The Boat that Rocked and In The Loop Herald New Dawn for the Brit-com
Toe-curling English Embarrassment and Swing-door Farce Is What We Do Best at the Movies
The Times, 28 March 2009
In the next few weeks you will find yourself in a cinema celebrating the Great British Cup of Tea, the Great British Obsession with Boobs, and the Great British Capacity for Embarrassment. There will also be a chance to appreciate our native talent for inventive profanity. Plus you will be amazed to see a scene stolen by a British Bourbon biscuit.
Take pride for a moment in your sorry, impoverished little nation, for it is springtime for the Great British Comic Film. Two homegrown productions go international next month and Britannia will once again rule the waves, thanks to 'The Boat that Rocked' and 'In the Loop'. Comedy is now the only thing we do well, so here we investigate the ingredients that make the perfect, self-deprecating Brit-com recipe.
Appropriately, 'The Boat that Rocked' launches on April Fool's Day. It is the latest offering from the venerable Sir Richard Curtis of Notting Hill (surely he has a title by now?) Meanwhile, over in the Italian-Scot corner, on April 17 we have Armando Iannucci's 'In the Loop', which will showcase the Great British Foulmouth and enable our Dr Evil of Spin, Alastair Campbell, to become a bogeyman worldwide.
If you have missed the wall-to-wall hype, the plots are these: 'The Boat that Rocked' is set in 1966 on a pirate radio station off the English coast, where plucky, shagging, stoned DJs fight the might of the Ministry, which wants to shut them down. 'In the Loop' is set in Washington, where plucky, shagging, manic British politicians fight the might of the US, which wants to send them to war.
'The Boat' is actually 'The Office' afloat, with the same levels of hubris, humiliation and eccentricity, and In the Loop' is a full-screen version of the TV series 'The Thick of It', which, of course, plays with much of the same material as 'The Office'.
I know, not since 'Slumdog Millionaire' have we Britons seen such success! And like it said on the 'Slumdog' posters (puzzling given the early torture scenes) these are great “feelgood” movies. Indeed, 'The Boat that Rocked' is so feelgood it's a frontal lobotomy, in the mode of 'Mamma Mia'!. The Sixties' music fires all those Austin Powers nostalgia synapses, even for those too young for nostalgia, and you just drool dumbly for about three hours as the Kinks sing Sunny Afternoon. What the film does brilliantly is that toe-curling English embarrassment and swing-door booby farce that has typified Curtis's works, from 'Four Weddings' through 'Bridget Jones' to 'Love, Actually'. The cast contains all the usual suspects, from Emma Thompson to Kenneth Branagh. Bill Nighy plays the musical ship's captain, referencing his performance as a decaying rocker in 'Love, Actually' in the way that John Travolta's dance scene in 'Pulp Fiction' referenced the original in Saturday Night Fever.
Even the boat's love interest, Tom Sturridge, is, of course, a posh boy with a floppy fringe parodying Hugh Grant. And did I mention the pirate DJs doing a final 'Slumdog Millionaire' mass dance scene? It is, to misquote Monty Python: “And now for something completely familiar” - another Curtis film with the same cast, the same jokes, the same excruciating sentimentality. I wouldn't miss it for the world. It's as comforting and truly British as a seaside postcard or a Christmas panto.
In both films everyone swears like a trooper, which American film-makers generally try to avoid in soft-sell comedy. 'In the Loop's' central character is Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker (a thinly disguised Alastair Campbell, the former Blairite spin doctor and cursemeister extraordinaire.) Iannucci has taken profanity to new, creative depths. Apparently the buttoned-down American audience at the Sundance preview whooped at the innovative use of the C-word. Spin doctor Tucker comes up with some lovely turns of phrase including: “Christ on a bendy bus!” and “You sound like a f***ing Nazi Julie Andrews!”
It's a long way from 'Love, Actually' and 'The Boat's' “bottom-bashing fornicators” to Tucker screaming, “Shut it, love, actually, or I'll hole-punch your face” - a very Officey threat. It's even better when he refers to colleagues as “foetus boy” and finishes them off with “Shut up, stem cell!”
This still cannot outdo my favourite line, delivered by Tucker, smiling: “I'd love to stop and chat to you, but I'd rather have type 2 diabetes.” It's the sheer effort going into the abuse that must be appreciated.
In the way that chardonnay became a motif of the Bridget Jones era, so a nice cup of tea is ubiquitous on the pirate radio boat, to the extent that I'm wondering if Typhoo had a product-placement deal. All very British. As of course was the iconic Peek Freans' Bourbon biscuit that stole the show from the romantic lead on board as we wondered: Is that a Bourbon or a finger of Kit Kat? No it's a Bourbon! Ewww, they're dipping it in one another's tea! Will a bit go soggy and fall off? Etc.
So these are the ingredients of British big-screen humour: swearing, saucy, self-deprecating satire. It's what we do well. And this is just the beginning - you will not be surprised to hear that the BBC is planning new versions of the 'Carry On!' films. My teacup runneth over.