SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ It's that time of year again: THE RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in London! On now.. See you there!

Friday, 1 March 2013

'RUN FOR YOUR WIFE' (2012) + Q&A with director/ writer Ray Cooney ~ Nudge and a wink film comedy based on the classic stage farce brings the house (and the trousers) down in a Bromley cinema. . . Lowering the tone? You better believe it!

*Many plot spoilers in their saggy pants are hiding in the bedroom cupboards below - watch before reading!*

Ray Cooney, following a Wednesday morning, 10.30am screening of the movie version of his classic stage farce 'Run For Your Wife', is in fine fettle. He may now be 80 years old, but he doesn't look it - bounding enthusiastically among the gathered faithful like Tigger on heat. I hope, when I reach his age, I am as bouncy as that.
It's a funny hour to be attending a screening, let alone with a Q&A after, with a man who is rightly regarded as one of the best writers of stage comedy - especially the classic, old-fashioned, great British  farce. I don't really need to list the many awards this man has earned over the years (an Olivier Theatre Award for Best Comedy for 'Out of Order' in 2002 and an O.B.E among them) or the fact that his long-running play, 'Run For Your Wife' has already been filmed in the Netherlands as 'Goeie Buren', in 1987. How dare the Dutch do this to us? Slap and tickle-Cooney style is ours, all ours!
Joking apart, Ray Cooney's plays have been performed all over the world and there are many film adaptations that followed. At the Q&A this morning, Cooney tells us that right now there is even a performance of a play of his opening in Russia and that he's: "Russian over to see it" - cue: a loud groan from the producer of 'Run For Your Wife' standing alongside Cooney. "Ray, they get worse," he tells our man, whose smile never wavers. Cooney just nods his head. Does he care? As they say up North - does he 'eck!

The cinematographer of the film - Graham Fowler - is standing at the back of the cinema watching on with a wry smile. I comment, at the Q&A, that I enjoyed the look of the film a great deal: scenes garishly framed under the bright, primary colour-painted walls of the many suburban apartments the characters run through alternating nicely with chases along the balconies of lovingly-lonely, grey-bathed concrete housing estates where all the best farce takes place  - an occasional flourish of bright clothing hanging over safety rails or an out-of-focus shot of a mother brushing the hair of a young child reminding us of the real world that exists outside of this pantomime life.

London landmarks pockmark the action; I especially liked one shot focusing on a race down a quiet suburban road under the shadow of Battersea Power Station (that appears like an over-enthusiastic extra, peeking over the rooftops) and also the sight of a 'Pimms bus' stuffed full of drunken familiar faces stranded on the impossibly sharp corner of a well-to-do side street, helpfully right outside a welcoming looking old pub!

This film reeks London at every turn - it's written and directed by a man that clearly adores the place and throughout the adventures on screen celebrates the use of location unreservedly; from the mundane to the tourist-friendly, but in a way that's always endearing, never naff. You wouldn't want to show this film to the London tourist office as there is a focus on suburban familiarity here, rather than the more obvious London landmarks; of nowhere streets and nowhere gardens, over-crowded housing estates and their empty, endless stairways where everything happens. The film has a cartoon-like feel to it at times, and (along with the vibrant use of colour on the living rooms and bedrooms) we get what is for me the clear visual highlight of the film: the red blood-like flood of bath water that flows through the ceilings of the flats below and carries the movie into increasingly surreal, Python-like crazy heights.

The audience at the screening this morning covers all ages, from two children, there with their mother: "They told me they wanted to see the film - I didn't make them!" - she tells Cooney, all the way up to more elderly fans who say they remember the stage show's first run. In one especially touching moment, a very elderly lady, sitting behind me and who I had been sharing a joke with earlier, starts to speak to Cooney as he holds court. She finds it hard to speak though as she's so frail, (but earlier had especially loved, and laughed out loud, at some sight gags involving squashed chocolate cake) and tells Cooney how much she enjoyed the film, then whispers to him: "I'm tired". Cooney, puts a comforting hand on her shoulder, "We're all tired - and some of us are ready for bed," he tells her. Then looks, with perfect comic timing, at the rest of us:"That's not an invitation by the way!"
So to the plot. Danny Dyer plays John Smith, a bigamist, with a wife in North London and the other further South. He works as a taxi driver and arranges his shifts so the two women in his life won't ever meet. After foiling a mugging on the streets of London, John gets the local press interested in his heroism, and soon the police in both Finsbury and Stockwell get involved; noticing something isn't quite right here. There follows a runaround across London as John Smith, the bigamist, tries to stop his two feisty wives discovering his secret.

