We have been lucky - despite not being on general release yet, Morris: A Life with Bells On came to a hall near us and we had the added promise of a demonstration of Morris Dancing from the Isca Morris men. Time to organise a horde of willing victims and enjoy a night out - get out my note book and write an official film review of "Morris: A Life with Bells On".
Having booked twenty tickets and found that they had disappeared in the hands of the ticket sellers to sell on in case I didn't turn up, mild palpitations did rattle my coolness. If I had known that 180 of the 220 tickets had already been sold leaving just 40 for those gamblers turning up at the door, then a heart warming glow caused by mild stress would have rapidly transformed itself into major panic. They were obviously anticipating a good turnout - the hall was already pretty much half full by the time we got to official opening time.
A group of Morris men - whose average age must have been over …(ahem)? presented us with an amusing demonstration of various dances from their regular repertoire - along with a bit of …. ummmmm…. some singing. Despite one dance being labelled as a "walk to music" all were enough to make you break out into a sweat just watching them. With chests aheaving - from being out of breath of course - they leapt, cavorted, hopped and skipped across the stage with flailing hankies and thwacking sticks. The audience giggled and clapped enthusiastically and the more they laughed the greater the hops and leaps. These guys were obviously performers enjoying basking in the spotlight of enthusiastic attention.
Warm up over - the film was now set to start. Hooray! However, having read a review recently by someone who suggested that, although the film was thoroughly enjoyable it was likely to be a shot in the foot for the Morris world - I did have a moment of nervous anticipation. What if she were right and the film needed more Morris dancing to give it added depth? Did it really matter that a musician was not included in the story line? What if the story line were not as intricate as I remembered from reading the script? I didn't worry for long as the film took off taking their audience with them - all fears unfounded. It really was a laugh a minute - except for the sad bits, you know funerals and stuff - and then it was a reverential silence punctuated with a sniffle or two.
With an audience of mixed ages and mixed social backgrounds - everyone seemed to love the whole experience. In fact I can't remember when I have been to a screening when the audience has laughed so hard and for so long. The previously read critique went out the window as the vibrant atmosphere of this hall told me that these aforementioned details were pretty insignificant. The film did not set out to be an educational documentary about the historical intricacies of age old practices but rather a bit of fun poking at our quaint traditions and our idiosyncratic nature as Brits proud of our heritage.
The film is full of quirky surprises that kept everyone on their toes. This ingredient alone is definitely a bonus especially in an industry that seems to be able to churn out so many scripts with very predictable story lines. And boy oh boy do I get disappointed if I guess the ending within the first ten minutes of the opening credits. Reminiscent of Ronnie Barker's fantastic skill with his regular play on words there were many moments of poking fun at the more eccentric side of our Britishness. If anything there were too many witticisms - people were so busy laughing we missed the next quip - or we ran out of steam and just couldn't laugh any more. Just like Alan Titchmarsh - our cheeks were aching!
The star studded cast were brilliant - and it certainly has its list of celebrities. Sorry but I have to list as many of them I can remember just to show you what I mean - in no particular order of preference you understand >> Derek Jacobi, Naomie Harris, Ian Hart, Richard Lumsden, Clive Mantle, Aidan McArdle, Lucy Akhurst, Dominique Pinon, Sophie Thompson, Harriet Walter, Greg Wise, Brodie Bass, Andy Black. Ben Bela Böhm, Jasper Britton, Adam Ewan, Pascal Langdale, Charles Thomas Oldham, Aaron Sweeny-Harris and Hillary Wood.
The story centres on Derecq Twist, played brilliantly by Charles Thomas Oldham who incidentally is responsible for giving birth to the script. Derecq is not exactly streetwise in the world of fast cars and high rise buildings. However, he's not stupid either - a revolutionary at heart despite the fact that at times you could be forgiven for thinking that he's not the brightest star in the sky. Derek Jacobi was as superb as ever playing Quentin Neely whose insidiously timed smiles belied a darker side to a seemingly friendly character. Harriet Walter is a star anyway and she played her part of eccentric Professor with fantastic style. I loved Clive Mantle, Sophie Thompson and Jasper Britton who were wonderfully comical whilst retaining the seriousness of true country folk. Aidan McArdle was superb as The Producer - it can make me giggle thinking of some of his 'looks' which ranged from complete bemused flummoxedness to odd moments of startled amazement. I could go on but perhaps it will spoil the experience for you if I reveal too much of who does what - you will just have to see it for yourself.
