Tuesday 9 June 2020

Some kind of monster: "Days of the Bagnold Summer"

After logging hundreds of hours as a hero of British TV comedy - in such shows as The Inbetweeners and Friday Night Dinner - Simon Bird makes his directorial debut. Days of the Bagnold Summer gives itself a lot of time and space to fill, albeit in a way that chimes with its story: adapted by Lisa Owens from Joff Winterhart's graphic novel, this is the tale of Daniel (Earl Cave), a teenage metalhead whose grand summer plans - jetting off to Florida to stay with his father - are cancelled at the last minute, leaving our boy stuck on the sofa in the chintzy home he shares with dowdy mother Sue (Monica Dolan) in the provincial town he's long grown fed up with. From the off, Bird defies the accepted comedy wisdom by shooting in a widescreen format that has the funny side effect of isolating his surly malcontent hero only further in lower-middle class domesticity. (He also has one trick guaranteed to raise a chuckle, which is to layer thrash metal over scenes of his protagonist cycling through well-kept suburban avenues, a gag that depends on the incongruity of anybody getting quite that aggressively worked up in a place like Dorking or Penge.) Slowly, the space begins to fill with a choice selection of comedy faces. Elliot Speller-Gillott, MVP of BBC3's fondly remembered Uncle, plays Daniel's best friend Ky, a skinny oik in a I Reek of Putrefaction cap who's deluded himself that he's irresistible to the opposite sex. (Never has there been a performance more suggestive of the smell of Lynx Africa.) Bird's FND co-star Tamsin Greig plays Ky's mother, an upper-middle class Reiki practitioner defined by the waftiest of fabrics; Rob Brydon wields his most sharkish of smiles as the teacher putting cringe-inducing moves on poor Sue; Alice Lowe pops by as the latter's slightly tarty sister, thirsting for juicy gossip Sue seems unlikely to generate. 

If the approach starts to feel a little piecemeal, that might be traced back either to the episodic nature of the story being told or the particular methods of this production, Bird inviting trusted pals to drop in for a few days' shooting here and there. Yet the whole is held together by two smashing central performances. Dolan has largely been engaged as a supporting player on the small screen (you'll probably remember her best as W1A's unsmiling Welsh worrier Tracey Pritchard), but here she quietly claims some of the available space to undertake a full character study: her Sue is an innately timid woman - she seems to tremble even in her rare moments of peace; you wonder if she was like this before the divorce - forced by circumstance to cohabit with a Metallica-worshipping troll who'd sooner take her head off than put the bins out. Cave, for his part, nails an unresponsive glare parents with active teenagers are likely to recognise, while converting his every third word of dialogue into a jabbing threat; yet Daniel remains an oddly sympathetic dork, attempting to navigate a phase we all go through to some degree in a body he hasn't yet worked out what to do with. Put 'em together, and they make an endearing odd couple, each party the only thing the other has in their lives; look closely during their obligation shopping-centre lunches and tetchy kitchen-table back-and-forths, and you'll begin to notice a strain of very British pathos that owes more to early, funny Mike Leigh than it does to the superior farce of Bird's TV work. The bonus is a small but appreciable weight of wisdom that suggests at least one of the film's authors lived through similar events. "Life's too short to spend with dickheads," huffs Daniel during a consolation day out at the seaside. Days of the Bagnold Summer, thankfully, is not a film that's been made by dickheads.

Days of the Bagnold Summer is now streaming via Amazon Prime, Curzon and the BFI.

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