'Run For Your Wife' is a comedy that's rooted in the Ealing comedies of yesteryear. I don't think Ray Cooney was all that impressed when a member of the audience compared the film to being a reminder (and a reminder that she loved) of the Carry On films of old. I think, even for Cooney, that's taking things a bit too 'retro'. In fact, the plot of 'Run For Your Wife' takes things, sometimes, into far darker waters. Cooney says that: "We wanted to show that the lead character is a man in big trouble, he's a bigamist about to be found out, not an especially nice person" - and this murkier side of the film is, occasionally, put teasingly forward, especially in the closing scenes where John Smith finally faces imprisonment; is actually being charged with a crime.

While confessing his sins at the police station, there's a close-up of tears welling up in the sorrowful man's eyes. It's all, suddenly, being taken very seriously; all this bigamy stuff. There's also a final montage of Dyer lying in bed with one of his wives, then with the other and it's almost a case of, 'Eeeuwwww - do we REALLY have to see THAT?'. Because, when you think about it - many of the characters in Great British farces would be pretty objectionable sorts to know in real life (and we all know a few!), they'd: steal your wife, sleep with your daughter, get off with your boyfriend, spy on you undressing from an opposite bedroom window, borrow the money in a pot you've been saving for Christmas and then, for an encore - slap a blonde traffic warden on the bottom on the way home. Ahh, the magic of farce!

Some scenes in 'Run For Your Wife' stand out; especially a totally OTT and gratuitously stereotyped sequence between old familiars Christopher Biggins (as Bobby) and Lionel Blair (as Cyril) - a couple of gay flatmates with double entendres aplenty in every other word. There's a quite disturbing sequence involving these two with Cyril washing a dark red garment for a local customer (who is described as being "a tart") in the bath (it seems Cyril's a dressmaker - although Bobby says he wears most of the merchandise himself!) and that leaks red dye everywhere.
The flat is soon flooded with what looks like gallons of blood. Cyril tries to vacuum the water and gets electrocuted, falls back and his bottom crashes through the floorboards into full view of the flat below. Bobby races downstairs and tells John and his best friend Gary (played by Neil Morrissey) what has happened while standing there still dripping with blood-red water that has stained his shirt and is splashed across his face and neck (like some refined camp mass murderer from the heart of suburbia): he screams about Cyril's arse being "stuck in the floorboards after a rough session upstairs" and something about how there "was a big hole needing to be filled" and . . . well, you get the general idea!

Some critics have complained that the characters of Bobby and Cyril are crude gay stereotypes. Perhaps the 'oddest sex life ever' gag goes on a little too long and confusion as to whether John and Gary are also gay may get spread a bit thick - but in the script's defence, is included as yet another plot device for John's secret to stay just that, even if it means 'coming out' to his wives. It's not mocking. Everyone's an idiot in this film, gay or straight. I also can't see Biggins caring whether he's a gay stereotype or not; neither, probably, should we. This is, after all, meant to be farce.

In a way, the relationship between Cyril and Bobby is actually one of the strongest in the movie - sure, they are both walking disaster zones (and just thinking about Lional Blair getting electrocuted while vacuuming up bath water made me chuckle again while typing this out - I must be warped in the head, or am I getting revenge for the hours of 'Give Us A Clue' I had to watch as a boy when there was nothing else on?) but their relationship is the only one that isn't a cheating, unreliable, unlawful one. Stick that in your hoover and suck it up the blowpipe!

The use of blood-red water that floods the house has a macabre edge but the chocolate cake that Gary sits on, and then spreads around the house, is increasingly disgusting: it takes the film into gross-out comedy. There are some references to S&M too and when Biggins comes down the stairs covered in splatters of blood-red water, looking like he has been doing something a bit more than just vanilla with his boyfriend in the flat above; there's a sense that something a little riskier than good old-fashioned British farce is threatening to break free here.

