When the chips were down, following last year’s demise of the UK Film Council, the knives came out for one particular hot potato. As the UKFC found itself roasted in the long vowed Tory “bonfire of the quangos,” its detractors gleefully reminded us that this was the same body that, in 2003, approved nearly one million pounds of national lottery funding to help finance controversial sex comedy The Sex Lives of the Potato Men. Though relatively small-fry in cinematic terms, made on a budget of just three million pounds, the Johnny Vegas vehicle was blithely used to flog the council’s rotting corpse by those who had denounced the film as a squalid, unfunny, vulgar, spectacularly ill-judged, half-baked misfire. Outraged, The Times threw water on the chip pan fire going so far as to dub Potato Men “one of the two most nauseous films ever made.”
But now the heat has died down and the smoke has cleared, I am compelled to question: is this little film really so rotten, or can we peel back its soily, filthy exterior and discover something wholesome, nutritious and undeniably chipper inside?
Responding to the picture’s naysayers on release, the UKFC defended Potato Men as ‘not critic-led,’ which is surely plain to see. Nobody could argue that this facetious farce about the sexual shenanigans of four Brummie potato delivery men, portrayed with deliciously deadpan detachment by Vegas, British sitcom stars Mackenzie Crook and Mark Gatiss, and newcomer Dominic Coleman, could ever pass for “high art.” On the contrary, Andy Humphries’ directorial debut is as defiantly low-brow as they come. And where is the harm in that? Metrosexuality be damned, the Potato Men, in their noble quest to empty their sacks of spuds, serve up a delirious, deep-fried celebration of pure, unadulterated, primal, bollock-scratching Male-ness. And besides, it’s hard to care about a flick’s artistic merits when you’re laughing yourself silly.
Admittedly, the film may not appeal to your nan. Vegas’ newly-single Dave and his cockamamie cronies are unashamedly potty-mouthed, with stud-of-the-gang Ferris (Crook), sagely observing that life is ‘one big fanny-fest.’ But many of their elucidations are astutely hilarious and, I would argue, cast an illuminating spotlight on the concerns and motivations of young, working-class British males. These are sad, lonely men, longing for a better life, but who have spent so long stuck in the doldrums they’ll settle for the quick fix of a boozy, illicit knee-trembler with whoever’s willing. Young, skint, horny, live-for-the-weekend audiences may well find something depressingly relatable in Dave’s impassioned rallying cry: ‘We’re young men! We shouldn’t be here! We should be living our lives to the fullest! We should be…Down the pub!’
This is a grim, grotty slice of proper half-cut, beer-bellied urban life and though it certainly isn’t for everyone, I challenge young British men to watch without tittering inanely. Certainly, any dignified, beer-swilling lad who has ever found himself embroiled in a pissed-up, passionate pub parlance will recognise the insane genius in Dave and Ferris’ gloriously daft, drunken wasp/bee/honey debate (‘Bees make honey? Since when?’).
Perhaps the critics just didn’t get it. This is a film made by, and for, blokes who have spent far too long down the boozer. Though having scarcely little to do with the plot, the sight of Dave, completely trollied, holding court on the karaoke machine, enthusiastically murdering Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Come On Eileen, to a wonderfully indifferent, near-empty pub, must surely stand as a heroic tribute to the defiant spirit of the disenchanted working classes. The sight of Vegas, in ferocious full-flow, almost certainly sloshed-for-real, is sidesplittingly uproarious, but tinged with pathos. His Dave is lovably pathetic, a clueless would-be lothario whose idea of foreplay is asking his lucky lady if he can borrow an Allen key so the bed doesn’t squeak.
Though Vegas became notorious for his belligerent drunk stage persona, here he furnishes his character with poignant vulnerability. The funnyman is genuinely moving, opening his heart, revealing, ‘I don’t want to sound like a poof…but I used to love talking to my wife.’ Denigrators failed to recognise that Humphries’ film offers an honest, affecting examination of the bruised male psyche with its depiction of destitute men, cast adrift: lost, lonely and gagging for it. For these losers, sex makes life worth living, with gormless Ferris, in a rare moment of clarity, stubbornly declaring, ‘My sex life is all I’ve got!’
