Indy Datta puts The Inbetweeners Movie in context
At the time of writing this piece, just before another Orange Wednesday evening swells the coffers further, The Inbetweeners Movie has taken about 28 million pounds at the box office in its first two weeks on release, making it the most successful launch ever for a live-action comedy in the UK. This also puts it on course to outgross films, such as Transformers 3, that probably cost a hundred times as much to produce. Rigorous statistical analysis proves that these figures show that every teenager in the country has seen it twice, and that it probably stopped the August riots. Newspaper journalists can’t see something unusual without pronouncing it a new trend, so we’ve seen a breathless rush of speculation that the British film industry will “learn the wrong lessons” from the success of Inbetweeners and unleash upon us a baleful tide of unwanted adaptations of sitcoms and teen telly shows. This would at least mean that they could take next summer off from whining about the preponderance of sequels and comic book adaptations to instead complain that the multiplexes were being monopolized by the likes of My Family: the Movie, Misfits: the Movie and/or Roger & Val Have Just Got In: the Movie.
But how much of an outlier, really, is the success of Inbetweeners, viewed in the context of British comedy film?
It depends on your perspective. The British sitcom adaptation is a fairly unusual sight at the multiplexes these days. If we exclude such not-quite adaptations as Ali G Inda House, Bean and its sequel, Kevin and Perry Go Large, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse and The Trip, the pre-Inbetweeners crop from the last 15 years is meagre: just Guest House Paradiso (based on Bottom), and In the Loop (based on The Thick of It). In a way, this is unsurprising – the classical form of the Britcom is about stasis, with characters trapped in circumstances (banal marriages, shitty jobs, poverty) they futilely yearn to transcend, whereas the orthodoxy taught in screenplay manuals would have us believe that cinema audiences want to see characters take up arms against their troubles, prevail and grow as people. Sitcom should be, narratively, the antithesis of commercial cinema. And that holds true for our sample, to an extent. In the Loop was, like the show it was based on, very much made for a niche audience. Inbetweeners has an element of narrative progression forced on it by the school setting and its leads outgrowing that setting, making it somewhat closer to the soapier American model for sitcoms. Guest House Paradiso is the film that you would choose to demonstrate that film into sitcom does not go, and its box office receipts would bear that out.
But rewind to the seventies, and it’s a very different story. From Till Death Us Do Part in 1968, to George and Mildred and Rising Damp in 1980, British cinemas were rarely more than a few months away from another sitcom adaptation. Some were better than others (Clement and La Frenais were no slouches when they wrote the Likely Lads and Porridge movies, and went on to some success in Hollywood), some were more successful than others: success was rarely strongly correlated with quality. 1971’s On the Buses was the year’s box office No.1, outgrossing Diamonds Are Forever. It’s a film that contemporary audiences would find all but unwatchable and yet it shows that the success of Inbetweeners is far from unprecedented. It’s been argued that the Britcom boom died with the Thatcher government’s abolition of the Eady Levy, but to me it seems likelier that the advent of home video was the fatal blow, making available superior alternatives to a trip to the ABC to see how the Are You Being Served? crew would fare on the Costa Plonka (apart from anything else, the Eady Levy wasn’t abolished until 1985). And the easy money sale and leaseback years of British film didn’t see much of an uptick in the incidence of sitcom adaptations – the industry seemingly finding it easy enough to come up with enormous volumes of original comedy of extremely low quality. The hiatus between 1980’s Rising Damp and 1999’s Guest House Paradiso did mean that audiences were robbed of a film of that era’s megahit sitcom, John Sullivan’s Only Fools & Horses. (The series of holiday specials that eventually took over the show arguably delivered many of the pleasures the audience might have expected of an OFAH movie – in particular the single most characteristic move made by film adaptations of sitcoms: sending the characters on holiday.)
I couldn’t tell you if 1973’s Holiday on the Buses (the third On the Buses movie!) was the origin of this trope, but it’s the shorthand that comes to mind every time we see sitcom characters emerging blinking on to celluloid for the first time, only to immediately be sent on a spree. It doesn’t even have to be a holiday! I had the same disrespectful thought when the In the Loop crew went to Washington DC to stop/start a war. As a failsafe way of taking sitcom characters out of the stifling environs of their shows, it’s an understandable strategy, even if it does run the risk of undermining what’s distinctive about the characters. Basically, I was just trying to think of bad examples that luckily never happened in the 70s – Basil Fawlty as a guest in someone else’s shit hotel, Norman Stanley Fletcher on the lam in Rio, Rigsby on the moon – and I have to admit I would find them all hard to resist.
The Inbetweeners Movie is therefore merely the latest Britcom to go on holiday to ease the transition to film – in search of exotic locations, heightened dramatic stakes and local tax breaks for production – and it has much else in common with its 70s forebears. But unlike most of the films we’ve been discussing, it works as an end to the story, as a fond farewell to characters we’ve loved, and it just about transcends its cash-in roots. And it had me from the first frame, when I saw that they hadn’t filmed it in ultra-widescreen just to prove it really was a movie.
If you’re not already a fan, there’s not much here for you, but then The Inbetweeners has been a colossal hit on television, rating close to 4 millions viewers on a niche channel by the end of its first run. It comes pre-sold to a lot of fans who are right in the ticket-buying demographic. Viewed in this context, and in the context of the popularity of sitcom movies in the past, is its success that much of a shock? I’d guess that maybe three times as many people have seen at least a few episodes of the television show as have read David Nicholls’ massively bestselling book One Day (the screen adaptation of which has struggled to compete with The Inbetweeners at the box office) but if the tables had been turned, I suspect the newspaper pundits would not have been so vociferously surprised.
Here’s where I fall right in line with the conventional wisdom, though. No sequel, please.