Chris Morris – The Movie

7 05 2010
Chris Morris Four Lions

'Four Lions'

It’s no exaggeration to say that Four Lions, released in UK cinemas today, is one of the most eagerly-anticipated films of the year. For a whole generation of twenty- and thirty-something viewers, its director Chris Morris is something of a counter-culture hero, the aggressively playful satire of Brass Eye, Nathan Barley and The Day Today still representing a high watermark for television comedy, much imitated but never bettered.

No less impressive is the pedigree of Morris’ co-writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, best known for their work on Peep Show, Channel 4’s exquisitely uncomfortable and very funny exploration of modern social mores. And the subject matter of Four Lions promises great things too. The story of a group of blundering British-born jihadis who hatch a plot to bomb the London Marathon, it tackles a subject that has long been ripe for darkly comic treatment.

Everything seems to augur well then for a rip-roaring, taboo-busting satirical storm. And yet still, as I wait nervously in line to buy my ticket, I find myself strangely worried that what should be an important and entertaining British film might turn out to be, in the end, not actually that good.

So why this nagging sense of doubt? Well, I suppose it’s partly because British comedy doesn’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to bringing small-screen personnel and ideas to the world of motion pictures. For every In The Loop or Life of Brian there are dozens of less successful adaptations, where otherwise talented comedy writers, actors and directors have found themselves flailing around on the big screen, seemingly unsure of what to do with the extra space and scope at their disposal.

In the 1970s, for example, big-screen adaptations of TV comedy shows appeared with depressing regularity in British cinemas. They were popular, of course, and they maybe tickled a few funny bones at the time, but it’s difficult to look back now at the movie versions of Porridge or On The Buses or Up Pompeii! and see anything other than pale, over-stretched versions of formats much better suited to the small screen. After all, what makes comedy work on TV is entirely different to what makes comedy work on film. With an episodic sitcom you have the chance to build character and to explore a situation over many hours of (often repetitive) screen-time. In the cinema, you have to get on with the business of telling a story pretty damn quickly, and gags have to be sustained and developed over a much longer period of time.

Chris Morris Four Lions

Muppets or mujahadeen? 'Four Lions'

The idea of plonking TV formats onto the big screen has never really gone away though. This is mainly because, whatever a film’s comedic merits, it’s simply much easier to market when audiences already know its main characters and have already been amused by them in the privacy of their own homes. A reasonable number of people who like the TV show will, in all probability, buy a ticket for the film: just slap Harry Enfield or Ade Edmondson on the poster and your job’s half-done. So, while hardly mining a rich vein of comic gold, Kevin and Perry Go Large (2000) did very well at the box office and can be counted a ‘success’ in purely financial terms. Similarly Mr. Bean‘s various outings have made shed-loads of money for everyone involved and Steve Coogan has done very well out of, erm, being Steve Coogan in a number of recent British films.

Chris Morris, of course, is not Mr. Bean. Nevertheless, his first foray into cinema did, in my opinion, fall foul of many of the problems that beset would-be film-makers whose only experience is in TV . In his short, My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117 Morris took an admittedly very funny sketch from his radio show Blue Jam and shot it in a way that, for this viewer at least, was hugely over-literal, sucking most of the comedy out of the story. What began as a surreal spoken-word piece became a game of catch-up, with the images on screen struggling to follow Morris’ narration.

Chris Morris

Not Mr. Bean. Chris Morris, yesterday.

For his debut feature the director has chosen something completely different, which is probably a very good idea. It’s difficult to imagine Morris wanting to have a go at Brass Eye – The Movie anyway, but by picking a proper ‘movie-sized’ subject he’s shown that he at least understands the qualitative difference between TV and cinema comedy.

Once this essential difference has been grasped, then the proverbial sky’s the proverbial limit (proverbially-speaking). Compare,  for example, Monty Python’s first foray onto the silver screen, And Now For Something Completely Different (1971) with their later work, The Holy Grail (1975) and The Life of Brian (1979). The first re-heated many of the group’s best TV sketches and, however funny, struggled to be genuinely cinematic. In the later films, however, Cleese, Idle et al turned to a grander style of narrative comedy that, even today, feels like a much better fit for the big screen. Likewise, Ricky Gervais seems to have realised early on in his career that David Brent – The Movie would never really work, and has instead pursued a number of original ideas in Hollywood.

British film comedy then, may not have the best pedigree, and it may have writers and directors who too often fail to make the leap convincingly from TV to cinema. But when it works (Kind Hearts and Coronets, An American Werewolf in London, In The Loop) it can be very good indeed. Over many years Chris Morris has established a truly visionary and meddlesome presence for himself on British TV. I, for one, have my fingers and toes crossed that Four Lions proves to be as good as we all hope it will be, and that he manages to make a similar impact on British film.

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One response

1 12 2010
Carpet Shampooer

i have so many funny bones in myself that is why i would love to be a comedian ‘.”

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