A fine comic cast, an irreverent script, and a lot of balls
Running Time: 96 minutes
UK Certificate: 15
Country: United Kingdom
Neatly mowed grass, white suits, the subdued clip of wood on wood. The bowling green is a microcosm of the values once espoused by the green and pleasant land that is England – gentility, discipline, tradition – and a near terminal crustiness. In 'Blackball', the undisputed lord of this antiquated kingdom is driving instructor Ray Speight (James Cromwell), anal retentive, conservative, narrow-minded, and Southern Peninsula bowls champion for 23 consecutive years.
Until, that is, there is a new claimant to the throne in the form of Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye, best known as Dennis Pennis), a painter and decorator who dares to sex up lawn bowls with a whole range of new moves. Cliff represents a new type of man for a new type of England – young, vulgar, cheeky, who parades his working class origins rather than concealing them, and who wants recognition not just on a local, but on an international level. Ray gets Cliff banned from playing bowls for his outrageous behaviour on the green, only to see him promoted to the status of national hero by smarmy American sports agent Rick Schwartz (Vince Vaughn). And then Cliff starts dating Kerry (Alice Evans), Ray's daughter…
It is Cliff's clashes with Ray which are at the comic centre of 'Blackball', where what starts as the simple entertainment of Cliff raising two unwashed fingers at the establishment and saying 'tosser' a lot ends up being a more subtle, if still light-hearted, examination of the conflicts and contradictions in England's changing, troubled identity, all played out in the arena of the bowling green. And like 'Fawlty Towers', that other great comedy about what it is to be English, 'Blackball' is set in seaside Torquay.
As Cliff and Ray fight it out with one another, each is equally at war with himself – Ray, for all his snobbish conservatism, turns out to have been come from the same estate and background as Cliff, whereas Cliff, for all his socialist pretensions, is all too quickly seduced by the affluence and comfort which fame brings. These conflicts hold both of them back from victory against England's proper sporting foes, the Australians, and it is difficult not to see all this as a film about English masculinity in crisis – especially given that the main character keeps losing his (bowling) balls. Eventually, however, despite their different generations, values and politics, Cliff and Ray agree to play together, and once they have got Cliff's balls back into their ASDA bag, England is set once again to take its rightful place on the world map (of bowling).
'Blackball' takes an irreverently satirical look at the vast generation gap in Britain, as well as the effects of television, commercialisation and Americanisation on our expectations of sport. Just like its main character Cliff and his rôle models (Rocky, Jimi Hendrix, Liam Gallagher), the film, while not without flaws, is destined to become a real crowdpleaser – at least on these shores.
It's Got: A fine comic cast, an irreverent script, and a lot of balls
It Needs: Less English jingoism at the expense of others. The film criticises Americanisation and yet steals its plot - young maverick rises, falls and rises again - from just about any American sportsfilm ever made.
A film carefully calculated to please an English audience, with its combination of patriotism, sport, cheek and absurdity. Not just a good laugh, but also a snapshot of our times.