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Film: They weren't all 'Life of Brian'

REMEMBER Lenny Henry transformed by latex into a white man in True Identity, his 1991 foray into Hollywood? Or Rik Mayall in Drop Dead Fred, a film condemned by Halliwell's Film Guide as a "singularly tasteless comedy, lacking any vestige of wit"?

The answer is probably no. Not since the days of the Ealing Studios comedies and the Carry On movies (if you like that kind of thing) has Britain sustained a comic tradition in film. Neither have British stars fared well in the Hollywood movie-making machine.

A Fish Called Wanda, Bean and Four Weddings and a Funeral have been individual successes. Some critics hailed the low-budget (pounds 160,000) Leon the Pig Farmer, which won an award for best first film at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Yet while Notting Hill has followed Four Weddings in proving a commercial hit, it failed to garner the same critical acclaim. Fierce Creatures, John Cleese's follow-up to the hugely enjoyable Wanda, was slated. Gary Sinyor's Solitaire For Two was no Leon ("botched" was the description in the Halliwell's bible).

It now seems a long time since the Monty Python team provoked controversy but also belly laughs with The Life of Brian. In the main, the recent history of British comedians and British comedies on film has failed to ignite public or critical enthusiasm.

The critic Derek Malcolm loved Kenneth Branagh's Big Chill-style gathering of old university pals, Peter's Friends, but hardly anyone else was impressed. Jack & Sarah, starring Richard E Grant as a lawyer trying to bring up his baby daughter after his wife has died in childbirth, was unmemorable. The working partnership of Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith worked less well in their 1985 film spoof Morons from Outer Space than in their head- to-head ramblings on television.

Where British humour has worked best has often been in ensemble works, such as Secrets and Lies, Mike Leigh's bitter-sweet film of social observation, but you wouldn't exactly call that uproarious. Brits cast in American comedies are as likely to be "serious" actors, such as Branagh in Woody Allen's Celebrity, as acknowledged British comedy heroes.

Yet Lee Evans, one of the sparkiest talents on TV, proved there can be a place for Brits in Hollywood in the recent There's Something About Mary, with Cameron Diaz, even though it was hated and feted in equal measure. If the current flurry of movie activity in Britain comes to anything, perhaps he will find a place for his talent on film here too.