Catherine Tate takes Nan to the big screen – and there’s a mystery in the end credits too of The Nan Movie: here’s our review.
British TV comedy tends to fall into one of two categories. It’s either instantly timeless, earning repeat slots on the schedules for generations, or utterly and completely ephemeral. For better or worse, much of the noughties boom in sketch comedy falls into the latter category. The mean-spirited Little Britain was ubiquitous for its three-series run, but faded into almost immediate obscurity outside of slogans on teenage fans’ mugs. Its sibling on the BBC schedules was The Catherine Tate Show – most famous for gobby teenage character Lauren “Am I bovvered?” Cooper, who Tate eventually killed off in a 2007 special. The show was such a success that even then-prime minister Tony Blair appeared in a sketch with Lauren.
Perhaps the most memorable other character from the show, occupying the other end of the age spectrum, was the foul-mouthed pensioner usually just known as Nan. Now, 15 years after the original show ended and seven years after Tate produced a handful of specials starring the character, Nan is arriving on the big screen in a movie directed by Mary Queen of Scots helmer Josie Rourke. Ominously, Rourke is uncredited as director on the finished movie and listed only as an executive producer, with the credits describing the project as “a Catherine Tate film”.
The story is standard TV-to-movie fare, with Tate back under heavy prosthetics as brash Cockney lady Joannie Taylor and Mathew Horne returning as her long-suffering grandson Jamie. Joannie reluctantly embarks on a road trip with Jamie after receiving a letter from her estranged younger sister Nelly (Katherine Parkinson) – there’s no mention of the sister played by Dame Sheila Hancock, who appeared in a sketch several years ago – who wants them to reconnect before she passes away. This prompts a lengthy drive to “an island off of Ireland”, punctuated by outrageous encounters – including with Tate Show alumnus Niky Wardley as a Scouse traffic warden – and numerous flashbacks, tracing Joannie and Nelly’s falling-out over a dashing GI (Parker Sawyers) during World War II.
It’s fair to say that, between an uncredited director, a rapidly shifting release date and the lack of advance screenings for critics, the omens were bad for The Nan Movie. And, for the most part, those worries are justified. It’s a movie which looks and feels desperately cheap, saddled with a joke-shy script that – by abandoning the tight, simple formula of the original Nan sketches – loses everything that made the character fun in her original incarnation. And given the people holding the pen this time were Tate herself and Ted Lasso Emmy-winner Brett Goldstein, that’s a disappointing surprise.
In a lot of ways, it feels like the movie has arrived from a wormhole, having been produced 15 years ago when this sort of catchphrase-based comedy was at its peak in Britain. There are jokes dealing in tired stereotypes – guess what secret the lone Irish character is hiding? – and exactly the array of scatological old person gags you’d expect involving farting, bikini waxes and Tupperware containers full of urine. Even the final interaction between Joannie and her sister is defined entirely by a story development so bizarre and misjudged that it hangs limply in the air, as if asking the audience to walk it to a punchline on the film’s behalf.
But while dealing in time-warp comedy from the noughties, the film also comes with a very modern fear of straying too close to the line of taste. The very concept of the Nan character is that she embodies the sort of cantankerous older woman many of us know, who will be polite to someone’s face and then eviscerate their every weakness with oblivious and politically incorrect cruelty seconds later. She’s supposed to be outrageous and an avatar of bad taste, but this Joannie is softer and, frankly, bland.
That could be a simple side effect of the movie’s need to provide a tragic backstory for a previously irredeemable character, but it often feels more like everyone is holding bullets of wit and snark back in the chamber. That’s not a bad instinct – comedy absolutely does not need to be offensive to be funny, as Goldstein’s other work has proven – but it leaves a character as clearly-defined as Nan feeling irrelevant and unnecessary. Shorn of her raison d’etre, she’s just an old woman laughing at the fact Jamie’s charity acronym spells a swear word. And that’s not worth the price of a cinema ticket.
With that said, Tate evidently loves playing this character and is busting a funny bone to try to make this material work. Horne, too, remains one of the most reliable straight men in the business, as fans of Gavin & Stacey – a perfect example of the immediately timeless category of British telly comedy – will attest. Despite the committed performances, there’s the sense of a choppy, misshapen film that has been hacked to pieces in the editing room. A riff about The Great British Bake Off for example, stretches into improvisational eternity and then peters out without a notable punchline. Really, it’s a scene that epitomises the movie as a whole.
This is a comedy character that worked on the small screen a couple of decades ago, but looks marooned in today’s landscape of kinder and smarter comedy. Its creators will no doubt hope that the movie can ride the wave of nostalgia to a decent chunk of box office cash – and it will no doubt pop up in some stockings next Christmas – but this is a pale imitation of the Nan that so many of us grew to love years ago. It is not an easy film to be bothered about.
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