"Failure is a lot more funny than success," said Ray Galton and Alan Simpson when I interviewed them for The Guardian in January. They were talking about The Day Off, their long-lost Tony Hancock screenplay, which had its first ever performance at the LOCO London comedy film festival this year, but the same could be said for most of their work, from the Hancock episodes for radio and television to their other masterpiece, Steptoe and Son.
Galton and Simpson have always been fascinated by "the gap between people's idea of themselves and how the rest of the world sees them": Hancock is a prisoner of his own delusions of grandeur, while Harold Steptoe's dreams of escape are constantly stymied by his possessive, overbearing father and his own fear of failure should he ever take a leap into the world.
While Galton and Simpson's writing is unique in its very particular voice, their shows are part of a very British tradition that runs through the plays of Harold Pinter, Joe Orton and the early work of Jez Butterworth through to television tragi-comedies like Black Books or Rising Damp: a tradition that we might call bedsit noir. This is the poetry of failure: of people trapped both emotionally and physically, caught in a prison of fading dreams and peeling wallpaper, dying slowly while the kettle boils.
What makes bedsit noir so very British? American noir, however dark, has guns and dames and wisecracks. Its characters are thwarted in the active pursuit of their dreams, as they chase the Maltese Falcon or plot that one last heist. Even as they hurtle to their doom, America's noir characters are hard-drinking, girl-chasing, reckless romantics. Here's Bogart in The Big Sleep, in one of my favourite scenes in any movie:
And here, in comparison, is Leonard Rossiter as Rigsby in Rising Damp:
Rigsby: We never had the pill in my day, you know. We had to make do with a glass of water.
Alan: What, before or after?
Rigsby: No, instead of.
Unlike America's noir heroes, who leap for glory but fall short, the heroes of bedsit noir are self-aware. They know the limitations of their dreams, and of their own limitations in overcoming them. They are prisoners of character and circumstance, but prisoners too of the limits of British social mobility: beneath the humour in Galton and Simpson lies a deep rage at the constricting bonds of social class.
Ben Wheatley, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram's brutal, brilliant Sightseers may not, at first glance, seem to be bedsit noir. Indeed, in some ways its the opposite: it's a road movie, its two central characters Tina and Chris journeying through increasingly wild and spectacular landscapes, paralleling the extremes of their story. But only an English road movie could feel so claustrophobic: Chris dreams of being a writer but never types a word; Tina is the captive of her domineering mother, even as she ventures out into the world; and though the landscapes get bigger, their relationship gets smaller, more oppressive, until there's only one way out. This is free range bedsit noir, and all the better for it:
Another new addition to the ranks of bedsit noir is Wizard's Way, written, directed by and starring Metal Man, the collective name for authors Joe Stretch, Chris Killen and
Socrates Adams-Florou. This wry, witty low-fi comedy is the story of two young Northern film-makers struggling to make a documentary about the mysterious Windows, a legendary player of the cult MMORPG game Wizard's Way.
Windows and his friend Barry are heroes of the game, conquering worlds in the online universe. But when the game is unexpectedly closed down, they are forced to face, in Galton and Simpson's words, "the gap between people's idea of themselves and how the rest of the world sees them":
This is textbook bedsit noir -- funny, melancholic, claustrophobic -- and we're delighted to be showing it at BFI Southbank in January as the winner of this year's LOCO Discovery Award. In fact, we're considering a weekend of bedsit noir classics: if you have any suggestions let us know @LOCOFilmFest. In the meantime, put the kettle on. Your dreams can wait.
Wizard's Way is screening at BFI Southbank on Friday 25th January as part of the LOCO LONDON comedy film festival. www.locofilmfestival.com
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