A taste of Shandy

Christina Patterson joins Michael Winterbottom at a special screening of the director's film of Sterne's classic novel
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The Independent Culture

Michael Winterbottom was still at school when he first read Laurence Sterne's cult bestseller, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. It was years later that the director of Wonderland, Welcome to Sarajevo and 9 Songs started talking about making it into a film. Now, he's done it.

Michael Winterbottom was still at school when he first read Laurence Sterne's cult bestseller, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. It was years later that the director of Wonderland, Welcome to Sarajevo and 9 Songs started talking about making it into a film. Now, he's done it.

It's sure to be controversial, but Tristram Shandy has always been controversial. "Who has not Tristram Shandy read?/ Is any mortal so ill bred?" wrote James Boswell on its publication in 1760. David Hume described it as "the best Book, that has been writ by any Englishman these thirty Years", but Samuel Richardson called its first two volumes "execrable". The preacher George Whitefield was reduced to a simple lament. "Oh Sterne!" he wrote, "thou art scabby".

Since then, critics and readers have loved and loathed it in equal measure. Lovers of linear narrative (and Dan Brown) will balk at the prospect of 540 pages of random musings, lengthy digressions and the kind of plot pace that means the narrator ends the first two volumes without even being born.

To hate it, however, you'd have to have no sense of humour at all. Tristram Shandy is one of the funniest books in the English language. How could you not be seduced by Tristram's hilarious descriptions of his conception and his birth, in which his nose gets crushed by Dr Slop's forceps? Or sweet Uncle Toby's "hobby horse" - an obsession with military history - and unlikely romance with Widow Wadman? Or the sudden appearance of black pages and squiggles to portray the problems of narrative? How wonderfully, exuberantly different this all is to the po-faced pontifications of artists who go on about how they are, "like, subverting traditional notions of narrative". No, dears, it's all been done before. As imitations or offshoots go, Ulysses was pretty good, but Sterne's the main man.

All of which makes a film of Tristram Shandy quite a challenge. So when Patrick Wildgust, the curator of Shandy Hall (where Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy) invited me to a charity screening of Winterbottom's film, I leapt at the chance. The film, A Cock and Bull Story, will be officially premiered and released in the autumn. Last week's sneak preview, to an invited audience of locals and Sterne enthusiasts, was Winterbottom's idea. "He originally wanted it in the house, on different DVD machines," Wildgust told me over lunch at the Fauconberg Arms."That way you could get a non-linear approach to the screening as well. But then we realised that it would be a bit of a crush and we decided to go for the village hall instead."

No one could have known it would coincide with this year's transplanted Royal Ascot. Race-goers, I discovered on the train to York, have extremely loud voices. It was a great relief when Dave from Cumfy Cabs picked me up at Thirsk and whisked me to the quiet North Yorkshire village of Coxwold. Shandy Hall is the first house in the village.

Surrounded by a cottage garden full of catmint, tree peonies and old roses, it's a medieval hall with Sterne's own 18th-century additions. There's a little table of plants for sale and a shop full of books and chutneys. As Dave and I swept into the drive, a short, blonde woman put down her strimmer and waved. "I'm Patrick's partner, Chris," she said. "Patrick's at the village hall, putting out chairs."

I dumped my bag in Laurence Sterne's kitchen and decided to look at the village. On this, the hottest day of the year, it was like a parody of a rural idyll: a sea of green with a sprinkling of honey-coloured houses, a shop, a pub and a "Best Kept Village" plaque.

After a week re-reading Tristram Shandy, I saw echoes everywhere. Could that horse-shaped topiary outside Newburgh Priory be Uncle Toby's hobby horse? Certainly, the ducks, all lined up on the stone wall by the lake, which leapt into the water one by one, were straight out of one of his military games. In the churchyard, the echoes are less fanciful. Here, Sterne was buried for the third time. The first time, in Bayswater, his body was stolen from the grave. A friend at a medical lecture recognised his face, and made them put him back. In 1969, his body was moved to the churchyard at Coxwold, where Sterne was the vicar.

Back at Shandy Hall, I had time to snoop and browse. After 200-odd years as a farmhouse, it has been restored to its Sternian state. It is bursting with artefacts: the Nollekins sculpture of his head, some of his hand-written receipts, an eclectic array of pictures and cartoons, and one of the largest collections of Sterne books and memorabilia in the world.

