The World's End: A comedy of ideas as well as gags

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg return for the final instalment of their "Cornetto" trilogy: a raucous comedy slightly gnarled by its lofty ambitions.

The World’s End (15)
dir: Edgar Wright

The sobering lesson at the heart of the pubcrawl comedy The World’s End – that the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there – is hardly an original one. When L P Hartley wrote that line, he may not have envisaged that the sentiment would be expressed in an apocalyptic comic thriller about a sleepy town quietly infiltrated by a race of alien beings with blue blood. Presumably the colour was chosen for its domestic connotations (think classroom ink or Harpic) and for its liberating effect on violence (you can spill as much blood as you like and still keep your 15 certificate when that blood isn’t red).

The satirical content in the film revolves around the homogenisation of a Britain where every pub is indistinguishable from the next and national idiosyncrasies have been wiped out by branding. “It’s Starbucking,” someone says. “Happens everywhere.” In its role as a comedy of ideas as well as gags, The World’s End places the blame on a force more sinister even than globalisation.

Fear of conformity also ran through Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the previous two film collaborations between the director Edgar Wright and his lead actor and co-writer Simon Pegg. The hero of the new picture, Gary King (Pegg), is a screw-up who never grew up, a fortysomething man-boy stuck in his student years (Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, black trench coat, oil-slick hair). Getting in Gary’s clapped-out Ford, his old pal Steven (Paddy Considine) is amazed to hear the early-Nineties mix tape he made for him back at college. “Where did you find it?” he exclaims. “It was in the stereo,” Gary replies, nonplussed. Development doesn’t come much more arrested.

Even the soundtrack choices comment on it: Kylie’s “Step Back in Time”, Suede’s “So Young”, Pulp’s “Do You Remember the First Time?” Most poignant is the shot of Gary and his friends gathered in the pub snug while Inspiral Carpets sing: “This is how it feels to be lonely . . .” (I always said Inspiral Carpets would come in handy for something one day and no one believed me.)

Gary is haunted by the memory of un - finished business in his home town of Newton Haven. After leaving college, he and his chums tried and failed to complete a 12-stop pub crawl known as the “Golden Mile”. These days, Gary is more 12-step than 12-stop but that doesn’t prevent him from convincing the gang to return to Newton Haven to give it another go. As well as Steven, there’s the Bluetooth-eared estate agent Oliver (Martin Freeman, a master of the gently disdainful reaction shot), the car salesman Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Andy (Nick Frost), the most grudging participant on account of bad blood – bad red blood – between him and Gary. Popping up intermittently is Oliver’s sister, Sam, played by Rosamund Pike, who is so charismatic – whether rebuffing Gary’s charmless propositions or wielding garden furniture like a martial arts master – that it beggars belief that the film sends her off-screen when it runs out of things for her to do.

Frost and Pegg have been playing BFFs since long before the world started talking in impersonal acronyms – as far back as Spaced in the late-Nineties, the fine-grained flatshare sitcom that also established Wright’s magpie-eyed film-making style. Their chemistry seemed exhausted in the science-fiction road movie Paul but there is a genuine ache and anguish to their scenes together in The World’s End. Andy still gets furious whenever Gary suckers him with another lie but mostly he’s mad at himself for being a pushover. Turning from mild to wild during a fight scene, he’s railing not only at his extraterrestrial adversaries but at his lot in the world.

Double-fisted gunplay of the type pioneered by Chow Yun-Fat was once all the rage in the action genre. Here, there’s a sweetly parochial equivalent when Andy takes on all comers with a bar stool in each hand, rather than a Glock. It’s still unfortunate that, after the first two dust-ups, there simply isn’t enough variety to keep the confrontations fresh. Or is it just that those of us raised on the oeuvre of Burt Reynolds will always be resistant to a bar-room brawl?

At least the film has the courage of its convictions where it counts. Rather than foisting redemption upon Gary, the film insists to its final frame that warts-and-all is better than nipped-and-tucked, personality-wise. If that message smacks of A Clockwork Orange, the tone of the film is more reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Wyndham or The Thing. Abundant the raucous comedy may be but it never quite cancels out the creepiness of certain images, such as the members of “the Network” emitting blasts of light from their faces that intensify their accusing eyes and O-shaped mouths.

In its final half-hour, the movie gets snarled up in its ambitions; the narrative alters shape so drastically that it becomes impossible for the brain to process the new information in a single sitting. Then again, maybe that’s another way of saying: this one’s a keeper.

Totally slaughtered: from left, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Eddie Marsan.

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.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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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.