The 2017 Oxford Film Festival opened on Friday night at the Phoenix Picturehouse with two short films and a feature-length film starring Timothy Spall, followed by a Q and A with Spall and his director Stephen Cookson.
First up was short film The Last Laugh: 3 actors playing 3 iconic comedians from the recent past – Tommy Cooper, Eric Morecambe and Bob Monkhouse – who talk about their type of humour, laughter and what happens when the laughter dies, while getting ready in a cramped dressing room. Will the laughter die with them? Will they all be remembered? On the wall are photos of other dead comedians who are still remembered – will they end up like them? The three actors portrayed the comedians delightfully, representing them without parodying them and it was a delight to have a quick Q and A afterwards with Bob Golding (who played Morecambe) and Paul Hendy the director.
The second short film The Wrong End of the Stick (only 9 minutes long) is an animation about a man who lives a boring life and wants to make a very unusual change to the way he lives. Will his wife accept this upheaval to their rather humdrum way of life? This was a strange, gentle film.
The main feature, Stanley, A Man of Variety, is a bleak portrayal of an ordinary man's inner turmoil as he comes to the end of his prison sentence. The Q and A session with Spall and Cookson clarified the purpose of the film and how they went about creating the characters. Spall is quite clear that this man, Stanley, is really very ordinary, a "vulnerable non-entity" he called him, whose inner life is full of strange and sinister beings that take on a life of their own.
Spall paid passing homage to the inspiration provided by an old favourite of his, Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Alec Guinness plays all the members of a family, since in Stanley, A Man of Variety, Spall also plays all the parts. Some are instantly recognisable: Tony Hancock, Margaret Rutherford, Noel Coward and George Formby on the ukulele banjo. The plot which brings these characters together is difficult to make out but this is fortunately not the point. The point, if there is one, is to provide an insight into the mind of a seemingly ordinary man, someone you would pass on the street and not notice. Inside his head, he can be fascinating and full of variety.
Timothy Spall is himself no ordinary man though: the variety of the characters he plays (all to perfection) and the threat (and some humour) that permeate this film are down to his versatility. He has surely reached National Treasure status by now.
The Oxford Film Festival is in its second year: hats off to the Phoenix for bringing us this treat on top of all the other events they host.