The ordinary boys

Friendship between an addict and an academic is lit up by two great actors

<strong>Stuart: a Life

I watched Stuart: a Life Backwards (23 September, 9pm) with my heart in my mouth. I was an early and passionate adopter of Stuart - I mean the book by Alexander Masters on which he based the screenplay for this film, not Stuart himself, who died in 2002, his body blasted 50ft by the 11.15 London-to-King's Lynn train as it travelled close to his home village of Waterbeach. If this sounds like a boast, I don't mean it to. I know Masters's agent, and he praised Stuart to a degree that went so far beyond professional pride, or even professional greed (he is an agent, after all), that I scored myself an early copy. Mostly I avoid worthy books with the same grim determination that I avoid my local Lib Dem councillor, and I can't think of many that sound, in synopsis at least, worthier than Stuart, the biography of a homeless, alcoholic drug addict. But then I read the first page - in which he tells Masters that his manuscript is "bollocks boring" and that he wants a bestseller "like what Tom Clancy writes" - and I fell in love. Thereafter, I was a scary evangelist for the book; I gave it to one friend as a present twice.

Did it survive the transition to the small screen? Yes, although it wasn't without its flaws. Masters and Stuart Shorter met at a homeless shelter where Masters was working. So, the facts of Stuart's childhood - the stuff that "murdered" the boy he once was - are told in flashback. It is a more awkward device to handle in a screenplay than in a biography, and there were times when things got clunky and overly explanatory; it all seemed rather self-conscious.

Also, for reasons I can't fathom, the director had used cute animated versions of Masters's drawings (he illustrated the book) as visual punctuation. This was twee and too emphatic. In one scene, Masters looked in Stuart's bedroom drawer and saw a syringe. Cue a scary cartoon of Stuart injecting himself with drugs - as if we couldn't possibly imagine ourselves what this piece of kit might be for. It was only when we were listening to Stuart and his biographer talk that the script felt relaxed enough to come to life: "I was really surprised after I met you, Alexander, to be honest. I thought middle-class people had something wrong with them. But they're just ordinary. I was a bit shocked, to tell the truth."

Oh, well. The truth is that I can forgive the film all these things and more simply on account of its performances: Benedict Cumberbatch as the posh, slightly nerdy Masters and Tom Hardy as the slurring, staggering (he had muscular dystrophy, on top of everything else) Stuart. Cumberbatch is a scene stealer of such prowess that he can nick an entire movie from its star with a handful of lines (if you don't believe me, see Starter for Ten, whose lead, supposedly, is James McAvoy). Here, however, his performance was deliberately tamped down. He brought Masters alive with the smallest of tics - slow-blinking myopic eyes, the odd wry look - and managed to avoid making him seem like a patronising prig, a serious danger, given how little time he had to establish his character.

It was Hardy, though, who broke your heart. I can't remember the last time I saw a performance as convincing as this. Usually, when actors take on "extreme" roles - think Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot - you can see the hard labour that has gone into the acting, and it's exhausting; part of you just wants to shout: "Oh, speak properly, for God's sake!" Not here. Hardy was Stuart, and every time he was on screen - which was most of the time - I was mesmerised. The clumpy feet, the low-slung trousers, the way his expression changed in a moment, like the sun going behind the clouds: it was all there, almost as if the real Stuart had come back to remind us all what middle-class "scum ponces" we are, with our futile liberal guilt and our lazy assumptions and our need to have a good cry in front of the television on a Sunday night. lFry looks at the disease's impact and why young people today take risks.

Pick of the week

Stephen Fry: HIV and Me
2 and 9 October, 9pm, BBC2
Fry looks at the disease’s impact and why young people today take risks.

The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle
Starts 4 October, 9pm, BBC2
Satire with Jennifer Saunders as cynical host of a daytime talk show.

The Peter Serafinowicz Show
Starts 4 October, 9.30pm, BBC2
New comedy kid on the block.

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 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies