Not Only But Always... and Beyond the Fringe(Acorn Media, 10.4.2005)
If you're a fan of British comedy -- or any comedy, for that matter -- chances are you've heard of legendary comic duo Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. At the very least, you're probably familiar with Dudley Moore, which is the issue at the heart of Not Only But Always. Ostensibly a biopic of the comedy team, Not Only makes the argument that, while Moore had far more success in movies (most notably Arthur and 10), Cook was the true genius of the pair. But Cook's lack of movie success wasn't really an injustice. You see, according to Not Only But Always, Cook was an egomaniacal tyrant.
In its admiration and frustration with Peter Cook, Not Only But Always is ultimately more a biopic of Peter Cook than his shorter, musically-gifted sidekick. With the emphasis placed firmly on the eccentric and moody Cook, the film's success rests on the shoulders of one of the most consistently irritating performers in recent British movie history: Rhys Ifans. How this guy turned his nightmarishly broad performance in Notting Hill into a full-fledged movie career has baffled me for years, but Not Only But Always proves that there may be a genuine talent hiding in there, after all. For my money, this is a revelatory performance, one that demands a simple piece of advice for Ifans: stop playing half-wits.
The film is written and directed with surprising skill by Terry Johnson, a writer and director of British TV best known (to me, anyway) for writing Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance. Rather than simply transcribe classic moments from Cook and Moore's repertoire, Johnson illustrates the comic personalities of his famous protagonists by having them self-reflexively comment upon the film they're appearing in. The Cook and Moore characters sit in a movie theatre and watch the film as it unfolds, commenting on the proceedings with the surreal verbal wit they were known for. If you want to hear the director comment on the actors as they comment on themselves, there's also an informative commentary track by Johnson.
What's most surprising about this endlessly watchable, absorbing biographical comedy/drama is that it was actually made on the cheap for British television. The project's TV origins are a little confusing in light of the anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer featured on this disc. Whether this is the correct ratio or not -- presumably, the film was designed for the 1.33:1 frame of conventional TV -- the film looks terrific and far more cinematic than your average TV production.
If your knowledge of Cook and Moore is limited to their screen collaborations in films like Stanley Donen's underrated (and horrifically re-made) Bedazzled, Not Only But Always is a great introduction to their complex, ambivalent, love/hate relationship. It should also whet your appetite for Beyond the Fringe, the only known video record of the comic stage show that made them (and their lesser-known partners) famous. As the only existing record of Beyond the Fringe, this recording earns its DVD release, in spite of a 1.33:1, black-and-white transfer that leaves a lot to be desired (Acorn Media also includes the original Broadway Playbill as a DVD-ROM extra).
To be honest, not all of the jokes featured in Beyond the Fringe hold up. In fact, the comedy team appears to be struggling a little too hard for laughs a lot of the time, but the audience eats it all up. I know this because the editor cuts to them every time a routine ends. In most cases, we see the same group of people in the front row, including a stuffy-looking Brit who turns to his friend every time and nods approvingly, as if to say "Yes chap, those lads sure took the piss out of that wanker!"
It has been widely argued that, without Cook and Moore, there'd be no Monty Python...and no Monty Python imitators. Watching Beyond the Fringe, this seems like a perfectly reasonable assertion, dated jokes notwithstanding. No, these guys don't achieve the surreal comic energy of the Monty Python movies or TV show -- theatre has its limitations -- but their satirical style and targets are quite similar.
DVDs are regularly cross-promoted and, much of the time, the relevance of one disc to the other is suspect. In this case, it might have been preferable if the discs were actually packaged together (with its ultra-rough transfer, Beyond the Fringe has more merit as a supplementary disc than as a stand-alone release).
If nothing else, this double bill makes it clear that Rhys Ifans can ably impersonate Peter Cook. Hell, he makes a better Peter Cook than Peter Cook did. While Ifans may get on my nerves, there's a reason he's had a more successful screen career than Cook ever did. He may not have the brains or wit of Peter Cook, but he has twice the charisma. -- Jonathan Doyle