**Reviews may contain spoilers**

Search
  • Ben Spicer

A Cock and Bull Story


Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story (2005) is many things. It is a light British comedy, packed with so many of the talented performers, both straight and comic, that this country has to offer: from Keeley Hawes to Dylan Moran to David Walliams to Benedict Wong to Naomie Harris, and I could add 4 or 5 more names to this list, plus, of course, the two leading men who I will come on to in a moment. Winterbottom’s film is also an adaptation of a great period novel, and one that was long regarded as ‘unfilmable’: Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (published in 1759, and just known as Tristram Shandy to its mates). Perhaps most famously of all, however, A Cock and Bull Story is the film that united Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon into the partnership that would go on to have so much critical success in their television series The Trip (2010-2020), a show which provided the perfect platform for the two performers to showcase their comedy, from their wit to their mastery of vocal impressions.

Being all of these things, A Cock and Bull Story’s biggest challenge was to unite all of these elements into a feature film that actually works, and in doing so, it rests itself squarely on the shoulders of Coogan, his comedy genius and ability to craft characters being the film’s greatest asset. Coogan not only plays a fictionalised version of himself in the film, he also portrays both Tristram Shandy, and his father, Walter Shandy. This tripartite structure is undoubtedly confusing, but it reflects the nature of its source material, and is at the heart of why the novel was described as unfilmable. As the Coogan character states at one point in a staged media interview, Tristram Shandy was “a post-modern classic, written before there was any modernism to be post about”, and any filmed version must find a way to reflect that. I can’t quite work out if, in striving for this transcendental post-modernism, A Cock and Bull Story just misses the mark or is a work of adaptational genius. Either way, the process of watching the film is enjoyable in itself, whether you enjoy the self-reflexiveness and fourth-wall breaking or not.

It's amazing how much of the film is just reaction shots of Coogan and Brydon's faces

Let’s face it, Coogan and Brydon are just such funny men. Personally, I could spend all day in their company, no matter what the situation or narrative of the production: they are brilliant entertainers who can make you laugh in hundreds of different ways. You can really understand the success of The Trip from the performances they give in A Cock and Bull Story. The hilarity of their impressions when they are let loose, and the quirks and bickering of their fictionalised selves are worth the price of admission alone. Indeed, the performances the men give raise interesting questions within the scholarship of stardom, in terms of the disconnect between vocal and physical acting, the nature of impressionistic acting, and the intriguing case of a star playing a fictionalised version of themselves, and how real or false their portrayal of themselves is. Perhaps the most relevant work on this is by Michael Allen and Janet McCabe, who study The Trip and argue that “celebrity lies as much in what can be heard as in what can be seen”.[i] If you’re not interested in the academic, existential queries their performances raise, just trust me when I tell you they are deeply funny, and that you will have a right lark watching this film. And, in fact, not only are the men themselves brilliantly funny, but Winterbottom also puts them into hilarious situations throughout the film, creating some top visual gags, such as the moment a head-shaped watermelon is crushed by a medical instrument, or the scene in which Coogan is hung upside-down within a giant womb.

But what makes Winterbottom such a great director is that, whilst his films are great comedies, you feel that there is something beyond the humour, backing it up with actual substance. A Cock a Bull Story has that feeling too: you sense that there is much going on beneath the façade of humour here – it is a film about identity, about the nature of the self, and even, on some levels about cinema itself. To this last point, there are some superb references for the cinephile to enjoy and laugh at – Naomie Harris’s character is a brilliant send-up of a certain type of arty-farty cinema lover that I suspect Winterbottom feels himself to be, where meaning is created by the viewer and found in the most mundane of actions. But perhaps this is where Winterbottom intends for us to find the true magic of his movie – not in the outright comedy, nor the philosophy or metaphysics taken from the source novel, but rather in the most ordinary of actions that his characters take – our own inspiration and art to be found wherever we ourselves choose to look for it.




At time of writing, A Cock and Bull Story is unavailable on the major streaming platforms, however, you can rent it from Amazon Prime Video, or add it to your DVD collection!

[i] From Allen and McCabe’s essay “Imitations of Lives”, which can be found in Volume 3, Issue 2 of Celebrity Studies journal: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19392397.2012.679436?journalCode=rcel20

8 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All