At one point, Dyer is slapped hard in the face by one of his wives (Denise Van Outen as Michelle) with the excuse that she is: "into rough sex". Michelle then runs after her husband, screaming like a banshee with a blonde bob and a London cabbie bundles the terrified man into the back of his car, Dyer's reasoning for all this being that his wife demands to have sex first thing every morning at the same time - for a sex comedy, the film displays a real fear of actual sex while being entirely obsessed by it. And that could be the point. I realise I may have just reached an epiphany; stumbled upon the very definition of British farce; one that I'd been missing - completely by accident. 

Star cameos are the talking point of this movie. There's little point reeling off a list of who to look out for as most of these cameos are 20 seconds or less. Significantly, there's a good few minutes from Robin Askwith as a London bus driver; he looks young still, but wilder of hair than ever before and like he's been through the wood a few times and pulled out the other side - the proverbial 'through a hedge backwards'.

It's something to cheer about - Askwith is one of my favourite film actors from the 70s, especially all those 'Confessions Of . .' movies and the 1972 cult classic horror 'Tower of Evil'. This man - I can confirm - is alive and well. And back on a cinema screen in a new British comedy - result! If only for me.

Other blink or miss 'em roles go to: Judi Dench (as a bag lady, or maybe just Bond's 'M' in disguise!); Andrew Sachs (a good moment for him, being spun around with a waiter's tray in one hand, reminding us of his Fawlty Towers 'Manuel' days); Sylvia Syms (another good cameo as an elderly lady dragging Dyer along the road and forcing the benefits of hip replacement upon him); Cliff Richard, Barry Cryer and Rolf Harris (as buskers); Derek Griffiths (especially effective as a laconic policeman); Su Pollard and Jeffrey Holland (Hi De Hi regulars both, with Holland having longer screen time as a huffy local news reporter chasing after Dyer with photographer sidekick Frances - nicely played by a sweetly bemused Louise Michelle, daughter of 'Allo 'Allo star Vicki who executive produces) and of course Richard Briers in a final big screen farewell (he sadly passed away a few days after the film's premier). Briers only appears for a matter of seconds as  a man tending his garden, knocked to the ground by a running away Dyer; "Hey, watch where you're going," he shouts out, before shaking his head and returning to his gardening.

At the Q&A, Cooney is asked about Briers. He describes him simply as "a wonderful man" who he had "known for 50 years" (Briers appeared in the first stage production of the play) and pays tribute to the actor being, he tells us, suddenly quite wistfully: "The best in the business". I don't think Cooney wanted to say more, this wasn't the time for a eulogy to such a dear friend. Anyway, the thought is broken by a woman in the audience, saying out loud (for no particular reason): "And Su Pollard." Cooney leans towards her; "Yes - YES! Su Pollard. She was in there too." He seems almost grateful for such a timely escape route from the tears that seemed likely to be shed.

Another member of the audience asks how Cooney managed to get so many star cameos in the film; "I've been in the business a long time!"- he replies. There's plenty of talk from Cooney about how the critics didn't give the film a chance, that at the Leicester Square premier, there was riotous laughter, something critics miss when watching a film such as this in a screening room. The thing is, Cooney tells us - these critics need to watch more films with the paying public, not on their own, to get that real audience reaction. He could be right, the last 90 minutes had kind of proved his point - the audience here were laughing quite uproariously throughout. A good time, I'd say, was had by all. And with our clothes on too! Cooney also says that low budget British comedy has been squashed by the big budget Hollywood blockbuster kind, that we - as an audience - have become conditioned to.

A woman in the audience makes a more detailed observation on the movie. Cooney looks at her with suspicion: "Are you a newspaper critic?" he asks her. The woman shakes her head, laughing - but says nothing. "You are, aren't you?" Cooney continues. "No, I'm not," she says, looking a little worried! "Oh good," says Cooney, "you're a nice lady then." Methinks this man would have booted the poor woman out had she confessed to being undercover from the Daily Mail. By the time the gentle probing of this poor woman had finished I think everyone had forgotten the original question.

