Kevin Toolis is a film maker, who was nominated for a Bafta this year for his Channel 4 MI5 spy thriller Complicit. He is the playwright and director of the political satire The Confessions of Gordon Brown which opens at the Ambassadors Theatre in London, June 3 – July 30.
How can a dog bark like a turkey?
Answer – when it’s the latest Ed Miliband-less Labour Election Party Broadcast.
The English language is infinite in negative adjectives but Labour’s latest baffling electoral mini-drama, ‘The Un-Credible Shrinking Man‘, comes close to exhausting them all.
As a work of film the election broadcast is awesomely bad, a grotesque dog of a film, superlatively and wondrously inept, politically unhinged and I suspect to most members of the general public entirely incomprehensible. A turkey of Oscar-like proportions. “Why is it in black and white?”, asked my uncomprehending teenage son.
To make a film this bad is an astounding achievement. And for the film to be approved through the Labour chain of command, by Miliband himself, reveals a seriously disturbing absence of judgement. Could no-one in Labour’s upper echelons speak out loud that the Un-Credible Shrinking Man is just rubbish?
As a professional film maker and writer of the political satire The Confessions of Gordon Brown, I actually first thought I was watching a student spoof of an over-acted spoof before the sickening horror dawned that this was the political artwork of a major Western European party.
The idea behind the film is a direct rip off of the 1957 classic movie The Incredible Shrinking Man; an ad man’s wheeze, a graspable concept, to spin to the dim-witted client and show them how clever and original your own vision is.
A hammy toff 1950s Pathé News narrator introduces a black and white film of the British Cabinet seated around the cabinet table in the dim, imperial past. Two starched Upstairs Downstairs female servants in their aprons deliver chocolate biscuits, and the action begins. Verbally pummelled and bullied by a Dracula-like David Cameron, played by Dominic Coleman, the Nick Clegg character gradually shrinks to the size of matchbox before being chased along the cabinet table and potentially eaten by Socks, the Downing Street cat.
A chorus of nasty middle-aged Tory men in tweed suits add to the drama by lambasting the poor, quip up in support of hunting small animals (the only decent joke), and generally reveal themselves to be deceitful scoundrels only interested in their banker friends. Aside from the female servants, no women appear to exist anywhere on Planet Toff Tory.
Labour’s foray into dramatic satire will not have come cheap for the cash-strapped party, with estimates ranging from several tens of thousands to half a million, depending how high the ad agency fees were.
According to the advertising magazine Campaign the ad is the work of Lucky Generals, a London-based ad agency, Hungry Man Films, headquartered in New York, and a Los Angeles-based but British-born ad director Ric Cantor.
In the film trade, ad agencies are notorious for inflating costs as their fees are calculated on a percentage of the overall spend. Why hire just one catering truck when you can hire two? And the commercial fees charged by top ad directors can top out at hundreds of thousands of US dollars a day because if you are paying someone that sort of money, ipso facto, they must be a genius. As prestige clients, political parties often receive a hefty discount but most of us could live very comfortably on the ‘nominal’ fees charged when ad men are giving their prestige clients a supposed break.
Based on his portfolio, the film’s director Ric Cantor specialises in mock-documentary style advertising – where minor, unbeautiful actors are cast as unbeautiful people in suburban shopping malls enfusing the white goods on sale with a requitable sexual aura. Think The Office set in B&Q. But don’t be fooled – such humdrum fakery comes with a hefty price tag.
Self-belief, hyperbole and self-delusion are never in short supply in the advertising world, or in politics, but the first point to make about the Un-Credible Shrinking Man is that the casting is just terrible.
Dominic Coleman looks more like the coachman in a Hammer vampire movie rather than the current Prime Minister. Coleman appears to be wearing a wig and there is something funny about the ears. Perhaps there was a problem with the make-up department budget?
Worse, though, is the Nick Clegg character, who bears no physical resemblance to Nick Clegg at all – hence the endless repetition of his name by Cameron.
Trying to cast lookalikes to play existing politicians is always tricky, but the physical dissonance between these actors and Cameron and Clegg subverts the propaganda value of the film. As a viewer I instantly slipped from watching the film to wondering how the people who made the film deluded themselves that the film was working as a narrative. The unsuspension of disbelief.
The ‘nasty Tory’ vision was so over the top it jarred and it made me question if the film makers were actually British rather Americans cranking up their own Downton Abbey version of a class-based society.
Film making, like electoral politics, is a tortuous and long winded process of scripts, re-writes, approvals, budgets, castings, shoots, edits and re-edits. The product passes through many editorial hands again and again at different stages of the process. That process is even more convoluted when the client is a nervy political party where every line is then further tested in focus groups.
Whatever Labour say about the film in the future, the dabs of the Miliband team, Miliband himself and his US media guru David Axelrod are all over the Un-Credible Shrinking Man.
The film prefigures their wider electoral strategy and is noteworthy for one stunning omission – Ed. If this is the future then Ed, with his continuing negative poll ratings, is likely to find himself shrunk out of Labour’s campaign posters and manifesto.
The script, with its litany of Clegg’s betrayals, is obviously directed at the Lib Dems’ betrayal of their electoral promises prior to the 2010 election and casts Clegg as a supine sidekick to his snarly Tory boss.
The attack message is: Clegg is a weak nobody, the shrinking man, and the Tories are nasty. Full stop. Oh and yes, please vote Labour. I think the message is supposed to be subliminal rather than completely lost in the faux melodramatics. It does not work.
On YouTube the film has within 24 hours registered thousands of hits, so there is an audience at least for the novelty of Team Miliband Movie Studio.
The harder question is – are the audience doing anything more than amusing themselves with the latest baffling, wacky video?
YouTube views do not so easily translate into sales or votes, as I know from my own experience when one of our manyriversfilms had 500,000 YouTube views and just 30 DVD sales.
After the soon-to-be revealed debacle of the making of the Un-Credible Shrinking Man, Labour’s adventures in the film trade are likely to be foreshortened. along with their electoral chances.
At the end of 1957 movie the main character, shrunk to minuscule proportions, embraces his fate because to “God there is no zero”. But in real life electoral politics, baffling the voters with second-rate hammy dramas is one sure way of making your own poll ratings shrink – turning your marginal lead over the Conservatives into a real zero.