Thursday, 7 February 2013

Sex Lives Of The Potato Men - Worst Film Ever or Unfair Reputation?

It was actually last March, in the wee small hours of the morning on Channel 4 (and with an in vision sign language interpretor no less) that I decided to check out one of the most controversial films ever made in Britain.

Straw Dogs? A Clockwork Orange?

No. Forget them. This was 'one of the most nauseous films ever made' (The Times) This was Sex Lives Of The Potato Men

Made in 2004, Sex Lives Of The Potato Men became a by word for all that was wrong with British cinema. Review after review heaped scorn upon this 80 minute feature, attacking it for being disgusting, puerile and unfunny, whilst at the same time wondering how we as a nation could achieve greatness in TV comedy such as The Office yet fail so terribly on the big screen even when two stars from that very sitcom (Mackenzie Crook and Lucy Davis) appear here. It didn't help that the film was funded via the UK Film Council and the National Lottery to the tune of £1 million of public money. Here in our shared hometown of St Helens, its star Johnny Vegas, unabashed by the venom, held a modest premiere screening for family and friends at our local Cineworld cinema. in Simon Sheridan's excellent book on UK sex comedies Keeping The British End Up, Vegas is still unrepentent.

It was 2012, as I say, a full eight years after its release that I finally mustered the courage to watch it. And last night I even watched it again.

My opinion that late night last year was that the film was unfairly dogged by the criticism. A gross grubby homage or spiritual successor to the 70s Confessions movies, Sex Lives provided a good few chuckles over its slight running time as it detailed the squalid lives and sexual antics of a group of potato delivery men around Birmingham.

Yes, that's right; I laughed. I can't help it I found it funny to see Johnny Vegas at a mass orgy complaining about the lack of parking facilities in the area, or the number he'd been given to participate. Likewise I found it funny to see Mackenzie Crook being forced to have sex for the pleasure of a cuckolded overweight husband strung up from the ceiling spying on him and his wife; "If my husband finds out he'll kill us" she moans in passion. "If them ropes break, he'll kill us" Crook replies, eyeing the precariously swinging heavy set figure hovering above them.  

Watching it again last night, the film still held up well. In fact I actually enjoyed it more.

It is what it is; a crude, rude, but very funny film about a certain culture of working class life that is truly honest (hell, I know people like these characters!) Yes not all the gags work, and some are truly revolting; watching Mark Gatiss eat a bogey plucked from his own nostrils is simply not funny, it's rank. Ditto the divine Julia Davis collecting dog muck of various disgusting shapes and sizes in the local park before putting them in a blender and spraying its contents via a high powered water pistol around the house of her ex is truly stomach churning. I also found Dominic Coleman's plot of eating strawberry jam and fish paste sandwiches to try and recall the sensation of placing jam on his estranged wife's private parts equally gross, but Coleman is a talented comedic actor with some naive charm so he just about makes a success of this grotty sub plot.

The early 00s saw a raft of small sitcom material making the big screen thanks to public spending (anyone remember the Lee Evans and Kathy Burke feature The Martins ?) it seemed we could only make those or dismal Mockey Guy Ritchie features. Inevitably, the reviewing media had had enough, and Sex Lives Of The Potato Men became, unfairly, the target - an easy target too, with its focus on sex and risque humour - for the sniffy middle class critics. 

But where they right? Well yes and no. There's nothing wrong with wanting more ambitious homegrown films projects and we shouldn't settle for the obvious easy material. The genuine criticism one can level at the film is that it is too trivial and slight. It is a sitcom, or a series of sketches, writ large so in that respect I can appreciate the opposing camp's view. Ideally Sex Lives should never have been a film. It should have been a one off or a series on television and would not look out of place at all on BBC3; it is certainly as obsessively base and naff as Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, the unbelievably succesful sitcom that ran for so long (ten whole years and nine staggeringly woeful series) that it became the chav equivalent of Last Of The Summer Wine , albeit with a cast in their 30s seemingly still trying to convince us they were 19 or 20! But I tell you what, Sex Lives is funnier than Two Pints and as such the criticism that it isn't funny is simply wrong and unjust.

Did the criticism change anything? Not really. We still get the dreadful Lesbian Vampire Killers five years later, an ill advised vehicle for Gavin and Stacey sitcom stars Matthew Horne and James Corden and, most importantly the latter's extremely swollen head and over inflated ego. And again, Sex Lives is a funnier and more relevant project than that was.

We still got Swinging With The Finkels in 2011 and that, treading a similar X rated subject matter, was truly Godawful.

Worse, we still get Danny Dyer films. And the forthcoming release of Run For Your Wife will star that Mockney gimp.

So yes, sitcoms writ large or basic British genre movies are still occuring, and a lot of them are more inferior to Sex Lives Of The Potato Men

If you haven't seen it, give it a go when you next see it in the graveyard schedules, or you can pick it up extremely cheap in bargain bin DVD stores, or you can even see it on Youtube with Polish subtitles!

Where else can you watch a film in which a pre One Show, Daybreak and ITV Football Adrian Chiles plays himself as an orgy host?!

Finally, consider this; Mike Leigh sent Johnny Vegas a letter commending Sex Lives Of The Potato Men for it's honesty.

That's Mike Leigh of Naked, Abigail's Party, Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies, one of the best film makers this country has ever produced.

So, if it's good enough for Mike Leigh.... 

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