Saturday, 28 March 2009

British comedians making the big leap: The highs and lows

After the overwhelming success of Gavin and Stacey, James Corden and Matthew Horne could afford to pick and choose any project they wanted, and, like so many other successful comedians before them, they found the film world too tempting to resist. It may well prove to be an ill judged decision with Lesbian Vampire Killers falling foul of the critics and failing to become the monster hit that they hoped for. They're not the first TV comedy act to harbour bit screen ambitions and certainly not the last to choose a duff script. Its a trecharous transition to make, but when it goes right we can get genuine classics like Shaun of the Dead. When it goes wrong, however, you can get talented individuals like Mitchell and Webb labouring away in the distinctly average Magicians. So whats the right formula for Brits to make the big leap?

Is this really how you build on success?

The yardstick, in British comedy at least, for a successful transition from TV to the big screen is the Monty Python team. Undoubtably a collective of the most talented inviduals in the industry, this did not necessarily guarantee them success. Morecambe and Wise for instance, could pull in huge audiences and enjoyed unprecendented success but their film efforts were forgetable. Somehow, in Holy Grail and Life of Brian, the Monty Python team produced 2 of the greatest comedies ever made and the key to this success arguably lies to sticking to what they did best, and doing it well.

These films were not the type of money-spinning vehicle that so many greats have idly graced with their presence. It was the collective's attempt to bring the true scope and ambition of their comedy into realisation. They proved that by taking creative control over a project, maintaining the style of humour and values that made them successful, and applying it to the right material they could produce classics of the genre. Its a concept that has been so often ignored by others and it wasn't until Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg so brilliantly transferred the humour and heart of Spaced to their film projects that TV comedy acts have enjoyed that kind of big screen success.

All too often the trend has been for British talent to move away from their established roots to appear in low grade, fast tracked comedies that fatten their wallet and increase their exposure but show nothing of their potential. Thats why for every Hot Fuzz there's a Sex Lives of the Potato Men or Fat Slags around the corner meaning that within months of the "new saviours of British film comedy" (TM) emerging the critics will begin mourning its death.

The one comedian that is all too aware of all this is Ricky Gervais. After his incredible television success the only direction to go was into the film world and he has been wise in his choices so far. He's avoided the British produced duds so far and by going to Hollywood he has adapted his unique style of humour to American comedy. His first starring role, in the underrated-but-not-brilliant Ghost Town proved his star quality and ability to pick a solid script and still put his own personal stamp on a film. He hasn't rushed into the film industry and that patience is beginning to show its rewards. He has creative control over his next film; writing, directing and starring in This Side of the Truth and though its an American production he could well be the next "saviour of British film comedy" (TM). It probably won't be too long before it dies again, with the next-big-thing comedians wondering where it all went so wrong.

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