There was one thing that we could not ignore whilst being entertained by the film and that was the Morris Dancers themselves who had kindly given us the entertaining demonstration earlier. A famous director recently interviewed by the Culture Show - sorry his name escapes me - said that to make a successful blockbuster movie you have to make your film for the people you portray. Well you guys at Twist Films - you certainly have a hit here! I was quite convinced that although the merry band of men did not require medical assistance before, during or after their cavorting on stage - they were in danger of needing it now. I have not seen shoulders shake so much, nor heard such loud guffaws punctuated with hefty foot stamping, hand smacking and thigh slapping as I did on this laughter infested night. Their enjoyment of the film seemed totally out of control to the extent that I kept expecting someone having to dash in trundling in an oxygen cylinder because one of them was in a state of collapse on the floor. So - Twist Films - if you managed to pass the test with them and keep them well entertained- then you have obviously done your research well and you have a blockbuster in the making.
If you do a search on Google for "Morris: A Life with Bells On" over 4,400 sites come up - anything from blogs, quotes, articles, reviews and links back to the film's main website. There is a buzzing on the internet and it is getting louder. As of 23rd February there are over 7,000 signatures on the petition; 2,900 members in the Facebook group, and over 1,000 followers on an unofficial Twitter account. The last of which was only set up about a week ago. More importantly the official website, http://www.morrismovie.com is getting over 110,000 hits per WEEK which is on a par with a proper film release with a proper promotion and advertising budget. These statistics alone should be enough to impress the most sceptical of us especially as these have been generated totally by 'word-of-mouth'.
There have been articles in the Telegraph, Independent, Guardian, and Daily Mail plus many regional publications. Alan Titchmarsh, Chris Evans and Philip Schofield - have all featured the Morris film on their shows giving it significant air time - never mind all the regional radio stations doing their bit to promote what they see is a good film.
The latest excitement in just the last few days, US CBS News is doing a piece about the film and will be attending the matinee performance at Tisbury on the 14th March. And …. Morris is now a part of the official selection for the Seattle International Film Festival - the biggest film festival in America. As we know after Slumdog Millionaire's struggles before enjoying its successes, this could be the long awaited gateway to achieving the dreamed of status.
So if you think that this could tempt you out one night with your own merry band of men - and women - sign the petition, express your interest. You never know the distributors will take note and go for a general release and bring the Morris: A Life with Bells On film to a cinema near you. With any luck you too will get an enthusiastic audience who will make the atmosphere of the whole experience so much more enjoyable. I hope so - the country could certainly do with a laugh - couldn't it?
Cast list from "Morris: A Life with Bells On" taken from the film's website:-
Sir Derek Jacobi (Quentin Neely CBE) - A veritable national institution, with an incredible career in the theatre, television and film, here Derek plays a dark, sinister and power mad head of The Morris Circle, the fictional governing body of morris dancing in England. We had wanted him to dance in the film but couldn't afford the insurance so he had to make do with an administrative role instead. Recent highlights include a critically acclaimed Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse, Don Carlos and A Voyage Around my Father. Film work includes A Bunch of Amateurs (with Burt Reynolds), The Golden Compass, Nanny McPhee, Gosford Park, Love is the Devil and Gladiator.
Greg Wise (Miloslav Villandry) - Another national institution. Gained a notoriety and absurd popularity with men and women alike following a certain scene with a wet blouson in Sense and Sensibility. The Producers of Morris, jealous of this attention and adulation, therefore cast him as a pot-bellied, pony-tailed and saffron-robed Caifornian software billionaire. And still he looked good! The cad! Apart from the oft mentioned Sense, you will have seen Greg in Tristram Shandy, Johnny English and, most recently, Cranford.
Ian Hart (Endeavour Hungerfjord Welsh) - Ian is one of the world's leading Evertonian actors as well as being one of England's finest thespians. A joy to work with, he is a veritable chameleon and often flits unrecognisably from role to role. However, whether as Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter, John Lennon in Backbeat or Don Konkey in the US television series, Dirt starring alongside Courtney Cox, he still always manages to steal the show.
Naomie Harris (Sonja) - Beautiful, intelligent, talented. It's simply not fair. With that in mind, we refuse to tell you any more. Ok, so she's been in a few, not bad things like Street Kings, Miami Vice, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Tristram Shandy and 28 Days Later. Oh and she's also the international face of fashion brand Hoss Intropia. Where does she find the time? Let the record reflect that we said it first: watch this girl, she is going places.
Dominique Pinon (Jean Baptiste Poquelin) - One of France's leading character actors, he was cast in Morris by having the misfortune to, totally by chance, bump into the film's writer in Berwick Street's market in Soho. Upon hearing the immortal words, “Monsieur Pinon, I’m a fan,” frankly, he should have done a runner. However, thankfully, he didn’t and turns in a fantastic performance, lending Morris some much needed Gallic surrealism. Best known for his role in Delicatessen, he has acted in some of the finest French films of the last twenty years such as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement and Betty Blue.
