A belated celebration of Cool Britannia, as well as a handy grouping of some of its major personalities, “Tube Tales” is a clever idea that’s surprisingly successful overall and reveals some interesting new behind-the-camera talents. Nine segs, ranging between five and 15 minutes long, and united by being partially or wholly set in London’s subway (known locally as “The Tube”), contain relatively few duds and a wide range of tones, from street grunge to fantasy. By nature, episoders rep a tricky theatrical proposition, but this one deserves at least some fest play before segueing to its other namesake. Pic preemed at the London festival Nov. 17 before airing two days later on satcaster BSkyB, which also produced.
As their reputation for TV commercials has proved over the years, short subjects are what the Brits do best, and few overstay their welcome here. Ideas — culled from 3,000 entries in a competition run by London listings weekly Time Out in 1998 — are generally sharp, with only the shaggy-dog drug story “Grasshopper” proving not worth the wait, and the spiritual fantasy “Steal Away” emerging as borderline ridiculous.
Most of all, the picture as a whole captures the feel of late-’90s London and its people, with a broad range of characters and eccentrics. And for any regular user of the city’s overcrowded, ineptly run subway, its gallery of types and situations — bores, eaters, peepers, jumpers, partygoers, evangelists, drunks and bossy staff — will summon squirm-inducing memories.
Proving brevity the mistress of invention, trendy writer Amy Jenkins gets things off to a slick start with a pre-credits seg, “Mr. Cool,” in which a young woman (Kelly Macdonald) is hit on by a tube-traveling co-worker (Dexter Fletcher) but accepts a lift instead from a loony exec (Jason Flemyng) — which sends her fleeing to the subway.
Episode neatly segues to Stephen Hopkins’ “Horny,” an extended riff on sexual fantasizing in the sweaty, summertime tube, with a city gent (Tom Bell) becoming embarrassingly aroused over a flirty looker (TV presenter Denise Van Outen, very good). A more romantic take on the same subject is Ewan McGregor’s well-paced “Bone,” in which a trombonist (Nicolas Tennant) fantasizes over an imaginary woman (Kaye Curram) on his way home from a concert. Largely without dialogue, the seg gains much from Simon Boswell’s symphonic scoring.
Majority of the episodes contain dream or fantasy elements. Comedian Armando Iannucci’s seven-minute “Mouth” is a shockingly funny one-liner, wittily set to the adagio from Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, about an elegant woman (Daniela Nardini) who first silences a carriage with her poise and then vomits over the passengers, all obnoxious subway bores. More ethereal in tone is actress turned producer Gaby Dellal’s “Rosebud,” in which a young girl (Leonie Elliot), separated from her mom (Rachel Weisz), has a magical, Alice-in-Tubeland-like experience.
Two actors come up with gentle, humanist vignettes. Debutant Jude Law’s “A Bird in the Hand” is a slim, affecting tale of an old man (Alan Miller) who rescues and frees an avian trapped in a carriage, helmed straightforwardly and proficiently. In “My Father the Liar,” the more experienced Bob Hoskins contribs a deceptively simple tale of a father (Ray Winstone) and son (Tom Watson) who witness a jumper on a quiet platform. “He just fell,” lies Dad when the kid asks what happened.
Tech credits are tiptop, with the trio of lensers adopting a wide variety of styles, from handheld to highly composed, in the underground labyrinth of the city’s transport system. As a running joke, cockney character actor Frank Harper appears in several episodes as a truculent subway staffer.