Anyone who recalls Prince Charles quipping “Dig that funky rhythm” and proving himself, at least in the eyes of today’s youth, to be a fogey stuck in the past, will appreciate some of the problems inherent in adapting Puckoon for the screen. Sometimes humour just doesn’t move easily from generation to generation.
Spike Milligan’s gloriously fragmented novel set in an Irish village divided cleanly in two by the border between North and South has split readers for years. You either love or hate it – appreciating Milligan’s surrealistic humour and characterisation, or failing to understand it at all.
I venture audiences for this adaptation by Terence (The Brylcreem Boys) Ryan will react in much the same way, and film will rise or fall accordingly. Certainly the humour belongs to a different age – an age before ‘alternative’ comedy, before stand-up became dirty, and before the f-word became the oath of choice for comics everywhere.
Puckoon doesn’t need any of that. It relies instead on a blend of whimsy, nonsense and the occasional flash of Milligan-esque brilliance, all stirred thoroughly into an Irish stew that throws up no fewer than 52 separate characters.
Ryan has recruited an impressive ensemble cast that includes Hollywood star Elliot Gould, Irishmen John (Cal) Lynch, Daragh (Sharpe) O’Malley, David (Waking Ned) Kelly, Milo (Barbarella) O’Shea, Griff Rhys Jones, Freddie Jones, Nickolas Grace, and Richard Attenborough.
Milligan’s self-named hero, here renamed Dan Madigan, is played by comedian Sean Hughes, and herewith lies the weakest link. Hughes simply can’t act, has little or no screen presence, and can’t get a handle on Milligan’s lines – the famous joke without a punchline.
Responsibility for this could be laid at the feet of Ryan, as director, but while Hughes looks the part – he gurns as naturally as the late Les Dawson – he fails utterly to bring any weight to the role.
Still, Ryan brings a tremendous atmosphere to the film – one obviously shot on a meagre budget – and with the help of his ensemble creates perhaps the most effective Oirish comedy since, well, ever. The main issue here is what kids and twentysomethings brought up on the likes of The Office, The Fast Show and Father Ted might make of this. Certainly the humour is dated, but then so are the gags of The Marx Brothers, WC Fields and Laurel and Hardy. And they are still gut-splittingly funny.
Not that Puckoon the film can be considered in the same league, but it certainly represents a break from the tired machine-gun patter of Chris Rock et al, and for that it should be applauded.
Resolutely old-fashioned, Puckoon will find an appreciative audience in those who prefer their humour to have intelligence and edge while never resorting to profanity. If there is a failing, it may be in Ryan’s script, which sticks a little too closely to Milligan’s source novel and could be accused of being less cinematic than it should be.
Then again, Milligan never played by hard and fast rules, and he was rightly described as a genius. Perhaps Ryan’s genius is in not supposing he can better Milligan’s words, and going with them.
Puckoon played to an appreciative sell-out audience last week on the closing night of the Bradford Film Festival, finishing to a cacophonous round of applause. Seek it out for an alternative night’s laughter from the father of alternative comedy.
Star rating: ***