Directed by Ricky Gervais & Steven Merchant
I’d read a few luke-warm reviews of this film, and passed-by a couple of chances to see it on the ‘Wait for the DVD’ basis. Then I decided to see it anyway. I went on the Monday and went straight back to see it again on the Wednesday. Five stars out of five, for me. I thought it funnier and better the second time around too.
The film, to me, celebrates great scriptwriting and great dialogue writing. The story is paramount, which something too many critics have a problem with, and the style, the direction, the camera all serve the story and the dialogue. As Ricky Gervais said in interviews, his part is a mere cameo, and the best lines are written for others.
It’s a classic coming of age movie, all about the three lads in 1973. They’re stock characters, but handling stock characters well is a major skill. Freddie (played by Christian Cooke) is the central figure, seeking to get out of his background and “make something of himself.” Cooke plays him as the observer, and so often the camera catches him in this mode. In particular he’s watching the deep sexism of the corporate set-up, and the home life of his boss, the excruciating Mr Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes). Bruce (Tom Hughes), the second of the trio, is the violent rebel with rock star good looks and a huge chip on his shoulder. Snork (Jack Doolan) is the bumbling nerd with the knack of only ever saying the wrong thing.
Left to right: Julie, Freddie, Bruce & Snork with Humber Hawk
Freddie gets a job at the insurance company headed by Kendrick, and discovers an old friend from primary school, Julie, is the boss’s daughter. The vile Mike (Matthew Goode), supervising him, proudly tells him that he is “banging the boss’s daughter,” and that they’re engaged. Julie (played by Felicity Jones) is the love interest, and the ending is satisfyingly predictable, but so was The Graduate. Every one of the cast is so good they seem irreplaceable. Stephen Merchant’s own five second cameo is hilarious, but much too short. I’d love to see Merchant with a bigger role in something.
The story’s set in 1973, and captures the era acutely while maintaining Gervais’s attitude to white collar jobs, which we know from The Office. Prudential Insurance is one of Reading’s largest employers and the original title was to be The Man From The Pru. The fictional Valiant Life assurance, doorstepping pople to flog life assurance, is obviously Prudential.
The company party, Ralph Fiennes as Mr Kendrick
Is it 100% perfect in recreating the era? Probably not quite. I thought Gervais wearing a vest (i.e. undershirt) at the dinner table as the dad was about ten years too late sartorially, early 60s rather than early 70s. In 1973 I owned a 1953 Humber Super Snipe, and Bruce has the slightly-inferior Humber Hawk model of the same vintage. That figures, it would only have been worth about sixty quid at the time. In the scene where they take the piss out of Freddie for listening to Vaughan Williams, the red and white record on the floor is a budget Top Six EP from around 1964. I’m ashamed to admit I both knew that AND noticed. Maybe his family kept one.
It’s all about Reading, where Gervais grew up, but little was filmed there. The idyllic helicopter shot of the town is actually Stroud. The station is Loughborough, and the village street scenes of the fictional suburb, Cemetery Junction, which is supposed to be a dump, are filmed in Woodstock, ironically one of the most desirable places of residence in England. For our first ever video, A Weekend Away, we started filming on the first day in the same street, right outside The Bear Hotel which is seen many times. Mind you, during filming Mystery Tour, one of the producers got mugged just off this street, and years later, filming English Channel there, the sound recordist had his car stolen from the hotel car park, so maybe it’s not quite as desirable as it looks!
The nitpicking detail of these queries means that 99.9% was spot on. There are any number of little touches that will pass most viewers by. When they enter the disco, in an important scene three-quarters of the way through, the band are playing Do I Love You? (Indeed I Do). The original by Frank Wilson was the most obscure, hard-to-find Motown 45 ever, and earlier in the year one of the few known copies set a record price of over £25,000. To most, it will just be a Motown-style song. In a Guardian article, Saptarshi Ray traces several name references to real locations in Reading. For example, the new housing estate whose sign the lads deface, is where Gervais grew up.
I predict this film will be a huge seller on DVD, and deservedly so. I’ll buy it the day it comes out and look forward to the third viewing.