Sophie Thompson (Glenda) - Sophie, thrilled to have finally been offered a role that didn’t involve wearing a bonnet, embraced her role in Morris with verve and aplomb and even went so far as doing her own stunts in the butcher’s shop scenes, cutting short a sound boom man’s promising career. Recently she has had audiences in other kinds of stitches at the Adelphi theatre in the West End alongside Dame Eileen Atkins in The Female of the Species. All jokes of bonnets aside, however, Sophie is one of this country’s most talented film actresses as her stunning performances in Sense and Sensibility, Gosford Park and Emma bear testament to.
Richard Lumsden (Plush Gurney) - “No lycra, no suspenders and I’m in.” With those words, Richard was a part of Morris. Clearly having been scarred by appearances in his own one man show, The Fall and Rise of Lenny Smallman and in The Catherine Tate Show where he was forced to dress in clothes against his will, Mr Lumsden revelled in the looser and indubitably male vestments that Morris allowed him to wear. When not also writing the music for the film, Richard has been otherwise engaged in films such as Sense and Sensibility and telly series such as Sugar Rush and the incomparable Wonderful You which he co-wrote and which was inexplicably cancelled by ITV after its first series. And they wonder why their share price has gone down!.
Aidan McArdle (The Producer) - Aidan is very much cut from the same superb theatrical cloth as Ian Hart and Dominique Pinon. He’s just younger, that’s all. Those of you who have been lucky enough to witness his work in the theatre such as in the stunning A Prayer for Owen Meany at The National Theatre, film (The Duchess) or television, most notably as an eerily accurate Dudley Moore alongside Rhys Ifan’s Peter Cook in Not Only But Always, will agree that he, like many in Morris, is a national treasure in the making.
Harriet Walter (Professor Compton Chamberlayne) - Another one who wanted to dance the mad dance and another one to whom we had to say, “you want to caper during the Abinger Hammer, you talk to the underwriters and sort it out.” Luckily for us, Ms Walter put her aspirations towards all things Morris to one side and settled for the role of a Cambridge academic instead. At which, by common consent she excelled. A stalwart of the RSC for many years, she has most recently been seen on the big screen in Onegin, Bright Young Things and Atonement.
Lucy Akhurst (Director) - Your mission: to ensure that a group of overweight actors, of wildly varying ability, not only dance in time but also turn in good performances as well… Watching the men of Millsham Morris on their first day of dance rehearsal and any sane human would have been forgiven for wanting to run a mile. However, it is a tribute to Lucy’s skill as a director that this and many other seemingly impossible tasks were completed on Morris with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of fun. Loved by cast and crew alike, she brought a much needed sense of calm professionalism to the film world at the same time as making her days (when the weather wasn’t playing silly buggers) and bringing the whole project in under budget. However, her talents do not end there. Oh no, Sir! An actor of some twenty years experience she has appeared regularly on stage, tv and film. Highlights include Spaced, Eroica, The Saint, The Land Girls, Trinity, Monarch Of The Glen, Preston Front, Wonderful You, Longitude and the 2006 Academy Award nominated Don’t Tell. Morris is her first feature as Director.
Roger Chapman (Director of Photography) - During the filming of Morris, Roger became an avid weather watcher along with the Director and most of the cast and crew, as they battled to recreate an idyllic English summer in one of the wettest on record. Unflappable and unerringly polite under even the most testing of circumstances, he only once resorted to wearing a jumper, an act that sent paroxysms of fear throughout the entire crew. Roger also happens to be an artist in the truest sense of the word and when you watch even the opening scenes of the film, you will find it hard to believe that this is his first film as a DP. When not schlepping all over the south west trying to capture the magic that is The Morris Dance, Roger has also been known to moonlight as a world class documentary cameraman with credits that include Geisha, The Last Voyage Of Columbus, The Genius Of Mozart and Adolf Eichmann.
Visit the "Morris: A Life with Bells On" website - to see the trailer
Join the Facebook Group
Sign the petition to get the film shown near you.
Follow Derecq Twist - the Official "Morris: A Life with Bells On" Twitter
Follow the unofficial Morris Dancing Twitter ID
Comment by Esther on 8th March 2009 - Great review - captures the fun and enjoyment of this great night in Usk. The film and the friendly, local atmosphere, as well as the live Morris dancing, made it a memorable evening. All credit to the organisers for having the creative imagination to book such a brilliant film and get the Isca Morris dancers there too. It worked brilliantly - well done Usk.
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