Starter for 10 is one of those sort of frightfully English comedies. You know what I mean – painful romantic comedies with a paradoxically happy ending and a stiff upper lip in spite of adversity. You know the sort – Four Weddings, Notting Hill, I Give It A Year, Love Actually, Bridget Jones – the sort of toe-curling comedy that leaves you gnawing the cushions and which usually stars the exquisitely embarrassing Hugh Grant.
In this case it celebrates three of the cultural highlights of British life c1985: going to university, acutely embarrassing failures at love (and, in point of fact, acute embarrassment for characters and audience alike at regular intervals); and in this case, that grand celebration of university know-it-alls, University Challenge.
For anyone unfamiliar with this TV quiz for student contestants, this may give you sufficient background, though you’ll all know the sort of film I’m talking about – and they are all so incredibly predictable you know what will happen before the titles have rolled. The original presenter was curly-haired bespectacled grinning intellectual Bamber Gascoigne, here mimicked with classical precision down to the last grin by Mark Gatiss.
This particular example of the genre features James McAvoy, who has performed with distinction in many greater projects, initially made under to look like an oily adolescent, but by the end he gets the girl and looks, well, like a film star.
I say gets the girl, but naturally it’s the cerebrally assertive and rebellious beautiful one (Rebecca Hall) rather than the cute blonde beautiful bimbo (Alice Eve), and certainly not the charming, studious and vertically challenged one of oriental extraction (Elaine Tan.) I personally felt Ms Chang didn’t get so much as a look-in, which is a great shame but equally predictable. Not that she would have me, but I’d have been proud to take her out to dinner!
Along the way, McAvoy gets a bloody nose, humiliates himself before posh girlfriend’s parents (in the person of Charles Dance and Lindsay Duncan, whose collective nocturnal naked ramblings cause much inevitable embarrassment), gets into a punch-up with stuffy prig team captain Patrick (the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch in not quite his greatest role, here acting as a stand-in for Mr Grant), and screws up his studies and pretty much everything else, not least by answering a question on UC before it is asked, thereby getting drummed out of the competition, though apparently not the university.
Except you know it will all turn out swimmingly, because it always does in this kind of film. They all muddle along until the inevitable great romance and the rediscovery of their intellectual rigour, and everyone lived happily ever after.
I’m sorry, but that’s it for this interview, if only because I have no wish to partake in further analysis of a hackneyed formula with the (very) occasional laugh thrown in for good measure. Fact is, I had very little interest in the characters, and I suspect the cast suffered much the same issue. But maybe Mr Gascoigne is cursing that they had to drag the good name of University Challenge into it too…