Cooney seems happy with the way the film has transferred to the big screen; taking in more locations than the stage play allowed (just a two room set). And then the big one - will there be a sequel, like the original play had a follow-up? There's a picture of Dyer's character John Smith holding two babies at the end of the credits of 'Run For Your Wife' and the caption: 'John Smith will return in Caught in the Net'. Cooney says he plans to film a sequel next summer or maybe the following April. Bear in mind, by this point in the film's release, Cooney is well aware of all the critical venom out there - I can't help but suddenly love this man even more for having the balls to not care; to already be working on a follow-up. If that's not the most brilliantly British bulldog spirit in the face of adversity ever - I don't know what is!
'Run For Your Wife', we are told by the film's producer - James Simpson, was filmed in just over 4 weeks and shot over a year back; the editing process taking the most time. Many scenes were cut, we hear, for running time reasons (perhaps not surprising with all those celebrity cameos taking up so much space) - including a gag about a waiting taxi driver who keeps threatening Dyer with a huge bill; we never find out how much this is. The deleted scene reveals it's "around £500". It's not the most missed deleted scene in the history of cinema, but just you wait until the Director's Cut comes out - there'll be more of the same!

Cooney tells us that audiences have had a great time wherever the film has been screened and seems genuinely surprised that critics have been so merciless. He also points out that compared to a big action blockbuster that opened the same week (presumably 'A Good Day To Die Hard') the budget they had for promotion was almost non-existent. Cooney has been doing as much as he can to promote the film by attending screenings across the country and filming interviews with the cast and gathering 'post-screening' feedback. For an 80 year old veteran of stage and film, you can't ask more than that.

By the way - 'Run For Your Wife' has a link to a number of cult film and horror movies that you may not expect. The co-director of Run For Your Wife, alongside Ray Cooney, is John Luton who made the 2001 S&M psycho thriller (also set in London) 'Secret Admirer' and Cooney's first film as a writer was the 1960 horror shocker 'The Hand' that he followed up with an 'old dark house' delight; the comedy classic 'What a Carve Up' starring Sid James and Kenneth Connor. For the more farcical stuff, look no further than the first film Cooney directed; the ultra-cult British sexploitation movie 'Not Now Darling' (1973), followed by 'Not Now Comrade' a few years later (both were based on the director's own frisky stage plays).

Also of interest to cult movie fans is the fact that Cooney's son Michael, wrote and directed the bizarre 1997 horror that had a snowman become a rampaging serial killer in 'Jack Frost'. This was followed by a sequel in 2000 - 'Jack Frost: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman' in which Ray Cooney himself played the role of Colonel Hickering. From farce to fear (silly-style fear, but still - all the best farce has many faces); not such a giant leap out of a bedroom window after all!

After the screening of 'Run For Your Wife' I came away with a big warm, old-fashioned glow in my shorts. The film probably won't be winning any awards for Cooney this time around and is a remarkably quaint project at times that represents an era, some 30 years back, when poo jokes, random sexual clinches and falling off ladders/ being hit on the head with a garden rake was all the rage.
It's unfair to be too critical of 'Run For Your Wife' though (it is what it is: nostalgic; silly; stuck in a defiant time capsule of theatrical hilarity. . .) and especially of star Danny Dyer who, as chirpy anti-hero John Smith, is appealingly screwed and desperately clutching at bendy straws - you can smell the sweat seeping out of this man's pores as he goes on the run. You should be able to: job done! Neil Morrissey offers solid support as John's best mate Gary and in some scenes (the 'chocolate cake incident' - I'm looking at you!) gets perhaps the best, stupidest (and crudest) sight gag of all. Morrissey, veteran of TV comedy Men Behaving Badly, knows the ropes; can handle the 'disgusting' with aplomb.

Christopher Biggins, as hysterical neighbour Bobby, is an absolute riot - and completely steals the show. Starting off slowly, he gets pleasingly more to do as the film rumbles on; eventually reaching a kind of sweaty, wibbly-wobbly crescendo of utter panic (having started off with a light nudge and a tipsy wink in our general direction) - a performance that verges at times on horror movie insanity, it's something of macabre, jaw-dropping delight in a movie that some will say doesn't deserve it.