It's not just a museum, but a hub of artistic activity and educational projects. There's a cottage in the garden where writers or artists can stay, and an art gallery for workshops and talks. At the moment, it houses A Pause on the Landing, an exhibition of works by Patrick Caulfield and Anthony Wishaw, inspired by Tristram Shandy. It's all run on less than a shoe-string: Arts Council, please note.

After a nap in the garden (I woke to see Winterbottom wandering across the lawn), it was time to wander down to the village hall. In the field outside it, people were milling around, eating canapés, drinking wine and staring at a large, black bull. They were trying to guess its weight. I bought a ticket saying 428kg and a "christen the cock" ticket saying "Phutatorius".

I met John, an accountant from York, a woman called Marion, a big, bluff businessman who was in York for the races and a beautiful woman called Polly. She, it turned out, was Lady Feversham. She had offered, since all the B&Bs were full, to put me up for the night. "We've got 10,000 Hells Angels at the moment," said her husband Peter. "Don't worry, you can't see them from the house."

And then we were all sitting down, and the lights were dimmed (the windows had been covered with bin liners) and it started. It started, in fact, in the make-up trailer, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon chatting about their roles and worrying about their teeth. "There are those," says Coogan in a wry aside, "who say this is a cock and bull story. That's the bull. I'll show you the cock in a minute." Coogan, it soon becomes clear, is Tristram Shandy. He's also Walter Shandy, watching Tristram's birth. He is also an actor called Steve who is jockeying for position with Rob Brydon, insisting on higher heels as a sign of status, snogging the production assistant and largely ignoring his new baby and beautiful young wife.

There's not much in the way of plot, of course. Tristram eventually gets born, but in the meantime we have glimpses (fictional, presumably) of the film's production processes: scenes in wardrobe, chats with the director and screenings to funders. Stephen Fry plays Patrick Wildgust in a scene at Shandy Hall. Gillian Anderson plays a Widow Wadman who is cast but never appears. David Walliams plays the curate who christens the baby Tristram. Brydon plays Uncle Toby, and an actor called Rob with a long-standing crush on Anderson. There's even a cameo from Tony Wilson, the Manchester music impresario played by Coogan in Winterbottom's24 Hour Party People. It's a wonderfully playful mix, wittily self-referential and very funny.

As the credits rolled, there was applause and Winterbottom was ushered up for questions. "How much of the off-screen stuff was ad-libbed?" asked a woman with blonde hair. "Quite a lot, at the beginning and the end," he replied. Were the actors as precious as they seemed in the film, wondered another woman. Winterbottom looked startled. He thought it was "quite flattering". And how much, asked a woman with a posh voice, was he consciously planning a film about masculinity? "Well," said Winterbottom with a sheepish grin, "it is about being a man."

There would, he said, be a South Bank Show on the film and the real Patrick Wildgust would be in it. Everyone cheered, and here was the real Patrick Wildgust, ready to despatch the final business of the night. The bull, he said, weighed 455kg and the cock was called Scarlatti.

At the pub, everyone raved. John loved it and so did Marion and Kit. Jim Gow, a Sterne expert from Novia Scotia, thought it was "wonderful". Patrick thought "it captures the spirit of Sterne's novel magnificently". Tim Parnell, the author of the OUP introduction to Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, thought it was "bloody good".

Later, over wine and Kettle Chips at Shandy Hall, Winterbottom told me that making it had been "a lot of fun". It was, he said, the brainchild of the screenwriter Frank Cotterell Boyce. "When we did 24 Hour Party People, we talked a bit about Tristram Shandy as a model for a way of telling the story of 24 Hour Party People. Essentially, it was me making that again, but without the sex and music." It was, he thought, "quite bold of Steve to be willing to portray such an unsympathetic character."

At the end of the party, Patrick drove me to Polly's. Duncombe Park, it transpired, is a stately home near Helmsley with 200 rooms, a temple by Vanburgh and one of the finest landscape gardens in England. My room was the size of my flat. In the morning, on the horizon, I could see a stream of Hells Angels. Eighteenth-century elegance and riotous play. Sterne would have loved it.

The next day, I had an e-mail from Patrick. Torrential rain had engulfed the whole area. Shandy Hall was full of buckets. Much of Helmsley was under water and some of the Hells Angels' motorbikes had been swept away. Uncle Toby would have been horrified. Tristram Shandy would, I think, have laughed.

'A Cock and Bull Story' will be released in the autumn. Shandy Hall (01347 868465; www.asterisk.org.uk) is open to the public; a new exhibition, Visual Wit, opens on 1 July. Duncombe Park is open to the public from May to October ( www.duncombepark.com)

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