tue 20/11/2018

The Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

The Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair, Channel 4

The Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair, Channel 4

Vintage comedy ensemble returns with Hitchcockian fugitive caper

Stephen Mangan as Tony Blair, leading the Comic Strip cast into a frenzy of frantic silliness

As this rampant return to our screens repeatedly underlined, one of the great joys of watching The Comic Strip throughout its 30-year frenzy of frantic - if intermittent - silliness has been never knowing what precise manifestation of oddness lurks around each corner. Where else, after all, would you find "Babs" Windsor popping up – utterly gratuitously – to give Tony Blair a meaty snog? Or Ross Noble ambling into frame as a socialist tramp, shortly to be throttled and thrown from a moving train? Or Margaret Thatcher giving full vent to her inner Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, smeared over a chaise longue watching vintage war-porn footage from the Falklands as her pitbull butler, Tebbitt, applauds slavishly in the background.

The Comic Strip has always made a virtue of succumbing all too eagerly to its own surreal and self-indulgent sense of internal logic. Their best films have the hurtling, haphazard momentum of some overgrown student revue, happy to chuck every single idea into the pot (and plot), regardless of whether it sets up the next scene or leads directly down a blind alley. Madcap mash-ups of literary, cinematic and pop-culture styles and references, thrown together to see what sticks, the results haven't always worked but they've rarely been boring. And with its repertory company plucked from the alternative, largely left-wing comedy scene of the 1980s, the films have often arrived front-loaded with political resonance – remember The Strike, with Peter Richardson’s Al Pacino as Scargill, or GLC, where Robbie Coltrane’s Charles Bronson portrayed Ken Livingstone? – although, thankfully, never to the detriment of lashings upon lashings of daftness.

Watch a compendium of clips from the Comic Strip series

In all these crucial respects The Hunt for Tony Blair was very much business as usual. Written by mainstays Peter Richardson – who also directed – and Pete Richens, this new one-off film, the first since 2005, belonged firmly to the best of the Comic Strip tradition. Stylistically the key inspiration was Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, ensuring a high quota of train action and that everything came wreathed in steam, fog and tweed. There was also a lurch into gangster noir, with Dubya and Rumsfeld portrayed as a pair of foul-mouthed Mafia hoods making Blair an offer he couldn’t refuse (“Tony, I wanna fuck Aye-rak”), as well as a nod to vintage, Rathbone-era Sherlock Holmes: the scene where Blair disposed of Robin Cook atop a mountain reeked of Reichenbach Falls.

Set in the dying days of his reign as PM (only transported back to the early 1960s and filmed as though it were the 1930s - confused?) it took aim – with a blunderbuss rather than a stiletto blade – at Blair the War Criminal and his supporting cast of apparatchiks (pictured below left, Nigel Planer as Peter Mandelson). The broad satirical premise was set out in the first minute, as Robbie Coltrane’s no nonsense copper, Inspector Hutton, arrived at No 10 with a warrant to arrest Blair for murder. Call-Me-Tony, of course, cut and ran, scarpering from his domestic idyll and handing the keys to the Cabinet Office to Cherie (Catherine Shepherd) with the immortal words: “Tell Gordon to run the country and keep trusting the bankers.”

Stephen Mangan was terrific fun as an idiot-savant Blair, bringing a manic mix of cast-iron belief, child-like disingenuousness and ruthless zeal to his portrayal. Much of the dialogue was filleted from Blair’s memoirs, A Journey, the bizarre prophesies and justifications sounding even more preposterous, messianic and delusional filtered through Mangan’s artlessly chirpy delivery.

On the lam, Blair sought refuge with friends, only to find he had none. He tried Melvyn Bragg (“I’m just outside your house – I gave you a life peerage, remember?”) and Bernie Ecclestone (“You couldn’t lend me a really fast car, preferably one without Durex written on the side?”) but was forced to spend the night sleeping rough on a bench thinking “of all the good things God had told me to do”.

Jumping on a train west, he symbolically defenestrated Noble’s Old Labour wino before enjoying a brief run-in with Carole Caplin, brilliantly played by Morgana Robinson as a predatory dolly bird, all eyelashes, Cinzano and fag ash. Haphazardly striking out in his old Ford Anglia – “Blair’s killed again, this time on the A4” crackled down the police wires – he careened onward towards his final destiny, a quasi-Oedipal tryst with spiritual mother figure Maggie Thatcher (Jennifer Saunders).

“Come to Mummy," purred Saunders, who can do this kind of thing in her sleep. She nevertheless squeezed the maximum amount of juice from the (somewhat rusted) Iron Lady by playing her as a crazed, faded diva straight out of Sunset Boulevard, who lay in shadowy seclusion watching re-runs of her most historic war cries. The inevitable cross-party pact with Blair in the bedroom led to a killer post-coital exchange: “You were amazing, Tony.” “I love women. I had a lot of them in the Cabinet.”

Shot in the arse and dumped in the Thames, Blair still came up smiling and scheming, certain that when the time came the gates of heaven would be thrown open to welcome him in

As political satire this delightfully energetic caper never went for the jugular – it alternated between deploying a mallet to the kneecaps and applying a feather to the toes – and, let's face it, it arrived at the scene of the crime several years too late. The cartoonish caricatures (there was no serious attempt at Michael Sheen-style naturalism) may have captured something of the sinister arrogance and misplaced certainty of the worst excesses of New Labour, but mostly The Hunt for Tony Blair was too busy having lots and lots of fun to bother too much about securing a conviction.

The whirlwind cameos (not just Noble, but Ronnie Ancona as Barbara Windsor, John Sessions as Tebbitt, Harry Enfield’s rather lame turn as Alastair Campbell, and Rik Mayall as Professor Predictor, essentially David Kelly reincarnated as Dr Strangelove) were indulgent and a bit hit-and-miss, but Nigel Planer was terrific as nefarious double agent Mandelson. Ford Kiernan and his wonderfully windblown wig, meanwhile, made for a suitably crazed Gordon Brown, firing his pistol at watermelons adorned with Blair’s face before finally taking a pot shot at the real thing backstage at the winkingly named Chilcot Theatre.

Shot in the arse and dumped in the Thames, Blair still came up smiling and scheming, certain that when the time came the gates of heaven would be thrown open to welcome him in. The final caption read: “Tony Blair is still at large”. More pleasingly, perhaps, so are The Comic Strip.

As political satire this delightfully energetic caper never went for the jugular - it alternated between a mallet to the kneecaps and a feather to the toes

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Comments

Love it how even mainstream TV channels can see what a mass murdering, self-obsessed liar he is. What pisses me off & upsets me more than anything is that he really is still at large, doing the lecture circuit making millions. Even after lying to us all about WMD's, starting an illegal war which has killed tens of thousands of people, and the only winners are bug business, Tony and his friends. Why isn't he in jail? Why are we sat here watching the whole fiasco played out as comedy?

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