If the British film industry is good at one thing, it’s heart-warmingromantic comedies. And if the British film industry is reallygood at one thing, it’s nostalgic heart-warming romantic comedies.Whether it’s football (Fever Pitch), the ’60s (Withnail &I), grammar school (The History Boys) or early ’70s racialstrife (East is East), all you need to do is chuck in a dodgyhaircut and the odd clapped-out motor, and you can almost guaranteebox office success.
Based on David Nicholls’ hit coming-of-age novel, Starter forTen is the story of Brian (James McAvoy), a working-class lad froman unnamed Essex town who fulfils a lifetime ambition by appearing onUniversity Challenge, while navigating the tricky emotionalmire of mid-1980’s academia. After arriving in his grubby studentdigs, Brian wastes no time in falling for the ample-bosomed charms ofAlice (Alice Harbinson), one of his team-mates, while, of course,completely ignoring rather more interesting student activist Rebecca(Rebecca Hall).
Those looking for originality and acerbic wit here will bedisappointed. Starter for Ten is an extremely British, goodnatured comedy that rollicks along at a fair pace, without everattempting to reinvent any wheels. This is no criticism – TomVaughan’s film does what it wants to do very well, but as soon as thecharacters are introduced, and the dichotomy between the female leadsbecomes obvious, you’ll have the film sussed, until a neat littletwist near the end threatens to derail the entire story.
And while there’s little original in the humour, (protagonist hasexcruciating first experience with drugs, student says wrong name atwrong time, etc) it’s so well played that half the audience will endup cringing behind tightly clenched fingers. A tight script fromformer Cold Feet writer Nicholls injects the kind ofjust-this-side-of-family-friendly patter we’ve come to expect fromBritish rom-coms, and, after he’s thrown in a couple of life lessons(Don’t forget your old friends! Smoking weed makes copulationdifficult!) it’s difficult to leave the cinema without a warm feelingin the pit of your stomach. Only a slightly underplayed sub plotconcerning Brian’s working class roots is a slight detraction from anotherwise excellent script, and this may just be down to the fact thatBritish viewers are used to having class divides rammed down ourthroats than subtly explored on celluloid.
The nostalgia, also, is beautifully handled – both the dreadfulstudent digs and the culminating jaunt onto the brainy television showare lovingly recreated with only the slightest hint of irony – and anuncredited appearance by The League of Gentlemen‘s Mark Gatiss as hostBamber Gascoigne is priceless, right down to the madcap hair andGranada TV yellow hue.
James McAvoy, too, excels in his first lead role. Soon to inherit EwanMcGregor’s mantle as ‘responsible, good-looking Scot’ in Hollywood bystarring alongside Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s Atonement, McAvoyis as gawkishly floppy as his dreadful bowl-cut hairstyle – endearing,sympathetic and vulnerable. How on earth he finds himself fending offtwo nubile young students is beyond me, however he carries off theromantic lead to aplomb, mixing just enough seriousness and emotionwith his awkward first steps in life. He’ll have tougher roles thanthis, but as he’s already moving up in the film industry, he won’tever have this much fun again.
Indeed, while all the suspiciously twenty-something looking cast dowell with some pretty sparky dialogue, it is Benedict Cumberbatch’sprudish team captain Patrick that steals just about every scene he’sin, with a wonderfully Machiavellian turn as the frustrated loser fromtwo years previous.
It’s not all good. Some characters are sketched so lightly they almostshouldn’t have bothered including them – Brian’s step-father, an icecream man is a permissibly peripheral character, highlighting thedearth of a father figure in his life – but Elaine Tan’s Lucy, afellow competitor on the show embarrassingly gets barely a line.Arch-leftie Rebecca also gets a short-shrift, despite being a muchmore rounded character than sex-bomb Alice. And, as the vast majorityof protagonists are well-to-do students at a red brick university,some of the characters may seem less sympathetic than the traditionalsmorgasbord of races in a Richard Curtis movie.
These are minor criticisms though. Starter for Ten is certainlyworth seeing, if only for the fantastic soundtrack – the film islittered with glorious mid ’80s rock music, with a particular penchantfor classic Cure, and once, brilliantly, an airing of the Buzzcocks‘seminal Ever Fallen in Love. Britain, still, is the undisputed kingof rose-tinted nostalgia.