earth to celebrate the launch of its sister ship, Columbia. Trip is due to join the new crew. But a crisis strikes when Phlox is kidnapped by the Klingons. The episode dabbles in some film-noir stylings, Reed disappoints his captain, and comedian Seth MacFarlane pops up as a Starfleet lackey. Not too bad.

* Divergence. The Klingons are under threat from a virus which may change their appearance for several generations… Yup, the Enterprise writers are now constructing a story to explain away a ‘continuity mistake’ from earlier Star Trek shows. (Sigh. When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tackled this ‘problem’ of inconsistent alien make-up, they turned it into a gag: much more satisfying.) Following on from last week’s episode, the crew set out to rescue Phlox and it’s all done at fever pitch and feels urgent, with action and big emotions.

* Bound. Sadly not a remake of the 1990s crime thriller with Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, but another attempt by the creative team to please Trek fans with links to the original show. Soon into the episode, Archer and Reed are drooling over three sexy Orion girls (to them, the sexiness is not diminished by the fact these women are enslaved). Taken to the ship, the Orions have a bewitching effect on the male members of the crew (Star Trek doesn’t acknowledge gay people), and there are then examples of tension and jealousy. It’s down to T’Pol and Hoshi to point all this out…

* In a Mirror, Darkly. MORE bloody continuity: we start with a repeat of a scene from the 1996 Trek movie First Contact… except now the humans don’t welcome the visiting Vulcans peacefully, they start shooting instead. Cut to the Enterprise title sequence with darker, more militaristic music and clips of war and death rather than heroic exploration. It seems we’re in an alternative universe – known to Trek fans as the Mirror universe. Our characters are still on the Enterprise, though Archer is not captain, everyone’s a fascist, and the female characters are defined solely by their sexuality. Not only that, but there’s another tie-in with the 1960s episode The Tholian Web: the crew stumble across a ship, the Defiant, seen in that episode, so we get 60s sets, costumes, transporter effects… It’s all quite esoteric and aimed squarely at Trekkies with little concern for storytelling, but it at least isn’t boring.

* In a Mirror, Darkly Part II. As the story continues, so do the fan-baiting continuity references: the Mirror crew put on Captain Kirk uniforms and Archer uses the Defiant’s files to check up on their Prime universe equivalents. In the plus column, Hoshi gets a rare chance to shine (Mayweather is still essentially an extra) and it is admittedly fun to see the regular cast on 1960s sets. But the lack of a ‘real’ universe element in this two-parter makes it all quite facile.

* Demons. RoboCop himself, Peter Weller, guest stars as a fascist agitator in an episode centred on the foundation of the Federation. A mystery is set up when our crew become aware of a baby who is the offspring of T’Pol and Trip – a child neither of them was aware of. This leads to a question of whether she’s lying about never being pregnant (no one considers cloning). Meanwhile, Mayweather gets his biggest dialogue scenes in about two years as he encounters an old flame. Diverting.

* Terra Prime. The second half of the two-parter begun in Demons, as an anti-alien faction issue ultimatums and T’Pol and Trip meet their daughter (who, yeah, *is* a clone). Given that the series had been axed by the time this episode was made – and that it had been decided to do something unorthodox with the finale (see below) – Terra Prime is essentially Enterprise’s last hurrah. Dynamic, entertaining and actually *about* something, it’s sadly far from typical of what’s been before.

* These Are the Voyages. Wildly unpopular in some sections of fandom, and with a few cast members, Enterprise’s final episode begins conventionally enough. The regular characters are shooting the breeze on the bridge… but then the image freezes and we realise we’re watching a virtual-reality recreation. Not only that, but Next Generation character Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is the person running the programme. So Enterprise’s climax is actually set 210 years later, during the timeframe of another Star Trek show. This is not a bad idea, per se: there’s potential for context and illumination and wrapping up the series from a much-later perspective. Sadly we don’t really get much of that from a dreary plotline about Shran’s daughter being kidnapped. Not even the heroic death of a regular character packs much of a punch.