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July 08, 2006

Richard D. North thinks that Richard E. Grant may have come out with a Great British Film: Wah-Wah - Richard E. Grant

Posted by Richard D. North

Written and Directed by Richard E. Grant
certificate 15, 2005

We're on a knife edge. Is this going to be a Great British Film, to take its place in the Ealing pantheon? Or a near-miss? Is it a Saving Grace (2000) - or a Calendar Girls (2003)? We know in advance that it comes from the Virtual English Repertory Theatre. We know we will wallow in all that familiar talent. But will we kick ourselves later?

Wah-Wah begins badly. We are introduced to a car travelling along a dusty African road, but the colour doesn't seem right. Perhaps it's supposed to be sepia for remembrance, but it's not like any African light I have seen. And then we are introduced to the hero of the film, a sleepy young Ralph Compton (presumably AKA Richard E. Grant himself), aged maybe nine, asleep on the back seat of the Mercedes. We watch him wake to watch his mother Lauren canoodle and then "adulterate" with one of the "uncles" (his parents' male friends) who populate his world.

Let's take it that this event might have happened (though even the randiest mum must've wondered if she wasn't pushing her luck). It nonetheless defies belief that the boy has been sleeping so that his line of sight is between the car's front seats. He must have been curled up with the dexterity of an Olga Korbut crossed with a cobra. Audiences are of course required to suspend disbelief about some very big things, and that's fine: but film can't afford to be wrong about the little things.

We meet Ralph's sad, clever, drunk father, a colonial education bureaucrat. In Gabriel Byrne's hands he may be one tad too nice, but it's a fine performance. We have already met the boy's mother, as she cuckolds her husband. She's about to be a "bolter". The pair have long been tense: "Ask your mother to pass the salt" is table talk at its sweetest. Mr Compton is an introvert, a denier and a dissembler, and mum's a passionate woman with needs. Actually, as purveyed by Miranda Richardson, we also get strong shades of that splendid actress's Queen Elizabeth from Black Adder, but that passes.

The film concerns a five or six year period, as Ralph grows from boy to teenager and as Britain hangs on to and then lets go of its African empire. It is almost inevitable that we would be given the only meta-narrative now allowed: the British colonial elite is snotty and dotty; the Africans are lovely (warm, insightful, generous); at least Americans (though white) are fresh and anti-Establishment; the English stand a chance of being all right if they are working class, but get worse as you go up the social scale. The film is full of jokes, and they are made by the bottom of the heap about the top of the heap.

But this account of the film's sociology or anthropology is not quite warm enough. Celia Imrie's Lady Riva Hardwick is Roedean witch. "How very hubbly-jubbly for you!" is her toff-speak for, "I expect you find that nice, in your peculiar common way", and she contributes mightily to Ralph's sense that the world pumps out "Wah-Wah", which we now know as "blah-blah". She is made to eat humble pie, but not humbly as did Geraldine James, as the uppity WI chairwoman in Calendar Girls.

With breathtaking elan or indifference her Ladyship visits the family of the dying Compton senior to tell them that she won't be coming to his funeral. But she wants them to know that her absence won't be a snub to his rackety ways (so she's sort of announcing a U-turn, then), but arises because "I don't do funerals". Thus is she allowed a rather fine bloodiness, a waywardness, which is next door to the Cruella Deville every film needs.

Hereabouts the Empire's middling people have been recruited from the old country's upper working class and lower middle class and oscillate between ginny debauch and curtain-twitching. REG, not averse to laying his comedy on with a trowel, makes hay with all this and it is chucked one notch above Carry On. "That's not too stiff for you?", asks someone passing a drink to "auntie" Gwen Traherne (Julie Walters excelling herself). Her "Nooooo!" is a pouty inner explosion which had sixty-year-olds roaring at my local oh-so-not-a-flea-pit. Our comedy lives were passing before our eyes in a second: Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Liz Fraser nodded their endorsement.

Subtleties do creep through and one begins to imagine that Richard E. Grant is not - au fond - immune to the charms and even the value of the British class system and the empire it built. We suspect this because there are all kinds of speaking voice now chosen by people, and Grant's own is the natural, mildly-affected voice of the professional expat class into which he was born. His film may make too many concessions to the modern horror of our nation's past and much of its present, but I think I know where Grant's taste lies, really.

Actually, one gets the impression that there was a sort of social ranking not only within but between colonies. I can't speak for Grant's Swaziland (which is portrayed in such a way as to make one think it is toward the bottom of the social order), but roughly speaking, East Africa (Kenya) was quite or very posh, and southern Africa (Zambia and Rhodesia) was distinctly common.

It was the lower middle class whites who were toughest on the Africans. One might argue that they had no tradition of noblesse oblige to guide them, and a great desire to maintain social distance and distinction if they could (just as they tried to get some good Conservative water between themselves and the working class at home). Indeed, imperial grandeur probably looked all the more worth satirising the more it was displayed by the distinctly lower reaches of the upper class. In short, in Swaziland, nearly everyone may have been a bit "jumped up".

There is a key moment, and it plays nicely both to the mainstream anti-colonial theme and to some more alert and savvy take on things. Towards the end of the movie, old man Compton seems to have turned all the corners which confronted him. He's won back his second wife (admirably understated but strong, in Emily Watson's hands), he's sober, and - unexpectedly - he has a post-colonial future because it turns out that the new African powers-that-be admire him. This is, in the boring old trope, a special sort of benediction. But it is a tear-jerking moment anyway. Wah-Wah has more intelligence and heart than expected, and if it didn't it wouldn't be in the Great British Movie stakes.

Beyond all these matters, the film has value as a memoir of the making of an actor. I can't think of another actor-director who has risked putting his own story centre-stage, and it is either by luck or genius that Richard E. Grant has pulled it off so well. You might say that the making of movie-makers is covered in the extraordinary The Kid Stays In the Picture (2002). But isn't it fair to say that film has not often given us really telling childhood memoirs? Maybe Wish You Were Here (1987) is one. It is outclassed by I Capture the Castle (2003).

Anyway, Wah-Wah is autobiography without self-absorption, which is a tall order. What's more, the character of a teenager REG is building up is so easily imagined to be the fellow - fraughtly frivolous - that the director seems to be. In Withnail & I (1987), and much later in Hudson Hawk (1991), Grant makes a decent claim to be the sick-puppy of choice amongst his generation of actors. It might, so to speak, have been him and not Hugh Laurie for the part of House (Fox, ongoing), the doctor with the bedside manner by-pass. Even his charm is at it best when creepy: as in Gosford Park (2001).

But what holds our attention is the tension between that and the other side of REG. As an actor he can do sunny. Throughout Wah-Wah, Ralph has a nervous tic, a sort of jaw-gaping, or jaw-clicking, grimace which is his flinch from events he can't handle. By chance, his father's new lover brings an unwelcome present of girlie puppets to soften the boy up: he soon realises that they are effective as amanuenses.

The boy's future life is beautifully mapped out as he ricochets between seeing A Clockwork Orange (1971) in the cinema and acting in Camelot on stage: the one giving him a sexily dissident character to live out and the other giving him a romantic profession, the profession of romance. He wears one of his false eyelashes when he doesn't have to: so he's half-poof, half philanderer. All this is entirely convincing, and perhaps especially because the stage allows him to see Lady Riva's merits, and her to see his.

So this is a movie which grows as it goes along. I suspect, too, that it will grow as it is rewatched on DVD and television. It wouldn't be at all surprising if it developed into a classic.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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