Chambers & Nettleton
Chris Norton Walker
Colin and Rob
Chris Langham has worked in TV comedy for almost 40 years, appearing in a string of critically acclaimed programmes, yet has always remained a cult figure, rather than becoming a huge star.
Recognition of his talents only came relatively recently, when he was awarded best comedy actor at the 2005 British Comedy Awards for his roles as the beleaguered minister Hugh Abbot in Armando Iannucci’s Whitehall satire The Thick of It, and as the psychoanalyst treating various Paul Whitehouse characters in Help.
However, this triumph was overshadowed by his arrest in November 2005 during police investigation into child pornography on the internet. Charges of indecent assault on an under-16 girl were later added. He denies the charges.
Langham read English and drama at Bristol University before moving into comedy, his first TV appearance coming in Spike Milligan's Q in 1969. He also worked on Milligan In... three years later.
In the Seventies, he also worked as the only British writer on The Muppet Show, and made an unscheduled appearance on screen when Richard Pryor didn’t make it to the recording.
In 1979, he became a leading member of the Not The Nine O'Clock News team, but he was unceremoniously dropped after the first series, to be replaced by Griff Rhys-Jones.
He said the sacking left him distraught, and that he would ‘burst into tears’ if he saw co-stars Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson or Mel Smith in the newspapers up to two years later.
At the time, he also suffered drink and drug addictions, although he later overcame these problems admitting: ‘I stopped drinking and taking drugs because they were taking over my life.’
Langham went on to appear on Smith and Jones' own programme, Alas Smith and Jones, in 1989 as well as the BBC's and The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball in the same year. His other TV credits include small roles Ben Elton’s sitcom Happy Families in 1985, and Chelmsford 123 in 1990 and Gimme Gimme Gimme in 199. And on film he has appeared in The Life of Brian, where he had a brief role as a centurion, Carry On Columbus and The Big Tease.
On stage, Langham played Arthur Dent in the first professional theatrical version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in 1979; and has appeared in Les Miserables (playing Thernardier in 1996), The Nerd and Pirates of Penzance.
He was largely absent from TV screens for much of the Nineties, until the 1998 BBC One sitcom Kiss Me Kate, which he wrote and starred in alongside Caroline Quentin and Amanda Holden.
His stock rose further with the acclaimed People Like Us, a spoof in which he played the hapless documentary-maker Roy Mallard, with typical understatement. The show began life on Radio 4 before transferring to BBC Two in 1999 – although he remained unseen on screen, appearing only as a voice from behind the camera.
Langham also directed the 2003 comedy cookery show Posh Nosh, starring Richard E Grant and Arabella Weir.
He has three sons by his first wife, actress Sue Jones-Davies, and two children by his second, stage director, Christine Cartwright.
‘I lost my job because of the publicity,’ Chris Langham complains, as he discusses his links to a heinous crime that had him vilified in the newspapers.
Only it’s not Langham speaking as himself, but his character in the new British indie film Black Pond, Tom Thompson.
This is, as is now well known, his first acting job since he was jailed for downloading child pornography, bringing this jet-black comedy-drama column inches its miniscule budget could never usually hope to attain while testing to breaking point the maxim ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’.
Certainly large proportions of the press – and the potential audience – will never forgive Langham, nor believe his ‘Townsend defence’ that he was researching a part and therefore only monumentally stupid, not monumentally vile.
Even though Langham is sympathetic, if far from loveable, in his tentative comeback, there is certainly an elephant in the cinema as you watch him. As the absorbing story unfolds, you do forget the actor’s past, but occasionally something will snap you back, such as a particular line, or a creepy scene when a character – not his – is caught leafing through children’s pictures in a family album.
If you can put Langham’s past behind you – admittedly a big ‘if’ - Black Pond shows the formidable, but understated, acting talents. His character is a relatively successful, but rather joyless, professional man in late middle age, whose marriage to Sophie (a similarly restrained Amanda Hadingue) has long lost its romantic spark and whose relationship with his student daughters could best be described as awkward.
Out walking his dog, Boy, near the woods near his house one day, Thompson chances upon Blake, a slightly odd creature Thompson is convinced is ‘care in the community’. But he appears benign, just a lost, disconnected soul. The pair strike up a conversation, possibly the first time Thompson has had affinity to another human being in years, which ends in Blake coming to the family home for the evening. This is the catalyst for a thaw in the marital frostiness, although it’s only a temporary one.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Blake dies at the Thompson home, as that is the hook for the whole film, but debut directors Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe have a morbid fun in teasing how this actually plays out. They tell the story through a combination of ‘real time’ scenes and flash forward interviews in which the characters explain what happened that fateful night, and the consequences it had.
As Blake, Colin Hurley is a particular revelation, even outshining Langham. It might just be the beard, but he’s vaguely reminiscent of The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis, a sort of bewildered idiot savant in a world of his own who doesn’t quite realise the consequences of his actions.
The film’s other notable feature is that it’s the big-screen debut of Simon Amstell. His role is relatively brief, but memorable, offering a more flamboyant comedy to contrast with the dry-as-dust dark wit of the central storyline. He plays a therapist, unqualified, whose methods largely involve brutally mocking the insecurities of his clients. It’s not such a huge leap from the acerbic tone of his stint as Never Mind The Buzzcocks host, mixed with some of the nihilism that defines of his stand-up.
There’s also another subplot involving the Thompsons’ daughters and their relationship with family friend Tim, but that is notably less successful.
The film was shot for an incredibly tight £25,000 -– yet it looks like one with a budget ten, if not a hundred, times larger. As well as the main plot, Cambridge Footlights alumni Kingsley and Sharpe are big on imaginative, brooding shots to set the scene and there’s a kooky stop-motion dream sequence midway through that’s quite delightful.
They don’t quite get the pacing right all the time, and the film could probably do with a 15-minute shave, but it’s a fascintating portrait of a dysfunctional family, told with wit that’s so dry it’s initially barely perceptible, but slowly comes to the fore.
Whatever Black Pond’s minor flaws, Kingsley and Sharpe have certainly created an impressive calling card, sure to bring them more work in the future. Whether the same can be said of Langham, despite his impressive performance, will remain in the hands of others.
Black Pond was shown as part of the Raindance Film Festival in London, and will be on wider release next month.
|Date of live review: Tuesday 4th Oct, '11|
Review by Steve Bennett
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