Friday, 11 May 2018

Blackball (2003)

Blackball is a deeply misfiring Britcom from writer Tim Firth and director Mel Smith that stars Paul Kaye as a cheerfully insouciant young rebel who sets out on the road of sports stardom, ruffling the feathers of the sedate and genteel conservative world of crown green bowling along the way.  

Just like Firth's other features (Kinky Boots and Calendar Girls) Blackball is based partly in truth. The inspiration for Paul 'Dennis Pennis' Kaye's bowling prodigy Cliff Starkey is Griff Sanders, the self-styled 'bad boy of bowls' who routinely flouted the hallowed rulebook by rolling a cigarette, drinking cans of lager and eating a bag of chips whilst on the grass. But perhaps his biggest transgression was to call the Devon County Bowling Association club secretary a 'tosser', which earned him a ten year ban from the sport (a savage blow which the club tried to ease by citing that, given that most  bowls players were OAPS, ten years was only a sixth of an average playing career!) By 1999 however, with sponsorship and TV coverage demanding 'a character', Sanders was allowed back into the fold and became a minor sports media darling. Naturally a degree of poetic licence comes into play for the movie; affording Starkey with a Romeo and Juliet style romance with Kerry (Alice Evans) the daughter of his nemesis and rival, the snobbish, ramrod straight club champion Ray Speight (James Cromwell), as well as a shot at becoming the England champ, with both rivals having to put their differences aside in a crucial, high stakes match against Australia.

I'm a great admirer of Tim Firth's TV work (Preston Front is one of my all time favourite series), but all too often his opportunity to work in film requires him to churn out deeply formulaic fare. Sometimes, it works - Kinky Boots is quite good and Calendar Girls (which came out at the same time as Blackball) was a resounding success, even though I didn't personally get the hype - but it really doesn't work here. I'm not altogether sure if Mel Smith's direction and Firth's writing is a happy marriage; Smith's humour leans towards the naturally silly and large, and is heavily influenced by his own performing career in sketch comedy. As such the pacing of the film never builds up a suitable head of steam, remaining sluggish and unambitious and offering audiences just a few intermittent chuckles - which are often usually followed by a roll of the eyes. Firth's writing is usually more lyrical, more character driven and ultimately more real, but all that's more or less absent here as he marches to the beat of Smith's drum. However, what writer and director do rather harmoniously provide is a traditional take of David and Goliath via the British class system. Kaye's Starkey represents the plucky, happy go lucky working class underdog who must beat and ultimately win over the stuffy, pompous middle class elitists that dominate his chosen sport, before snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the final reel. In that regard, Blackball follows the path of most sport movies, and it does it so uniformly that the sport itself - bowls - doesn't really matter and what is arguably one of the most parochial games actually fails to be distinctive in any way, shape or form. 

Ultimately, what just about keeps Blackball afloat is the host of British comic performers and recognisable faces who appear in the film -  from Johnny Vegas to the legend that is Bernard Cribbins -  and inject a bit of much needed life into the proceedings. Weirdly, Hollywood's Vince Vaughn also appears as Starkey's unscrupulous, flashy agent. He's there presumably to attract US audiences - where the film was bizarrely retitled National Lampoon's Blackball

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