The Comic Strip Presents… Sex Actually

Wednesday, December 28, 2005 by

Television revivals are difficult to pull off. Sometimes, if enough thought has gone into it and the wind is blowing in the right direction, a one-time laughing stock can be reborn as a massive ratings hit, heaped with praise and hailed as the saviour of Saturday night television. Other times, you can just end up with The Legacy of Reginald Perrin.

Sex Actually is not the first “comeback” that the Comic Strip team have made, but – crucially – it’s the first to come after enough time has elapsed for the original run of films to be adjudged and evaluated as a whole. Despite the occasional clunker in their back catalogue, this fact alone gives any new venture an enormous amount to live up to, and when most of the pre-publicity appears to concentrate on little other than remarking how few of the “classic” line-up are in the cast list (when in fact it was always unusual for more than a few of them to be in any one film at a time), it is clear that even for a veteran like Comic Strip mastermind Peter Richardson, this is set to be an uphill struggle.

The first official Comic Strip presentation since Four Men in a Plane in 2000, Sex Actually is essentially a skewed parody of the post-Richard Curtis trend towards formulaic romantic comedy, relocating into the world of suburban wife-swapping for a grubbier mirror image of the idealised utopia depicted by the likes of its namesake Love Actually.

On the one hand this is a phenomenon that has most definitely outstayed its welcome and more than deserving of a bit of well-aimed lampooning, and something the Comic Strip’s unique blend of affectionate pastiche and stinging parody is well positioned to tackle. On the other hand, though, it’s hardly a recent phenomenon nor indeed one that has escaped comic mockery in the past. In fact, if Chris Morris’ waspish remarks on his Radio 1 show count, it has a legacy of satirical reaction that stretches back virtually to the week that Four Weddings and a Funeral went on general release. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in itself – after all, some of the best efforts in the series were informed by decades-old films and works of fiction – but the associated lack of urgency and vitality does provide some pointers to the underwhelming feel of its parody.

In terms of a one-off 50-minute comic oddity, Sex Actually wasn’t too bad. It contained a fair smattering – albeit an uneven one – of decent gags, some typically sublime dialogue, and a terrific final five minutes that both exactly replicated and highlighted the absurdity of the corny, shoehorned-in moral-laden happy endings that such films are wont to conclude with.

As the long-awaited return of The Comic Strip Presents …, though, it was something of a letdown. More than just a below-par offering, it seemed to suffer from having too small and limited a cast of characters, and by filling these roles entirely with “proper” acting (even Rik Mayall seemed subdued and underused) instead of the more familiar intrusions by inexplicable oddballs and eccentrics, and was crying out for Keith Allen or Alexei Sayle to wander into proceedings in the guise of some random gibberish-spouting headcase. Nigel Planer’s weird voyeur was the sole concession to this technique, but even he was too distanced from the main storyline and simply too infrequently glimpsed to make any real difference.

There is no faulting the performances – Rebecca Front and Glenna Sacchi Morrison in particular were superb – or the direction, but in the absence of excursions into comic grotesques and weirdness for weirdness’ sake, there was little for either the actors or the direction to react against. Such diversions into self-contained and largely logic-free gag routines can be a powerful tool and were something that the very best Comic Strip offerings had routinely displayed a mastery of. Often, as with Mayall and Richardson’s bizarre banditos in A Fistful of Travellers’ Cheques, they were capable of outshining the main “sensible” storyline and characters.

As Comic Strip films go, Sex Actually is not as good as The Strike, Didn’t You Kill My Brother? or Gregory: Diary of a Nutcase. But it’s not as bad as Queen of the Wild Frontier or The Funseekers. It’s simply a muted and underachieving step back into the arena when most viewers were doubtless expecting a lot more, especially as the recent DVD box set release of their previous works throws its shortcomings into sharp relief.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to write this revival off and suggest it’s high time Richardson and company should throw in the towel. Every film that appeared in The Comic Strip Presents … was entirely different in mood, tone and comic approach to the one that preceded it and the one that followed it. This may have been a relatively genteel – and indeed relatively ineffectual romantic comedy parody, but who’s to say that whatever comes next won’t be an altogether different prospect?


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