Those who knock the film do it a disservice by disregarding the sublime subtleties of its performances. Though crude, the Potato Men come across as essentially likeable fellas, especially Coleman’s endearingly dim Tolly, a man who pines for his ex-wife so badly, he embarks on a grubby, fetishistic odyssey involving increasingy ridiculous fusions of fish and fruit preserves, because it ‘reminds him of her taste.’ It is a minor miracle that Coleman, with his puppy dog eyes, superbly expressionistic visage and affable demeanour, succeeds in making a character who should, by all rights, be irredeemably creepy, the most appealing of the bunch. Tolly is so pitiful, the premium-rate sex-lines hang up on him, but Coleman’s portrayal is so innocently naïve, we root for him.
Crook, too, impresses as unlikely, lanky lady-killer Ferris, who sees plenty of amorous action, but consistently ends up in bizarre sexual scenarios. The understated horror channelled by Crook’s haunted glare expertly sums up the grimy awkwardness of his merry, messed-up encounters with role-playing chip-shop girls, sex-mad mother-in-laws and perturbingly prurient pensioners.
The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss rounds off the cast’s vintage comedy credentials as mixed-up Jeremy, who believes that kidnapping his ex’s dog is a surefire way to win her back. Gatiss expertly foregrounds bogey-scoffing Jeremy’s complete obliviousness to the eccentricity of his actions, moulding the character into something surprisingly engaging, forlorn and heart-breaking rather than disturbing.
These well-crafted performances highlight that, though knocked by many as odious and loathsome, under closer inspection the Potato Men’s exploits are really just harmless, frivolous fun. Like The Inbetweeners if they grew up but didn’t learn a damn thing, the boys are likeable, if dim-witted fools whose libidos steer them into insane, filthy situations that assist them in the arduous process of growing up and moving on.
One criticism levelled at Potato Men is that it suffers from a weak plot structure and works as little more than a series of loosely connected comedy sketches. In its defence, I would point out that a similar formula did no harm for Will Ferrell’s Anchorman and that complex plotting matters not a jot when those sketches feature a rollicking, gut-busting, opposite-of-sexy ménage a trois, soundtracked by the seductive sounds of Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting.
Yes, the picture is satisfyingly smutty, but Humphries should also be applauded for his unflinching, forthright depiction of carnality. Interestingly, there is no nudity, the film leaving some things to the imagination - sure, it’s lewd and crude, but far from gratuitous. The polar opposite of Hollywood’s portrayal of unfeasibly gorgeous people, these are weird, odd-looking misfits who show up sex for what it often is – a bit ugly, disappointing and occasionally hilarious.
Perhaps the critics found this honest portrayal of sexual politics too much to stomach? Dave and co tell us a lot about a society with no shame and no standards, where the quest for sexual gratification wins out over intimacy. Against this backdrop, the Potato Men make us feel oddly better about ourselves – no matter how low we might feel, at least we’re not dog-napping or blowing our wages on an octopus and a jar of strawberry jam. Don’t ask.
So do the Potato Men deserve another fair crack of the whip? Definitely. Like the aforementioned Anchorman and The Big Lebowski, another classic comedy unfairly ignored on release, the film is rich with cracking, quotable one-liners that could see cult fandom beckon. At the offer of a ‘spitroast,’ as a curtain raiser to a long sought-after threesome, Dave heartily replies with the zinger, ‘Yeah, I’ve only had a sandwich for my tea.’ When Ferris lamentably explains the depths he plumbs to secure lodgings, revealing, ‘My mother-in-law gave me a blow-job,’ Dave pauses, considers and retorts, ‘Mine gave me a fishing rod once.’
If this type of patter tickles you, then it’s time to rally the troops, phone for a pizza and get the beers in. Best served with a couple of pints, this misinterpreted masterpiece is one to be shared and enjoyed with the lads. Like a smutty seaside postcard, you will laugh, maybe even wish you hadn’t, but its rib-tickling effect is one that cannot be denied.
On release, this very publication denounced Potato Men as ‘a Britcom only a Loaded reader could love.’ But is there any shame in that? The critics seem to have missed the point that this is a film with a very specific target audience, and it’s time it found the love it deserves. Cinema offers a bountiful banquet that caters for all tastes and there’s no reason why this sweet potato can’t provide delicious nourishment for audiences for years to come. Or is it just me?