Today’s Joanna Page is Bye Bye Harry, a British road movie released in 2006, of which she was the star, and that you will never have seen. Ever. Until now.
We’ve been jumping all over the place chronologically, here, so let’s recap the inexorable career rise of Ms Joanna Page. After leaving RADA in 1999, she went straight to the National Theatre for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She continued to do well in the theatre, with roles in a series of medieval mystery plays, The Mysteries, As You Like It, What the Butler Saw, Aladdin, Doomsday, Camera Obscura, and Billy Liar (with Ralph Little), among others.
And on tele, there were important roles in David Copperfield, The Cazalets, The Lost World, Ready When You Are Mr McGill, Making Waves, Mine All Mine and To The Ends of the Earth. She even found time to fit in a few radio plays and a music video in all that, too.
So by 2005/6, a starring role in a movie looked inevitable. Indeed, in his review of The Mysteries for The Independent, right at the start of her career, Robert Butler prophetically wrote, "As Eve, Joanna Page looks as if (now she’s eaten that apple) she will be the love-interest in a movie very soon."
And then it arrived: No Snow which soon became Bye Bye Harry. She’s the female lead – arguably the lead. It’s a British road movie, a ‘dark’ rom-com by experienced comedy writer Graham Alborough . It’s got noted director Robert Young at its helm. It’s got two of the country’s biggest rock stars in supporting roles. And when it was released, it featured at the country’s leading film festival.
So why haven’t you heard of it until now? And why had you probably not heard of Joanna Page until Gavin & Stacey?
Problem is, I’ve been linguistically tricky. See, although I said it was a British road movie – and indeed it is, according to the British Council – I pulled a fast one. The bulk of the financing came from Germany and Slovakia. When I said "the country", the country I actually meant was Germany, the rock stars I mentioned were Bela B Felsenheimer and Til Schweiger (very big in Germany), and the film festival I mentioned was the Berlin film festival.
And it’s never been released anywhere else. Not France, not Belgium, not the Netherlands. It’s certainly never been shown in Britain. And although you could get a version dubbed into German on rental in Germany, you couldn’t get the original English language version until two weeks ago – on import from Amazon.de.
So without fear of contradiction, may I present for your delight the very first, most comprehensive, most definitive and probably very last English language review of Bye Bye Harry aka Liebling, wir graben Harry aus.
Ian und Emma fahren trotz akuter Beziehungskrise gemeinsam in die Schweiz, um einen antiken Jaguar zu gutem Geld zu machen. Bei dieser Gelegenheit will man Ians Bruder Stuart und Schwägerin Sophie besuchen, doch kommt es schon auf der Anreise zu einem folgenschweren Unfall mit dem Edel-Kfz. Um ein drohendes finanzielles Debakel zu vermeiden, greift Ian zu einem Trick und entführt gegen Lösegeld die sterblichen Überreste des unlängst verblichenen Komiker-Weltstars Harry Hackett.
Stop messing about Rob. What’s the plot?
Emma and Ian used to be a couple, and if only Emma hadn’t been so impulsive and Ian hadn’t always come up with crazy-get-rich schemes they may have still been together. In a desperate bid to get Emma back, Ian sinks all their joint savings into a classic car which he claims will be the start of their new business venture. The mystery buyer for the car turns out to be Ian’s suave and successful older brother, Stuart, who is now living with his wealthy wife in Lichenstein.
Ian has a lot at stake; not only does he have to prove himself to Stuart, he also has to clinch the deal to re-gain Emma’s respect – and hopefully love. As usual for Ian, things don’t always go to plan. Driving through the mountains, en route to visit Stuart, Ian thinks he sees Harry Hackett, a famous comedian, who has plagued him throughout his childhood and in a panic manages to lose control of the classic Jaguar, which ends up in a tree.
With the help of two local Moldavian car mechanics Ian gets the car back on the road but it is a wreck. Ian now has to come up with another idea to rescue his lost investment and save face with Emma. How about kidnapping the corpse of his arch enemy, Harry Hackett, recently deceased, and demanding a ransom?
Once again things don’t go quite to plan but in the end at least Ian gets his girl.
Is it any good?
There are three kinds of comedy movies, essentially. There’s the first, which makes you laugh – that’s what I call a ‘funny’ movie. There’s the second which tries to make you laugh, but doesn’t, which I call an ‘unfunny’ movie. And there’s the third, which tries to make you laugh, doesn’t and makes you want to stab yourself with a sharpened nacho to provide blissful release from the neverending misery of existence, which I call Meet the Spartans.
On so many levels, I’d like to say this was in group one, particularly since I spent actual money on it.
But it’s not. It’s so not. It’s a group twoer. It’s not awful, but it’s really not as amusing as it should be.
Now, there is a stereotype of Germans that they don’t have a sense of humour. This, of course, is rubbish. The French, who live a lot closer to Germany so are in a better position to know than we are, have a stereotype of Germans that they’re a light-hearted bunch, always cracking jokes, never being serious. Certainly, all the Germans I’ve ever known – which is quite a few – constantly crack jokes, even in English. And if you watch German TV, you can’t help but notice how many comedy programmes they make, either using their own formats or imported formats such as Saturday Night Live.
So having established that the British are wrong and the comedy credentials of the Germans are impeccable, let me point out to you the average IMDB.de rating for Bye Bye Harry is 3.9/10 after 27 votes. That’s about right.
What’s the problem?
Where does it go wrong then, given its pedigree? After all Robert Young is one of the UK’s finest TV directors. He was responsible for the best-directed show on British TV during the 80s, Robin of Sherwood. He directed the fantastic Alan Bleasdale drama GBH for Channel 4. He’s an experienced comedy director, having worked on Jeeves and Wooster on television, and Eric Idle/Catherine Zeta’s Splitting Heirs and John Cleese’s follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures, for the cinema.
He’s no slouch in the directing stakes and although it feels a little static and uninvolving at times, mainly because Young isn’t too keen on close-ups, Bye Bye Harry‘s direction certainly isn’t bad and there are some very interesting compositions at times.
Neither is it the cast. Iddo Goldberg, best known now as Bille Piper’s boyfriend (of sorts) from Secret Diary of a Call Girl, is very good. He’s a little lacking in presence at times, but that’s more through a combination of his youth and the script, rather than a flaw in his acting.
Tim Dutton – best known here for his brief part as Marie’s farmhouse-owning friend in The Bourne Identity – is a little OTT, but he’s certainly more than passable. The German cast are fine, even though they’re acting in English.
It’s the script, pure and simple. It’s just not very good. Now it does have one or two good moments, don’t get me wrong. It’s not a complete write-off. There are occasionally funny lines and situations. It’s got a good structure and there are some interesting plot strands.
But Graham Alborough is really a children’s comedy writer. Although he’s made a few excursions into other territories (Dawn French’s Murder Most Horrid, for example), he’s done most of his work for kids’ shows such as The Queen’s Nose and Woof!. And the script feels like a story written for kids, but then made more adult. It doesn’t feel like a grown up comedy.
The characters have no real definition, nothing really from which the comedy can launch or which could make us like them. Why does Emma spend all that time down the garden centre? How long were she and Ian together? Why were they together if he was such an arse? Why have none of Ian’s schemes worked when his brother’s been able to get them running himself?
Is it because they’re the sort of unreal schemes that only exist in comedy writers’ minds, rather than ones that stem from reality? Uzbekistani sheep wrestlers: which do you think that falls into – real or unreal?
They also don’t feel like adult characters. They’re people trying to escape from being adults, almost as though they’re kids characters all grown up (hmm). Here’s Emma describing how she met Ian:
Yes, they meet in a night club, but what happens is the sort of things teenagers might find funny – or do – not adults. Even when Emma has a one-night stand with a bloke (or is he a boyfriend? It’s not very clear), she wakes up fully clothed (even if he doesn’t).
She even has a shower fully clothed.
This is pretty much an over-grown kids’ comedy that can’t escape its roots so is pretty sexless, even when characters do end up having sex (or trying to).
The plot is very standard, too – slacker bloke tries to win back the love of his ex- with a convoluted plan that’s doomed to failure from the beginning. Nothing really too bad happens to anyone, so there’s no real cringe comedy or rock bottom for the protagonists to hit. The ‘black’ part of our black rom-com, which could be the route of our salvation from bog-standard comedy hell, mainly concerns the taboo of digging up dead bodies, but nothing is ever really done with this promising possibility.
Neither is there much done with the film’s central concern – Harry the dead comedian, whom Ian looks like (sort of). It could have been any dead body for all the attention paid to it in the script. The script is all set up, with little pay off.
With no blackness, that just leaves the rom-com. Unfortunately, there’s no real rom between Ian and Emma from which the script could have drawn some life. She’s written as hating him because he’s mistreated her and we never see them at a point in their relationship where she doesn’t hate him until right at the end.
There aren’t any real reasons for why she’d end up going back to him either: it’s the typical ‘prize’ role in which the woman ends up with the man as a reward for his heroic endeavours rather than because he’s got anything going for him. When there’s any hints at anything better, it’s from the performances rather than from the script.
The com, when it does come, is mainly from the supporting cast of German rock stars, whose Moldavian mechanics are moderately entertaining. Til Schweiger’s character has learnt English predominantly from car repair manuals and can only liken Page’s pulchritude to the engines of cars he admires. And there’s a reasonable amount of the internationally understandable physical comedy as well, which does pay off.
But unfortunately, despite its slightly catchy theme and likeable cast, it’s just not very funny. Oh dear. Maybe that’s why it was never released over here…
First, how good’s your German? It’s worth noting before we begin that all the DVD menus are in German with no English translation.
After that, there are no extras. In fact, the extra on this DVD that wasn’t on the rental DVD is an English language Dolby 5.1 stereo track. Don’t believe Amazon.de, which claims there isn’t one. There really is. Here’s the back of the DVD to prove it. So you’ll need to get to grips with the German of the menus to find the extras menu that lets you access the English language track. Or you’ll just have to press Play and hope you’ve got an "audio track" selection button on your remote.
You can always choose to watch the German version, of course, but you’ll have Joanna Page dubbed (bad. Dubbing is always bad, but that’s a crime) and the plot will be mysteriously slightly different. They’re on a trip to Switzerland and Emma has suddenly become Mathilda for one thing.
Joanna’s the star, pretty much. Yes, it’s Ian’s scheme, but it’s all for Emma and most of the action and plot is seen from her point of view, rather than anyone else’s.
Indeed, almost all the scenes that are actually funny involve her. Mainly the ones where she’s playing Mad Em (or Mathilda if you’re watching the German-dubbed version). Why’s she called Mad Em? Here’s an example, with just enough of a lead in so you can see what the movie’s plot is, what everyone else is up to, and quite why she’s so hacked off. The car was in a tree, in case you’re wondering why she’s annoyed by an empty tree:
Eventually, her madness is needed to save the day – or at least save Ian from a beating by the Moldavians:
That’s probably the funniest moment in the whole film, BTW. No, maybe this is. This is the opening scene in which the two main characters are introduced:
Told you the theme was catchy. Why was that clip funny? Ah, maybe you didn’t recognise Joanna Page’s husband, James Thornton, as her one-night stand/boyfriend. Watch it again:
See? Much funnier now, isn’t it? BTW, it’s the only time they’ve been on-screen together, despite both being in David Copperfield.
The Beeb: You worked with your wife on David Copperfield; do you have any plans to do something together again? Will we ever see you guest starring in Gavin & Stacey?
"No, I don’t think that would be a good idea because the last time we worked together we could not stop laughing at each other. It is really funny seeing your partner acting because you know each other too well to believe them.
"We worked on a film together recently and I was playing her boyfriend. She had to kick me out of bed and I was supposed to be naked. I had to wear a little flesh-coloured thong and was marching around before a take, trying to be all serious and getting into character. We were supposed to be having a row in the scene but Jo couldn’t stop laughing at me – we just found the whole thing hilarious!”
Next week: Time for something much, much better. Back to period drama for the more than slightly feminist The Cazalets, as rich English men find the Second World War a frightful, frightful bore – and the dark side for women of pre-feminism is given some much deserved exposure.