Video Review – Exotica, A Study In Terror, Harry Enfield and Chums, Blackadder


Writhing Performers

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, November 1995)

In a club as exotic as its title, a schoolgirl lapdancer oozes for a client with hang ups. Meanwhile a pet shop owner deliberately gives away tickets to the opera. All the while, people are striding across a burnished landscape, line abreast. They, like the audience, are looking for something.

Exotica (Fox Video – Rental) tries hard to be meaningless at first. People’s lives flit by seemingly at random and are unwilling to reveal anything about themselves. But director Atom Egoyan’s camera carefully reveals these people’s methods, reasons and, most of all, their perversions. Bruce Greenwood’s love for the lapdancer goes far beyond mere lust. Elias Koteas’s constant introduction of her (“What is it about a schoolgirl?”) reveals more about himself. And Don McKellar’s pet shop boy has only himself to blame when he gets mixed up in their world.

For once, here is a so-called art house film that isn’t afraid to go beyond its small remit. The club and its writhing performers are necessary to the story and not a frame is wasted on unimportant subtext. The climax is like an orgasm – at once fulfilling and inevitable, as well as untenable and surprising. I’m sure no Atom Egoyan film could ever be described as predictable. On the spine, Exotica describes itself as an ‘erotic thriller’, one of the most overused and shite-indicating terms used in films. Exotica isn’t an erotica thriller.

Ever since the death of dear old Arthur Conan Doyle people have been pondering inane fanfic questions such as “What if Sherlock Holmes had met…?” Everyone from Sigmund Freud to Lord Haw Haw have been on the receiving end of the great detective’s impossible smart-assedness and in A Study In Terror (A Taste of Fear – £10.99) we get the inevitable: Jack the Ripper.

“Hold!” I hear you cry, “Wasn’t that film called Murder By Decree starring Christopher Plummer and James Mason?” Well, yes it was and unfortunately this film turns out to be, with apologies to Gene Wilder, Sherlock Holmes’s less smarter brother.

This film was made earlier than Murder By Decree and unfortunately has ‘Hammer Horror’ stamped all over it in exploitative red ink. You almost know what to expect when you see Barbara Windsor’s annoying and indecently young visage getting slit up a treat early on.

But somehow it manages to rise above all this Dale Winton-like tackiness. John Neville as Holmes (no, I’d never heard of him before The Adventures of Baron Munchausen either) and Donald Houston as Watson are interesting without being overly flashy, driving a narrative which actually makes some serious points about homelessness and poverty. Edwardian monarchs, however, are not implicated.

A mildly diverting hour and a half then, and strangely interesting for the fact that Frank Finlay plays Inspector Lestrade, a role he recreated a few years later for… you guessed it, Murder By Decree.

Harry Enfield goes mainstream in his latest Harry Enfield and Chums (BBC Video – £10.99) video. But then it’s hard to disprove he wasn’t in the first place. By his own admission ‘a bit Dick Emery’ Enfield’s first show on BBC1 wasn’t all that different from his BBC2 or Channel 4 shows. The man has a gift for knowing what a large proportion of the population will laugh at.

Take the Self-Righteous Brothers, two of the characters debuted here. They only needed to appear once, going on about the relative merits of ‘Edmonds’, for everybody in this fair land of ours to go “Oi, Edmonds, no!” at annoyingly high volume.

The only difference here seems to be a high proportion of famous guest stars (“Oi, Hill, no!”). Whereas the idea of ‘Benny Elton’ wandering around parks at double speed clothing scantily-clad bimbos is immensely risible (it’s a wonder he never thought of it himself), Naomi Campbell as the lover of Wayne Slob was one of those ‘what ifs’ that should have remained so.

It would have been better to have left the acting to Enfield and his chums, Paul Whitehouse and, especially, Kathy Burke. Burke has long been on the sidelines of British comedy acting, probably because she doesn’t look like Emma Thompson. With the evidence here of one of the randy old ladies (“You look like a young Harry Belafonte”), Waynetta Slob and Perry, the (male) mate of Kevin the Teenager, she should be winning Oscars by the end of the decade.

The BBC gets its act together elsewhere with the realisation that there is such a thing as a three hour videotape and has produced a wallet-friendly release of all four Blackadder (BBC Video – £10.99 each) series on a tape each.

The Black Adder was a high budget romp through the dark age of a mythical Richard IV. Written by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis it introduced us to the king’s repellent son Edmund, an oily scheming git with a deformed haircut who referred to himself as the Black Adder. With actorly guest stars including the alliterative Brian Blessed and Frank Finlay, the series was a small success but lacked the requisite factor of actually making you laugh more than twice an episode. Only episode four, The Queen of Spain’s Beard starring Miriam Margolyes as a lascivious Spanish princess and Jim Broadbent as her cheerful interpreter, managed to achieve something that was more than the sum of its parts. Adjudged an expensive failure at the time, a second series looked unlikely.

Thankfully, someone at the BBC thought otherwise. For Blackadder II is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. With a scaled-down production and Ben Elton replacing Atkinson on script duties the Black Adder took on a new lease of life. This time he is Lord Edmund Blackadder, court lackey to the non-fictional Queen Elizabeth I and total bastard.

The genius of Elton and Curtis’s script was to make Blackadder less smarmy and more sympathetic – even when he’s kicking Lord Percy in the nuts. The only other characters to survive from the first series – Baldrick, Blackadder’s mucky servant and Lord Percy, “a total git who I don’t seem to be able to shake off” – were developed into two genuinely funny sidekicks. The actorly element was still there in the presence of Tim McInnerny and Miranda Richardson as the frighteningly immature Queen, but now they had funny lines to deliver. It’s hard to single out one episode out as the best but Beer, wherein Edmund has to deal with a visit from his puritan aunt (Margolyes again) whilst hosting a drunken party is a masterpiece of frantic farce. The explanation of “great booze up” has to be seen to be believed.

With a now winning formula, Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth couldn’t go wrong. Tim McInnerny was afraid of being typecast so Percy had to go, although he returned as the petty Captain Darling in the fo(u)rth series. Baldrick had to get thicker to replace him, to diminishing returns. But Hugh Laurie made an exceptionally insane Prince of Wales and Stephen Fry has never been better. His tall demeanour and deep voice brought the violent Duke of Wellington in series three and blood-lusting General Melchett is series four to vivid life.

All these tapes are well worth your money, with first choice going to the truly exceptional second series. One of the greatest British sitcoms at good value. Can’t be bad.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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