Pastiche is a pretty unforgiving form of comedy.
There's not a lot of point in getting it half right since all the pleasure of the joke lies in a seamless finish. So it was a relief, very early in Cricklewood Greats, to see that The Flying Pie, the classic film that founded the studio's fortunes, was almost indistinguishable from a Méliès short, if, that is, a Méliès short had been filmed by a failed Morecambe magician who'd decided to try his hand at the movies. "As a child, I suffered from anxiety-related eczema," Capaldi had begun, setting up his spoof of film buff history as a personal journey through the movies that had sustained his friendless youth. And his first encounter was with an even greater enthusiast, a Cricklewood collector played by the excellent Alex MacQueen (the "blue-skies" special adviser from The Thick of It) .
Capaldi's film, co-written with Tony Roche (who also wrote the recent Holy Flying Circus), wasn't just interested in guying the styles of early British cinema. It wanted to have fun with the reverential arts documentary too, and it did it very nicely. As Capaldi and the memorabilia buff fondly remembered Harold the Hobo, a silent slapstick hit for the studio, the latter carefully unwrapped his greatest treasure: a crushed bowler hat that once belonged to studio head and chief star Arthur Simm. Indeed, he was wearing it when he died, we were told – a piece of information that was given added perspective by a sudden cut to a clip of Simm's last film, Steamroller Joe. "Is that blood?" Capaldi asked warily, pointing at a stain. "Human tissue of some kind," confirmed MacQueen, with a completist's relish for authenticity.
Oddly, given that Capaldi is currently starring in a stage version of The Ladykillers, they pretty much left Ealing alone, preferring to target Hammer, Gainsborough and Associated Talking Pictures, which produced Gracie Fields's pictures, here refigured as Florrie Fontaine, whose films included Clog Capers of 1932 and Dial F for Florrie. Those clips were beautifully re-created, as were later samples of a Carry On-like series called Thumbs Up (it began to lose its way with Thumbs Up Uranus) and the early black-and-white horror of the Acton movies, including the big hit that saved the studio, Dr Worm, in which a scientist is bitten by a radioactive worm and ends up slithering around the cupola of St Paul's, under fire from the Army.
It wasn't perfect. There was an odd chronological glitch that had Florrie Fontaine's sagging career rescued by the outbreak of war, which seemed incompatible with the scandalous (and career-ending) revelation that she'd flirted with Hitler and the Nazi high command at Berchtesgaden in 1939 ("I speak as I find and they were grand company," she explained later). The long digression into the career of a very minor female extra in the Sixties didn't seem entirely plausible either. But the jokes and the imitations were good enough and steady enough that it didn't really matter. Cricklewood itself, incidentally, was finally driven into bankruptcy by Terry Gilliam, after the catastrophic cost overruns on his unseen project Professor Hypochondria's Magical Odyssey. "The Cricklewood dream was over," as Capaldi summed up. Fun while it lasted, though, and I'd love to see more of Dr Worm.
In Bomber Boys, Colin and Ewan McGregor did for real what Capaldi had done tongue in cheek – a lot of those hushed pieces to camera in which the presenters tell us how moved they are, or what a sense of presence they feel in some location. Forgiveable, though, given the subject matter and the access they had to survivors of the bombing campaign from both sides. There may be viewers out there who can look at a Lancaster bomber in the air without getting a lump in their throat at what it represents – the courage and horror both – but I'm not one of them.