Today I’m feeling inspired to write about the latest two offerings from Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, given the disappointing nature of both projects. I’m clearly not talking about the consistently hilarious Peep Show, whose series 4 finale was just inspired, I’m talking about their recent feature film debut with Magicians and the more recent pilot Victorian-themed sitcom Ladies & Gentlemen
Firstly Magicians…when the news came out that Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong were to do a film it was all very exciting- after all they write very well for Mitchell and Webb, and the collaboration between the four of them would have the potential to be a TV-to-film transfer in the same calibre as Pegg/Wright/Frost, though obviously with a very different style.
However as previews were reviewed and commented on it was reported that the film was a little lacklustre and didn’t have the pizazz and flair that a big screen treatment of the topic of magicians should have. Given the fact that I like Bain & Armstrong and Mitchell & Webb on TV, I was a little worried that it was going to be completely awful and un-watchable. These worries were, sadly, almost completely justified. Don’t get me wrong the film wasn’t as dire as the initial write-ups led me to believe it would be, but that’s not to say that it was a good film. It was massively predictable for a start and contained so many plot holes and too many sub-plots which made it feel ‘clunky’ and cobbled-together. Structurally it was more like an extended sitcom episode and that is never going to work for a feature film.
When it came to the acting Mitchell & Webb performed their usual personas pretty well, with Webb as the slightly over-confident chancer and Mitchell as slightly uptight and boring. Though the lack of screen-time they shared proved problematic as the contrast was never highlighted and they couldn’t revel in their usual banter. Nevertheless, they remained likeable and watchable throughout. Jessica Hynes performed to a high standard, but suffered from Bain and Armstrong’s awful inability to write for women characters, or at least write well rounded women characters, after all the twitchy, fragile Toni in Peep Show is very well realised, if slightly one-dimensional.
The subject of the film- a magic double act who split when one killed the others wife in a trick that went wrong on stage, reunited for a magic competition- should have given Bain and Armstrong plenty of scope for comedy situations, however it seems that that is exactly what they thought too. They clearly wrote the screenplay without going into it in any depth, without scratching the surface of the world of magic. So the jokes and situations were at best clichéd and at worst…well they completely ignored the potential of a magic show and seemed to just use it as a slightly glitzy backdrop for the double act of Mitchell & Webb, in the hope that their charm would carry it off.
Therein lay the main problem- they were merely using magic as a backdrop and it wasn’t woven into the fabric of the film; the magic references felt shoehorned in. Contrast this with a film like Shaun Of the Dead where Pegg and Wright had a love of the zombie film genre and the form and content were integrated and fluid, or even with The League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse in the section set in the 17th Century where you could really feel the love of the period. In both these cases the passion the writers/actors had for their respective genres/periods was reflected in the detail, references and performances. Something Bain and Armstrong could learn from.
Overall… it appealed to the ‘fan-girl’ in me Mitchell and Webb were sweet and likeable with some excellent lines, but really the best lines were only average in a film context, and far too thinly spread. Had the lines been in a sitcom or even a ‘special’ made for TV it could have been brilliant. Or maybe they should just hand their comedy film scripts to Edgar Wright and let him make them in future, perhaps in the case of Magicians with Jeremy Dyson and Reece Shearsmith script editing, given their passion for all things magic.
Given their unsuccessful venture into feature film, you would be forgiven for thinking they would fair better in a sitcom context, especially considering Peep Show’s continuing brilliance. However Bain & Armstrong’s latest sitcom offering Ladies & Gentlemen, a pilot episode which was long-time arriving on our screens was extremely disappointing. It started out life under the title of Modern Men and promised to be a sitcom showing a group of Victorian men trying to make sense of the ‘modern’ times they were living in. It first came to light when Reece Shearsmith was linked to the show sporting a full beard, just prior to his appearance in The Producers in February/March 2006.
We heard nothing until over a year later when Adam Buxton revealed on his blog that he was part of this much anticipated sitcom pilot, still under the title of Modern Men. Finally a transmission date was revealed, and it was to be shown as part of a series of new sitcom pilots and now had the title of Ladies & Gentlemen. For some reason alarm bells rang with me when I found out of the change in title, it was only a small point but I felt that the bland, generic title could not bode well. It smacked of a show that didn’t really know what it was about, fair enough it was a pilot but I expected more of these writers. Of course if another show exists with the same title then fair enough but a more interesting new title could have been thought of surely?
I was, sadly, proved right. The show consisted of a group of disconnected characters, with barely a semblance of plot. The premise of the show was thinly sketched in, it was set in the Victorian period and made vague reference to the manners and mores of this period but never really exploited the humour and detail that a viewer would expect from a period sitcom. There were three male characters, a doctor (Adam Buxton), a writer (Darren Boyd) who was a slightly over-confident chancer and…I’m not quite sure what Reece Shearsmith’s character was, other than slightly uptight and boring. Hmm, ring any bells?
Oh and the two main women characters were a ‘ditzy blonde’ and an ‘old spinster’. Say no more.
Contrast this with, for example the League Of Gentlemen’s Xmas Special- the Victorian segment with Dr Chinnery was rich in detail and lovingly captured the essence of that era in both the language, design and performances. Yet again Bain & Armstrong fall short due to a lack of passion and research on the topic they are writing about, surely the first things a writer should think about when starting a project.
The show ambled along pointlessly. Now I don’t mind idle banter if the characters are sharply observed and well performed, and I don’t mind a lack of real plot if the script is sharp and witty, unfortunately this show had nothing to redeem itself- the performances were mediocre. Well I tell a lie, complete and utter fan-girl that I am I’d say that it was only worth watching for Adam Buxton’s rather fetching beard.
But shhhh! I never said that…