Period pains

For those still suffering from a glut of Christmas costume drama, `Stiff Upper Lips' - the antidote to Merchant Ivory poisoning - should come as a timely relief. James Rampton joined the cast on set in the Isle of Man
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The Independent Culture
Not only have we overdosed on turkey, brandy butter and family tension this Christmas, we have also been gagging on a surfeit of costume drama. You could hardly turn on the telly without being run over by a horse and carriage or deafened by the sound of ripping bodices. The only surprise was that they didn't choose to put the EastEnders cast into bonnets and bustles for the Christmas edition.

What a good time, then, to learn of a feature film that sends up the whole genre of what Alan Parker once called "Laura Ashley drama". Stiff Upper Lips takes all the conventions of period pieces - the suppressed gay relationship, the teenage girl sexually coming of age, the spinster aunt, the lavish locations - and holds them up for ridicule.

The ultra-formal, ultra-repressed Cedric (Robert Portal) quotes endlessly from Homer and swims in his suit and pince-nez. His dim Oxbridge chum Edward (Samuel West) rubs a hair gel called "Fop" into his barnet and writes in his diary: "I am very pleased to see my teddy bears again and they are very pleased to see me." Edward's sister Emily (Georgina Cates) employs bolting horses to tighten her corset, and when she journeys to the Continent, she announces to Cedric: "I am a young virgin in Italy. I want my sexual awakening and I want it now." The posh family travel the globe with case-loads of cucumber sandwiches and their portable front- lawn.

The peasants, meanwhile, drink in a pub named "Scum of the Earth" and know their place. Eric (Brian Glover), a local yokel, tells his son: "I dream of being killed by a Rolls or a Bentley. Especially if it were driven by a member of the Royal Family." The effect is like a sustained French and Saunders sketch. A sort of "Remains of the Airplane!".

It is summer and the cast is fastening itself into wing-collars in the unlikely location of the Isle of Man. The island is famous for many bizarre things - strict anti-homosexuality legislation, off-shore tax havens, the TT Races, cats with no tails, Nigel Mansell, even the suggestion that James Hewitt would be hanged for treason if he ever set foot there - but until now it has not been noted for its costume dramas. Favourable financial conditions, however, have lured plane-loads of whale-bone corsets to the island. It also helps that the place is to some extent caught in a time- warp. "I'm amazed that Michael J Fox hasn't come back and lived here in the 1950s," laughs Gary Sinyor, the director of Stiff Upper Lips.

The film was originally going to be called Period!, but it was felt that title had perhaps unfortunate connotations. It is the brainchild of Sinyor, previously responsible for Leon the Pig Farmer and Solitaire for Two. Sitting between takes on the grand staircase of the Nunnery, a crenellated Victorian stately home on the outskirts of Douglas, he recalls his inspiration. "I was angry about the way period drama is regarded as the only thing we should ever make in this country. American distributors said to me, `Are you sure you want to do contemporary comedies? Don't you want to do period dramas?' I also remember James Ivory saying at the Baftas that he didn't see why any British writer should think of doing anything other than adaptations from the wealth of great British literature. I fumed at the screen."

Ivory may be doing some fuming himself if he ever sees Stiff Upper Lips. Edward, a man who regards the spelling of his own name as an intellectual challenge, bears the surname Ivory. Railway stations in the film are called "Howard's Passage" and "Ivory's End". And Cedric passes the following judgement on EM Forster, source of many Merchant Ivory films: "I find it difficult to identify with the characters, but the locations are enchanting."

Samuel West appeared as Leonard in the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Howard's End. Looking resplendent in the type of white linen suit favoured by James Wilby in such films, he plays down the notion that Stiff Upper Lips is a pure spoof of Merchant Ivory. "When I started doing this, I wrote to Ismail and Jim explaining that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and that I wasn't parodying Leonard. It's more of a tribute to their strength and enduring quality than a piss-take," he contends. "Nobody sends up things that nobody knows about. Jim has said he's delighted we're doing it and asked if we wanted any help." The makers of Stiff Upper Lips even offered Merchant a part as an Indian market-trader.

Jeremy Bolt, the producer of the film, is quick to underline that "this is not a collection of sketches based on Merchant Ivory. The story functions in its own right. You don't have to have seen Merchant Ivory to enjoy it. All you have to have is an understanding of the English aristocracy and all the prejudices and repressions that go with that. I'm excited about people around the world seeing this because everyone's seen the English behave rather strangely. Eccentricity is at the heart of it. Think of the idea of the cucumber sandwich. It's `Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun'. We're not attacking Merchant Ivory; we're laughing at the English stereotype."

The jokes are meant to emerge organically from the situations, and West contends that you don't need to force them. "The wonderful thing about the British aristocracy in 1910," he observes, "is that so many of the things they do are ridiculous anyway. Their rules about etiquette and behaviour are so extreme as to be self-parodying, so the straighter you play them, the funnier they are. It's not clowning or circus. If you overstress something, people won't laugh. People like Ronnie Barker and the Pythons do it naturally. It requires a cognisance of what's funny, but not a presentation on a plate to an audience. Leslie Nielsen is the great master of it. If he ever pulled a face that told the audience, `I know what I'm saying is funny', it'd be ruined. The fact that he's so straight makes it funny."

Period dramas have long been a comic target just waiting to be kicked. "The English psyche is captured by the buttoning of emotions, which is at its most extreme in the Edwardian era," West continues. "Why we can exploit that era for comic gain is that the rules are so well-defined. We have this wonderful stiff-upper-lip quality, which the John Cleese character sums up in A Fish Called Wanda: `I'm like most Englishmen,' he says. `Having been born, my ambition is to get into my grave with as little embarrassment as possible.'"

Sir Peter Ustinov, who plays Cedric's eccentric great uncle, also can't understand why such a film hasn't been "done a long time ago". Sitting in splendour in the oak-panelled dining-room at the Nunnery, surrounded by remnants of port and stilton, he declares, "This film takes the Laura Ashley out of Merchant Ivory. Britain's far better off facing the future without living in the Empire. The Victorian era turns me off. When Mrs Thatcher said we must revive Victorian values, that only confirmed my feeling. Period dramas sell well to the Americans because they make them feel better about themselves, but they get on my nerves. It's that rather sentimental and reverential way we have of dealing with them and the feeling that we must have done something right to have won the Empire. This film is like a pill in which the sweetness wears off and you suddenly realise what you're tasting."

Bolt is bracing himself for some flak. "Of course, we'll get adverse reaction," he concedes, "but only from the narrow-minded or precious. Everybody feels it's time to laugh at this genre."

Potential critics should bear in mind that it's only a comedy; it's not going to bring down western civilisation as we know it. As Paul Simpkin, the co-writer of the script with Sinyor, points out: "The fact that Airplane! and Naked Gun were very popular hasn't stopped either of those genres being made. People will go and see Naked Gun and then Seven and Heat. It's not a case of either/or. You can have both. Stiff Upper Lips won't have any effect on Merchant Ivory or the BBC. They'll carry on regardless."

Simpkin concludes with words set to elicit a gulp of trepidation from viewers already choking on costume drama: "The Jane Austen boom will continue".

`Stiff Upper Lips' is released in Apri.