UK comedy supremos Mel Smith and Gryff Rhys Jones’ first venture into cinematic territory, the Mike Hodges-directed Morons From Outer Space (1985) was, it has to be said, neither a commercial nor an artistic success – in fact, it pretty much reinforces the old stereotype that TV actors are good at TV and nothing else, and that such performers should stick firmly to their own metier if embarrassment is to be avoided. Although, it has to be said, I rented it about three times as a teenager and still have a copy now, but that says more about me than it does about any of the people involved in the production….
What a relief, then, that Wilt, based on the hilarious Tom Sharpe novel of the same name, is a lot better – in fact, it’s a great movie and one of the unsung gems of 1980s Brit cinema. Also, because it was made for the big screen, and not for television, it manages to remain faithful to the explicit edge inherent in Sharpe’s work that previous gogglebox-bound adaptations such as Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue, however masterful, had both missed. That said there are still a few touches missing that maybe just wouldn’t have worked in a cinematic context – but on the whole it’s a very faithful adaptation indeed. Somehow or other, the subject matter seemed to completely pass over the heads of the censors, who gave it a 12 rating; maybe they were too busy laughing at the time to wreak their usual brand of repressive evil on the world. And that’s the clincher – unlike Morons, it is genuinely very, very funny throughout, at least as funny as any story about murder, mutilation and the slow, seemingly irretrievable breakdown of a man’s marriage and career can be.
Anyone who’s read my previous contributions to Britmovie will have probably guessed by now that I like films that err slightly on the side of the macabre, and Wilt, whilst an out-and-out comedy, is no exception. In fact, if someone from another planet came to Earth and wanted to know the meaning of the term ‘black humour’ I would probably show them a copy of this. Sharpe’s general ‘schtick’ seems to stem from imagining members of supposedly ‘polite’ society finding themselves in embarrassing and fatally unavoidable situations involving either sex, corruption or both, although here he leaves behind the obvious hatred-cum-fascination for the upper classes/powers that be and their ‘peccadilloes’ that infused most of his earliest work, and turns instead to the life of a downtrodden, beleaguered, thirty-something going-nowhere polytechnic lecturer. In other words – Henry Wilt, everyman. Trapped in a dull, presumably sexless (definitely childless) marriage with a pretentious wife (Alison Steadman at her ingratiating best) more obsessed with martial arts, alternative medicine and ‘finding her centre’ than any of his daily problems- such as his seeming inability to get promoted even within his own mediocre department- and living in a faceless, nameless commuter town somewhere between London and Norwich, our titular hero (Jones) is the man we all dread becoming.
Like all frustrated married men in frustrated marriage-based comedies, he often dreams of either leaving or killing his wife – unfortunately he unwittingly talks openly about it onto a live cassette recording, thanks to bungling, hapless undercover copper Inspector Flint (Smith, of course) accidentally dropping his radio-mike onto a canal bank during a nearby drugs bust. To add insult to injury, he believes at the time that Smith is a mugger, and subsequently brains him with an abandoned shopping trolley before realising his mistake and legging it. When, three weeks later, workmen filling in a large excavation shaft on the college grounds find what they believe to be the body of a murdered woman down the hole, and subsequent investigation finds Wilt’s pranged car abandoned nearby with ‘jottings’ on the back seat concerning ‘violence in society’, it doesn’t take long for the dim-witted Flint to put two and two together and come up with five, and our Henry finds the events of the last 21 days come back to haunt him in a way he would never imagined….
All this would make a decent enough crime thriller or a convincing horror film, but thanks to Andrew Marshall and David Renwick’s masterful adaptation of Sharpe’s novel, it just makes great comedy. The interplay between Smith and Jones is fantastic to watch, worthy of their best Not The Nine O Clock News sketches, and the supporting cast -Steadman as the insufferable yet sympathetic Eva, Jeremy Clyde and Diana Quick as her annoyingly-upper-class “friends” who actually want nothing more than a girl-boy-girl threesome with her and actually kidnap her for the weekend by engineering the embarrassing rubber doll-related incident that leads indirectly to Henry’s arrest – seem perfectly at ease in their roles.
The dialogue sparkles, the timing is brilliant, and the one-liners are among some of the best of the genre. Examples include “I am the fucking police, you gormless erection!” “They don’t have sensibilities, they work in a sausage factory” “Of course I think it (a Rhorshach test) looks like a dead woman lying in a pool of blood, but I’m hardly going to tell you that am I? I’m sitting here on a murder charge!!” and most memorably of all, “You murdering bastard!! I bet you if we dug up these graves there’d be a dead body in each of them!!” but it would be foolish to reduce the film to merely a series of off-the-cuff remarks: it really does hang well together as a complete piece, and the viewer does feel a sense of genuine concern for the characters in question, particularly Henry, whereas in Morons no-one really gives a damn and neither do we. But in the end it’s Smith, as the doomed Flint, that comes off worst and thus gives the most sympathetic performance. The penultimate scene when, exasperated at his own failures and misjudgements, he arrests himself for falsifying arrest and conspiring against a private citizen, is both touching and hilarious- and the look on his face when he realises that the much-ballyhooed ‘Swaffham Strangler’ (whom he should have been trying to catch instead of persecuting the innocent Wilt) has been knocked unconscious and captured accidentally by his nemesis, the eternally fortuitous Inspector Farmelow, is priceless.
If there’s a failing in the film, it’s simply that being lensed and released when it was, in 1989 (the twilight of the British film industry to all intents and purposes) it looks like a cheaply-made TV movie or extended Christmas Special from some ITV sitcom: the font on the credits looks like it has been stuck on by Fads The Paper People, and despite the ace camerawork which conveys the dullness of suburban England so well, it does seem a little too cosy for comfort in places- hence its 12 rating, maybe. The incidental music, an awful soprano-sax-led Kenny G-esque rendition of the classic ‘Love Hurts’ isn’t too hot either – although the end credits feature an impassioned performance of same by Leo Sayer, belting it out in a way he hadn’t done since ‘Thunder In My Heart’ back in ’78, which pisses all over Cher’s mawkish overcooking of the song- so maybe that puts it into perspective.
Wilt, unlike many of the films I have chosen to review in the past, actually did rather well at the flicks – although, given the pedigree of those involved, it comes as no surprise that its biggest audience was found later on television- often on the Easter schedules or, of course, at Christmas. Sadly, plans for sequels based on Sharpe’s further adventures of the hapless lecturer bore no fruit, so obviously it wasn’t THAT much of a smash hit, but as he edges ever nearer to his 80th, the great man is still churning ‘em out (the most recent instalment in the saga being in 2004) so you never know. One can only shudder at the thought of which hideous contemporary actors they would employ this time round, but then again they probably won’t. Just because I choose, sad old hair metal duffer that I am, to get all nostalgic and misty eyed about 1989, it doesn’t mean that the decision-makers in the movie industry are going to share my passions. But just in case any of them are reading this, feel free to prove me wrong – I’ve dug my cowboy boots and hair gel out of the cupboard already…
Happy New Year, and remember- “it’s only a Britmovie”