Grimsby should relax, Sacha Baron Cohen isn't so bad

If I were the PR adviser for the town it would be hard not to go with the flow

If one’s name is one’s destiny, it presents something of a challenge for the good residents of Grimsby to persuade us that their home town is not, well, grim. And certainly the film that bears the Lincolnshire town’s name – the latest creation of Sacha Baron Cohen – is unlikely to dispel any preformed opinions about Grimsby’s attractions, or lack of them.

All publicity is not necessarily good publicity, and Baron Cohen’s remark to the local paper about what the film will do for the town – “I hope it’s going to take Grimsby off the map” – was a characteristic taunt. His film has shone a spotlight on Grimsby, and the leader of the local council appeared on breakfast television yesterday defending its reputation. “It’s a great place, full of opportunity,” Councillor Ray Oxby said.

Whatever the reputational effect, the film is big news in, and for, Grimsby.

Yesterday morning, following the premiere in London, three of the top four slots on the Grimsby Telegraph’s website were occupied with stories about the movie. The only other headline was: “Suicidal man’s plea for help as he threw concrete off Grimsby railway bridge.”

Baron Cohen’s portrait of a town dominated by its fishing industry and populated by feckless benefit cheats and feral children is anything but flattering. But this is not a sophisticated piece of social commentary, even though the film’s climax is driven by a splendid, almost Churchillian, speech by Baron Cohen’s character – a Liam Gallagher lookalike called Nobby Butcher – in which he inspires his fellow Grimsbarians to rise up against the Establishment, which looks down on them as scum.

It went something like this: “It was scum like us who built all the hospitals and schools. It was scum like us who fought two world wars. And it was scum like us,” he added, “who have kept the Fast and Furious franchise alive.”

Baron Cohen is a rather bloodless comic, and always resists the temptation to sentimentalise his victims. Not for him the unthreatening, salt-of-the-earth, joy-of-life portrait of the British working classes seen most recently in, say, The Royle Family or Gavin and Stacey. There is very little patronisation here, merely vicious characterisation.

There are a number of very good jokes in the film, an awful lot of visual gags in the worst taste, and, remarkably, some highly topical satire.

“Meet the head of the biggest crime syndicate in the world,” Nobby is told when he encounters a terror gang leader played, improbably, by Penelope Cruz. “What, she runs Fifa?” asks Nobby. And the film ends with a cruel, crude and rather joyful joke against Donald Trump. It brought the house down at the premiere.

If I were the PR adviser for the town of Grimsby (and I’m certainly not applying for the job), it would be hard not to go with the flow. Don’t be defensive, but point out that most of the filming took place in the Essex town of Tilbury, and that Grimsby is not, as the film had it, twinned with Chernobyl. Yes, we get the joke, and in any case Grimsby didn’t even feature in the most recent list of the 10 worst places in Britain to live.

And we’d like to thank Sacha Baron Cohen. Despite what he promised,  he’s put Grimsby on the map.

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