At the hallowed gates of the Torquay Lawn Bowls Club, the barbarians are gathering. Well, one barbarian actually – Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye), who hails from the Links Estate on the wrong side of town and carries his bowling balls in an Asda carrier bag. He’s everything the bowling establishment, led by twenty-three-times champion Ray Speight (James Cromwell), most despises. He’s also the best player anyone has seen…
So begins Blackball. The script was written by Tim Firth, who has the rare distinction of having his first two cinema scripts released on the same day (he co-wrote Calendar Girls). However, on this showing I wouldn’t be rushing out to sample more of his work. It’s a very formulaic screenplay, with clear act divisions and setbacks, and our hero going to the bad before seeing the error of his ways and redeeming himself… And so on, and so on. Halfway through Blackball you could write the rest of the storyline for yourself. And you’d most likely be right. Firth’s script is too lazily reliant on the supposed comic value of swearwords – hence the 15 certificate, when a 12A might have allowed a more appreciative audience. More to the point, it simply isn’t funny.
The storyline is full of false notes – for one thing, why would such an out-and-out toff like Ray be working as a driving instructor? Casting American James Cromwell as Ray seems a strange idea (apart from being an obvious sop to the US market) but at least with his imposing height and patrician features he does look the part, and I didn’t detect much wrong with his English accent. He’s hardly given the most demanding material of his career, but along with most of the rest of the cast he does a professional job of work. Unfortunately, as with certain other TV comics, the big screen rather cruelly exposes Paul Kaye’s acting limitations. Pulling faces doesn’t constitute a performance. Worse still, Cliff the character is meant to have a dangerous, rock-star edge to him (at one point he even sets light to a ball, Hendrix-style) which is entirely missing from Kaye’s performance. This is a “bad boy” who will only seem threatening if you’re in junior school. Johnny Vegas and Alice Evans are competent enough in standard-issue sidekick and girlfriend reviews, respectively. On the other hand, Vince Vaughn is completely out of place as Cliff’s agent. As for the direction, Mel Smith seems to think that cutting a scene to a 70s rock track (Queen and The Who) is sufficient. Add in plenty of very noticeable product placements (Asda, Nike, the Savoy Hotel, amongst others) and you have a very wearisome hour and a half, which may play better to the post-pub crowd which appears to be its intended audience.