Mitchell and Webb
As Mitchell and Webb’s debut feature film Magicians hits cinemas Eddie Harrison looks back on the chequered careers of British double acts at the movies
You are two very funny, funny men. Your live act is honed to perfection and your catchphrases are shouted from every street corner. So what new worlds can a comic duo conquer?
Peep Show’s Mitchell and Webb have come up with a very traditional answer; they are to star as variations of their best known characters in a feature film. Hitting our cinemas next week, Magicians (pictured) features a duelling conjurors theme, which apes US hits The Prestige and The Illusionist. But as the great (Morecambe and Wise) and the vulgar (Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall) have discovered, the road from two-man knockabout into celluloid gold is one festooned with the wreckage of previous disasters.
Take, if you will, the salutary example of Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball. With a regular television audience in the tens of millions, their cinematic debut The Boys in Blue updated the Will Hay classic Ask a Policeman, with our boys portraying hapless cops who uncover a sinister conspiracy behind the twitching net curtains of a sleepy English village. History records that The Boys in Blue emptied cinemas faster than a surprise fire drill, but at least their debacle put them in illustrious company. For three consecutive years in the mid 1960s the great Morecambe and Wise failed to translate national adulation into box office (or critical) favour with The Intelligence Men, That Riviera Touch or The Magnificent Two.
Nowadays, Ant and Dec may rule the ever-shrinking fiefdom of commercial television, but no thanks to 2005’s misbegotten Alien Autopsy, a sci-fi comedy which fell into the same league as Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones’ appalling 1985 fiasco Morons From Outer Space.
Economic realities have played as large a part as performer’s vanity in the decline of British comedy. Once upon a time popular WWII comedy duo Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen could amuse punters in cheap vaudeville quickies such as Gasbags and We’ll Smile Again.
But with the cost of filmmaking rising rapidly inthe post war years, a flop comedy feature was no longer a laughing matter. Consequently, there were (perhaps thankfully) no cinematic outings for the Two Ronnies, Newman and Baddiel, Reeves and Mortimer, or even the cine-literate French and Saunders.
Jettisoning your partner initially provided one way of getting on the big screen; Dudley Moore scored 10 after he got shot of Peter Cook, while Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were both forced to dump their arch gags to achieve individual fame.
That said the peaks of cinematic popularity are not insurmountable. Duo of sorts Simon Pegg and Nick Frost converted cult TV show Spaced into box-office winners Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the latter accumulating a cool £20 million in the UK alone. Their fresh new idea? Like Cannon and Ball’s The Boys in Blue, Hot Fuzz features two bobbies who uncover a secret conspiracy hidden behind the respectable surface of a quaint English village.
Can the magic of the movies really be so random? It’s just as well Mitchell and Webb can fall back on their day job, flogging technology.