Eddie Izzard

Six Minutes to Midnight


Now TV

Eddie Izzard is well known these days for running marathons, so it’s perhaps appropriate that she spends much of this film’s screen time sprinting headlong across the countryside with vengeful Nazis in hot pursuit. Six Minutes to Midnight is an old-school espionage potboiler, very much in the tradition of The 39 Steps, where stiff-upper-lipped Brits take on Hitler’s double agents in plucky and indomitable style. Co-written by Izzard, the tale is set in the exotic location of Bexhill-on-Sea and is loosely based around a true story.

Izzard stars as Thomas Miller, applying for the role of English teacher at a boarding school for German girls on the eve of the Second World War. The twenty girls in residence – who seem to spend much of their time working on their deportment – are presided over by headmistress, Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), and by the sole other teacher, Ilse (Carla Juri), who seems thoroughly charming. Miss Rocholl is doubtful about Miller’s abilities, but she’s in an awkward position, as the former English teacher has recently gone missing under mysterious circumstances, so she agrees to a trial period.

It’s not long before Miller has his German pupils merrily singing It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, which is an unusual approach to English, to say the very least – and it comes as no great surprise to discover that Miller isn’t really an English teacher at all…

As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that hardly anybody here is quite who they appear to be. Is Charlie (Jim Broadbent) really a happy-go-lucky bus driver? Is Captain Drey (James D’Arcy) actually a British secret agent or something decidedly more sinister? And what is the significance of the film’s title?

To be fair, Six Minutes to Midnight makes a decent fist at generating a little mystery, but never really gets up a proper head of steam when it comes to the action sequences – and whenever the story stalls, it’s treated as a cue for Eddie to start running again. Poor Judi Dench has little to do but utter some of the lamest lines in history, as events spiral towards an underwhelming climax.

This is decent enough, but nowhere near as gripping as it needs to be.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Victoria and Abdul


It’s 1887 and Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has completely lost her zest for life. A widow for something like thirty years (and missing the attention of her much-loved Ghillie, the late Mr Brown,) she suffers silently through a daily onslaught of official functions, signing papers and attending dinners – all under the baleful gaze of a whole retinue of servants who feed her, dress her and even keep watch on the Royal bowel movements. And then along comes Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome young servant despatched from his hometown of Agra in India in order to present the Queen with a rather unprepossessing commemorative coin. In so doing, he breaks with protocol and actually dares to look her in the eye. Something clicks between them. Pretty soon, Abdul has been appointed as her personal servant and, not long after that, as her ‘Munshi’ or teacher, when she decides she’d like to learn to speak Urdu.

Predictably, the appointment causes much consternation in the Royal Household, not least to Edward, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), who feels that a servant – and a Muslim one, to boot – does not make a suitable companion for his mother. Despite this, when Victoria learns that Abdul is a married man, she insists that he send for his wife and daughter immediately and has the family installed in their own cottage on the palace grounds.

This is an interesting true life story in which Dame Judi does her usual seemingly effortless magic, while director Stephen Frears takes the opportunity to nail the jealousy, spite and hypocrisy that always simmers under the polite surface of the aristocracy. Karim, however, remains something of an enigma. Was he a genuinely devoted servant or, like so many others in the Royal household, simply looking to exploit the situation to his own ends? We’re never really sure – and Victoria doesn’t seem to care. Whatever, it’s clear the real exploitation was visited upon the colonies, so who could blame Karim for trying to turn the tables to his own advantage?

Whatever the truth of the situation, he was clearly shabbily treated by Edward and by the supercilious Lord Henry Ponsonby (a lovely swan song from the late Tim Pigott-Smith). There’s also an appealing turn from Adeel Akhtar as Karim’s politically-astute friend, Mohammed, who, shorter and less handsome than his celebrated companion, is doomed to be forever in his shadow. This is an assured little film, beautifully performed by a stellar cast and, while the world doesn’t exactly move for me (a bit like the Royal bowels, I suppose), it’s nonetheless well worth watching, if only to fill me in on a little bit of history I wasn’t previously aware of.

4 stars

Philip Caveney


Stand Up With Labour



Opera House Manchester

On the face of it, this Labour Conference tub-thumper looked like a win-win situation. Watch five top comics for an all-in price of around thirty pounds and support your chosen political party at the same time. But perched in the vertiginous gallery of the Manchester Opera House, I began to wonder if comedy was ever designed to work in a venue like this.

Our host was Stephen K. Amos. I’ve seen and heard him before and have been left somewhat unimpressed, but he proved an intelligent choice to compere tonight’s proceedings and performing live, he’s much edgier than he’s allowed to be on TV and radio. He generated genuine laughs and established a lively rapport with the audience down in the stalls, though from our perch in the gods, we couldn’t actually see any of that.

First up was Ian Stone, who I confess I hadn’t previously heard of. He ambled out and delivered a confident and sometimes hilarious set of observational comedy, though a piece about the situation in Gaza (he’s Jewish) was perhaps the most ‘political’ comedy of the evening. By the time he’d finished, I had laughed heartily and I marked him down as ‘one to watch.’

Phill Jupitus is of of course a familiar name from TV panel shows. Here he was, performing stand up for the first time in years, mostly because Eddie Izzard invited him to this event (or so Phill told us). To be honest, he looked like he didn’t really want to be there and gave us a diffident, overly intellectual routine, reading from his collection of (decent) poems and occasionally glancing at his watch. The ‘highlight’ of his routine was a poem about Jeremy Clarkson, hardly the most original of targets and the only laughter that he managed to raise was muted and sporadic. Maybe he’s been too long away from the game, but this was definitely the most disappointing act of the evening.

Sarah Pascoe on the other hand, is a brilliant stand up, but her set was somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the auditorium and it didn’t help that it was word-for-word the same act I’d seen at the Edinburgh fringe in August where she played a much smaller venue and managed to make every line a zinger. Nevertheless, for my money, this was still the best material of the evening and I believe that Pascoe has a bright future ahead of her.

Top of the bill, Eddie Izzard strode out and was… well, uniquely Eddie Izzard. We were treated to the usual surreal stream-of-consciouness shtick, ranging from the origins of human sacrifice to something that strayed dangerously close to Monty Python’s ‘What Have The Romans Ever Done for Us?’ routine. He wasn’t remotely phased by the size of the venue but his set reminded me of one of those budget bumper boxers of cheap fireworks. Throw in a match and you’ll discover a few dazzling beauties in there, but you’ll also find several damp squibs that don’t quite go off. Izzard really needs a longer time slot in order for his irrational nonsense to bear any kind of fruit and there simply wasn’t space for it here.

All-in-all, an interesting night but one that didn’t really live up to expectations. For one thing, given that this was a fund raiser for the Labour party, I would have expected to see more comedy with a political edge. But Ian Stone aside, there wasn’t much and he only flirted with it, before moving on to more general humour. And then there’s the Opera House itself… hmm. The moral of the story is, I think that comedy works best in smaller, more intimate venues, where the comics really can reach out and work their strange chemistry on an audience. Had we managed to procure seats down in the stalls, this might have been a more positive review. But the stars reflect the show as a whole.

3 stars

Philip Caveney