BBC4 - 9th April 2008 - 9.00pm

I'm getting a little irate at the critics moaning on and on about how unfunny these four films have been. 'Where is the laughter?' they continue to cry. Er...I think the whole lot of them have completely missed the point of the entire season. The private lives of Bramble, Corbett, Hancock, Green and Howerd, according to received wisdom, were not conspicuously 'jolly' affairs. Said journalists have fallen into that rather limited view that any and every comedian should automatically have an hilarious private life. They must be funny on and off stage. Which is nonsense, of course. What the four films clearly show is that these were men emotionally disconnected from loving human relationships either by societal or psychological pressures involving drink, drugs and sex. Strangely, the bleakness of their situations does have a blackly comic edge in all four films.

'Rather You Than Me' is slightly different. I found the 'love story' between Frankie Howerd and his long suffering partner, Dennis Heymer, heartbreaking. Howerd is portrayed as a man constantly at war with his physicality, fighting sexual impulses that he finds intolerable, and overly sensitive to the interconnectedness of his intimacy, personal privacy and career.

We join the story in the mid-1950s when Howerd went out of fashion for a period. The vacuum at the centre of his career is not just down to his poor material, poorly presented, and the drama suggests that this crisis is entwined within the emotional fall-out of the abuse at the hands of his father and the turmoil of how to handle his relationship with Dennis. For me, personally, the intensity of Howerd's psychological battering and the intensity of Dennis' clear love for Howerd are what the film has set out to depict. It s not about how funny this man was. It is about how he handled the undinting love and support from Heymer. The drama therefore skews the focus of its intent to Heymer and in doing so presents a superb performance from Rafe Spall. Spall is utterly convincing as the devoted Heymer - tender and loving with Howerd when they first meet and then, after an affair and a potential new life is curtailed, resigned to 'mothering' the insecure comedian. But Spall captures Heymer's own mix of frustration and admiration with Howerd and gives us a gay man who isn't a cliche and who is dealing with an unconventional relationship that actually does, I suspect, still represent similar conflagrations in the here and now. It's very real, very tender but also, because of Howerd's aversion to himself, his body and his sexuality, a life where Heymer was kept at arm's length and took on roles as housewife, chaffeur and agent but never really as a lover. We did glimpse Heymer happy, briefly, in a guilt free affair but this sits oddly in the drama as if to say, it's alright, he's a had a good seeing to and can now go back and suffer with Howerd, although the implication was he was about to leave him. It was more a tokenistic bit of salve for the audience I think.

Walliams is good but I think he struggles to make Howerd as real as Spall's Dennis Heymer. There is a whiff of 'doing an impression' here that other performers like Jason Isaacs, Ken Stott and Trevor Eve have managed to avoid in the series. It's a slight shame as some sequences, such as the LSD treatment and the death of Howerd's mother, actually do demonstrate a much more sensitive handling of the Howerd character. But this disappointment is also perhaps tangled up in both viewers and critics alike demanding that Walliams be 'funny' in the role. So I can see the slight struggle going on there. That said, he did get much more right than wrong and there are some quite lovely bits of self-deprecation that are truly Howerd. He wants his wig put on the teapot and claims the advice of "It steams it. Keeps the contours." by way of Bette Davis, to which Dennis retorts amusingly "I think she was taking the piss, Frankie".

This is followed by Howerd's confession to Dennis about his sexually abusive father. Walliams quite rightly doesn't do histrionics here, not Frankie's style, and tells the horrific story dispassionately. It's upsetting and I think is the keynote difference between Howerd and the other actors/comedians in the series. Bramble and Hancock are trapped by drink and repression, Green is selfish and self-destructive, Corbett is frustrated by a dying career. Howerd is crippled by his childhood and his psychological problems are not of his own making it would seem. He has been abused whereas the others tended to abuse themselves. In this light, I think it makes Howerd a much more sympathetic soul and you can understand why Dennis decided to stay and look after the poor man.

Again, we get a faithful recreation of the 'Frankie On Campus' gig at the Oxford Union, which at the time was another turning point in his career, good period and domestic detail underlined with particular songs on the soundtrack. John Alexander directs this with great skill and Peter Harness' script is a fine tribute to Dennis Heymer, essentially the centre of the story and, quite clearly, a man of remarkable patience and forgiveness.

A stunning piece of work that quite literally had me holding my breath for over an hour. Spall deserves a much credit for making Dennis and his love for Howerd so emotionally real. Walliams shows that he does have the potential to take on bigger dramatic roles and whilst he often stumbles into becoming a caricature-like clash between Howerd and himself, he deserves credit for taking on a pretty impossible task.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating review, although this line has got this week's prize for the misuse of 'literally':

    "A stunning piece of work that quite literally had me holding my breath for over an hour."

  2. "A stunning piece of work that quite literally had me holding my breath for over an hour."

    Hey, it was a damn good piece of drama. I held my breath through most of it (obviously not all of it as I'd have passed out) so let me off the hook! I'll accept that prize quite happily, thanks.

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