Brendan O'Carroll and the cast of Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie.
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Why wasn’t “Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie” shown to critics ahead of its release?

The trend for distributors to refuse advanced previews for critics speaks volumes about their attitude to the press - but it’s a risky strategy, and doesn’t always mean the film is a dud.

It’s a shame that the distributor of Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie has decreed that the film should not be available to be reviewed in advance by the press. Admittedly some critics may regard this decision as less of a pity and more like a lucky escape. If you want to get some idea of why they feel this way, you don’t even to need to watch an episode of the BBC sitcom of which it is a spin-off. Just have a peek at the trailer. Though before you rush to judgement, do bear in mind that some terrific films have suffered from wretched trailers. The one promoting Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street famously didn’t even bother telling audiences that the movie was a musical containing almost no spoken dialogue whatsoever. So it’s perfectly plausible that whoever cut together the trailer for Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie neglected to include any of the moments that might be amusing. Or, for that matter, any excerpts which don’t resemble the comedic equivalent of nails dragging along a blackboard so intensely for the rest of time that the arrival of Armageddon would be greeted like a tall, cold drink at the end of a Saharan slog.

There are a number of reasons why I’m sorry that the film has been deemed too fragile for critical eyes, and none of them has to do with having strong feelings for or against the original sitcom. I can appreciate easily its end-of-the-pier, music-hall appeal, even if I am not one of those who has fallen for its raggedy charms. I can see that its creator and cross-dressing star, Brendan O’Carroll, is a canny entertainer who knows his audience. And I’ve met some intelligent people who adore it, such as the actor-writer-director Kathy Burke, who told me recently that she is a fan of the show. “I really love what Brendan has done,” she said. “Sometimes in our business we think we’re here to entertain each other and we forget there’s an audience at home. They’re the most important ones—not pleasing the Bafta panel that year.”

The problem with hiding movies from critics and reviewers is that it patronises everyone on the film food chain, including the audience and even the filmmakers themselves. Writers whose job it is to interpret and reflect upon work of every conceivable genre, standard, language and cultural and geographical origin are effectively deemed to be of insufficient imagination to tell whether a comedy succeeds in being funny, or whether it is likely to tickle its target audience. A review can be personal but it can’t be biased. It would be a dereliction of duty if, say, a musical or a western were dismissed simply because a critic was averse to that genre. For that reason the job of the critic (distinct from that of the blogger) is to have an immediate and sympathetic familiarity with a vast range of cinema, distinct from personal preference.  That’s a rambling way of saying that I’ve been obscurely slighted by not being trusted to see Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie.

But let’s face it: the reason critics were given the heave-ho in this instance was because the chances were that they would put the boot in. Some films would have a hard time enduring in the marketplace without a critical boost (such as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which is being released on 11 July by Universal, the same distributor behind Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie). Others, such as summer blockbusters, demand saturation coverage, and reviews are still part of that, even if they may not persuade or dissuade the majority of potential viewers. A recent trend is to preview big films too late for advance word to build, be it positive or negative. Last month’s Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow was screened in that way, which was a surprise since it transpired to be rather good. A mark of how low the stock of critics has fallen in the eyes of some studios and distributors, and how highly social media is valued, can be found in the tactic of mixing Twitter comments in among professional plaudits and star ratings when there aren’t enough positive critical quotes to fill the blank spaces on a film poster. Most suspect was the case of Midnight’s Children, which featured a prominent approving quote from Salman Rushdie, who happened to have written not only the novel on which that picture was based but its screenplay also.

To make a movie completely unavailable to critics, though, is to risk attaching to it pre-emptively the stink of disaster. The first time I encountered that was when the 1997 film version of The Avengers, starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, was hidden from critics’ eyes. (We had to review it by dashing along on opening day and filing our reviews in a panic.) The most recent was The Harry Hill Movie. While both were lacking, neither was a turkey. With Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, as with those titles, the decision has been taken that it is better to rush the film out so that it might have a shot at a decent opening weekend without the potential deterrent of bad reviews. Everyone loses. The filmmakers get to feel that no one has faith in their movie, professional critics and reviewers are snubbed, and audiences can rest assured that their feeble sensibilities have been lovingly protected from the beastly horrid press—by the same people keen to grab their £12 admission price before word gets out that they’ve (possibly) been sold a pup.

Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie is released tomorrow.

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.

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A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain