Status Quo have ensured the demise of the pop star feature film forever more - and it's a shame

Bula Quo! might be tired, naive and desperately middle-of-the-road, but spare the pop-film genre! I can't be the only one who looks at Rizzle Kicks or Dizzee Rascal and thinks: give those kids a movie.

The pain experienced while watching Bula Quo!, the movie debut of Status Quo, can be dulled slightly by speculating about which stand-up comic will eventually get to demolish the film when it makes its inevitable appearance as part of the Bad Film Club. I saw a particularly fine Stewart Lee takedown of King Arthur at the Barbican six or seven years ago. But maybe applying the same treatment to Bula Quo! would be too easy, like shooting denim-clad fish in a barrel. For all its toe-curling awfulness, the film does exude a startling innocence; in fact, that naivety is bound up with how bad it is—the obliviousness to its own rough edges, the cavalier “will this do?” air which will always predominate whenever a project is engineered as a holiday first and a movie second. (This may not technically be the case, but it feels that way. More love is lavished on shooting the Fijian locations than ensuring that the screenplay makes sense or that the cast consistently exhibit vital signs.)

The conceit of the film is that Status Quo are in Fiji to play a show when their frontmen Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt (you know—the ones who always knock heads for a chucklesome conversation in the middle of their guitar solos) witness a murder. Following this, they are pursued by thugs employed by a snarling crime boss. The good news? The villain is played by the US comic actor Jon Lovitz. The bad news? Lovitz looks lost and despondent and entirely unsure of where he is or what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s not the only one. When I say that Rossi and Parfitt are playing themselves, I wouldn’t want you to underestimate the skill required; perhaps only the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale could render realistically a screen incarnation of the Quo legends. That job certainly seems beyond the talents of Rossi and Parfitt. But let’s not be too harsh. Can acting really be said to be poor when no visible attempt is being made to act in the first place? It’s an important philosophical conundrum.

My disappointment at Bula Quo! may seem strange, but I feel slightly as though I had a horse in this race. I’ve always been fond of films in which musicians and pop stars play versions of themselves. It doesn’t happen so much these days but think of the Dave Clark Five in John Boorman’s first film, Catch Us If You Can, or Madness in the underrated Take It Or Leave It. The latter picture has an endearing, improvisatory looseness right from the cobbled–together opening sequence showing the band killing time at Gatwick by slapping Madness stickers on the backs of unsuspecting friends and members of the public alike.

And let’s not forget the film on which a thousand childhood dreams of the pop life were founded: Help!, which showed the Beatles all living in the same house. As if that wasn’t cool enough, each band member entered their shared abode through his own separate front door. Imagine how that would work for the Arcade Fire or So Solid Crew. (Or, for that matter, The Fall. Can you really picture Mark E Smith giving anyone else a door key?) There have been occasional examples of this anachronistic species of music film in recent decades—Spiceworld The Movie, the would-be trippy All Saints caper Honest, S Club 7's Seeing Double and the seriously strange Pet Shop Boys film It Couldn't Happen Here. Eminem and 50 Cent also starred in versions of their own rags-to-riches stories: 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ respectively.

But the most recent examples of pop stars branching out into cinema (the Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber) have all been concert films or documentaries; even the upcoming One Direction movie, from Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock, will be a behind-the-scenes job rather than, say, a fictional narrative in which the twinkle-eyed boys bring about peace in the Middle East (I’m just brainstorming here, you understand). Once the world claps eyes on Bula Quo! (or doesn’t), I know that this species of pop/film crossover has little chance of undergoing a resurgence. It’s a shame. I can’t be the only person who looks at Rizzle Kicks or Dizzee Rascal and thinks: give those kids a movie.

Bula Quo! is released on Friday.

Rich Parfitt and Francis Ross of the Quo(tidian) on location in Fiji.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.