Lionel Blair as Bobby's less blustery, more barmy boyfriend Cyril, was fabulously good fun and nicely underplayed (well, compared to Biggins - how could it not be?) as the silly old man sticking his finger in wet holes where it shouldn't be going (when not sticking his backside through a neighbour's ceiling).


And what about the two wives; Sarah Harding (from pop group Girls Aloud) as Stephanie and Denise Van Outen as Michelle? Both, like Dyer, do what's expected of them: be suitably perplexed and wide-eyed with increasing realisation that a big lie in a beautiful relationship is clearly being told. Harding, as a dance tutor, has a great gag to play along with when her dance class carries on exercising to the hi-energy music while she talks to the police; elderly ladies from the class (including June Whitfield) carrying on and falling to the ground as if on a beatbox battlefield.
Van Outen overplays, probably rightly - but also reveals some depth to her character when, in the middle of all this chaos; when the truth dawns, there can only be anger, tears - or both. As Cooney tells us again at the Q&A - this isn't, when you take away the jokes, a story about 'nice people'; it's about people that can hurt or be hurt. They get hurt here. With a nudge and a wink after, of course. But they get hurt. The ending of the movie - one man, two wives, seen in two beds, brings this reality home. The two girls are still unaware they are being cheated on; both are also now pregnant. If this wasn't a Ray Cooney farce it would be sent straight to Jeremy Kyle's daytime TV show.

'Run For Your Wife' can be (if you allow it) a shamelessly fun and nostalgic ride. But let's not go into denial here; this is comedy of the most traditionally 'how's your father', 'whoops matron' and even 'up the Cooney's Kyber' kind and you get what you probably expect. It's also a two-fingered salute to those who no longer value the merit of a fart gag or good trouser-dropping moment. Cooney has many friends in the industry and they all gather together here to support a much-loved shining light of theatrical farce and utter Britishness. I don't see, personally, what's wrong in that. The cameo spotting is an absolute joy - a wonderful last farewell  too for a clearly ailing Richard Briers, with the great character actor tending a garden in peace, moaning about the foolishness of youth rushing past and knocking him aside. You know, it's hard to imagine a more fitting or poignant last hurrah - even if it's more of a quip than a gag.

A rude and rollocking roustabout of a comedy, Run For Your Wife sets out determined to go on the pull and have a good time - and mostly it does. As a film that tries desperately to get laid with our affections, or die trying, it's no surprise that Neil Morrissey's character of Gary ends the movie having a shag - it seems kind of appropriate to everyone. This is a film that may go on to develop a cult following one day or be eternally hated, it's hard to tell. But there's hope. Even as a nostalgic last hurrah for just about everything that British farce represents - I think Ray Cooney may just about have pulled this one off. And that, in the best tradition of all good farce, is a very difficult thing to say without sniggering out loud at the back.

UPDATE: 2/12/2013

A year has passed since this review and I now take a look back on the film and its fallout. It was despised by critics but (against all odds perhaps) there is now a DVD release available from Ridge Film Distributors. Of the star cast and theatrical friends of Ray Cooney (who donated their fees to charity it should be mentioned) some, like Richard Briers before them, have also now left us: the beloved Frank Thornton and Bill Pertwee, who stepped off the bus together in their brief scene in Run For Your Wife, passed away within a couple of months of each other, earlier this year. As an epitaph on many fine comedy careers, Cooney's movie has guaranteed itself an immortal postscript in film reference books.

Danny Dyer has just been announced as the new landlord at the Queen Vic in the BBC soap opera EastEnders! Perhaps, just perhaps, his move from hardman roles to comedy geezer in Run For Your Wife easing his route into a role that typically requires both. And nearly a year after the film's theatrical release, guess who's still running around promoting Run For Your Wife at local cinemas with members of the cast in attendance for more Q&As - only Ray Clooney! I'm beginning to suspect the man has two wives that he's trying to avoid by tirelessly promoting this movie, instead of just the one. . .
~ mgp


Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

All images ©2013 Run For Your Wife Film

“All of Creation’s a farce.
Man was born as a joke.
In his head his reason is buffeted
Like wind-blown smoke.
Life is a game.
Everyone ridicules everyone else.
But he who has the last laugh
Laughs longest.” ~ William Shakespeare

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