Celebrity culture has the rug affectionately pulled from under its feet in “Stella Street,” movie version of the cult BBC-TV comedy series that manages to sustain its single-joke premise — a mockumentary about A-list celebs living in an average Brit suburb — over feature length. Though shot as a theatrical movie (and bankrolled by Sony when no Brit coin was forthcoming), film premiered on TV March 21 and on DVD the following day in the U.K. A U.S. distrib reportedly is in the works; judging by its reception at Aspen’s recent comedy fest, “Stella” could shine Stateside in niche outlets as a hip comic curio.
The TV series began as a string of 10-minute episodes shown on the Beeb’s minority channel, BBC2, at varying times in the late evening, during Christmas/New Year’s 1997. Shot cheaply in cinema-verite style, the initial series developed a cult following, and led to three more series with a more conventional look (but still retaining the 10- to 15-minute format) before the BBC pulled the plug. All characters were played by writers-performers Phil Cornwell and John Sessions.
Overall, the series’ quality was, frankly, variable — and seemingly impossible to sustain at feature length. However, Cornwell and Sessions, along with original helmer/co-writer Peter Richardson, have proved doubters wrong. The movie not only has dramatic shape of sorts but also is faithful to the spirit of the TV series, using the extra time to get closer to characters and make at least a few points about celebmania.
Clearly conceived as a stand-alone that requires no prior knowledge of the TV series, pic takes time at the start to sketch background, introducing the Street’s two longtime “ordinary” residents — cleaner Mrs. Huggett (Sessions), an old dear out of some ’50s Brit working-class movie, and gardener Len McMonotoney (Cornwell), a psycho with bad teeth. Throughout, our guide to the Street is the series’ most famous creation, Cornwell’s dead-on impersonation of Michael Caine, in “Alfie” mode.
After sketching the Street’s history with some fake B&W newsreel (plus a Fab Four sendup recycled from the TV series), pic settles down into its own sort-of-plot. Caine has moved back to the Street after a spell in Hollywood, and on his heels come a flock of his U.S. pals looking for anonymity (well, not too much) and quiet (“rural, but also urban”) in Blighty.
Storyline, in which they’re discovered by the world’s press and reduced to unaccustomed penury by a couple of crooks, gives Cornwell and Sessions an excuse to trot out their favorite characters again. These include Caine, Jack Nicholson, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (the last two running the local corner store).
Well-known British impressionist Ronni Ancona joins the duo to handle some distaffers (Madonna, Penelope Cruz, Posh Spice, Jerry Hall). Ironically, her funniest character turns out to be a Scottish supermarket checkout girl.
It’s largely Sessions’ and Cornwell’s show, and their most successful creations (Cornwell’s Caine and Nicholson, Sessions’ Pacino and Pesci) manage to deepen to a point where the ending has a real poignancy. One-liners are up to scratch (Caine: “I haven’t felt this bad since ‘The Swarm’ came out”), and timing and nuancing of characters’ tics is razor-sharp. Even when there’s not much physical resemblance (e.g., Sessions’ Pacino), the voice and speech rhythms are dead on.
Apart from soccer commentator Jimmy Hill (Cornwell), many purely local stars have disappeared in this film version — inevitable in the circumstances. Also, some of the original joke disappears by having the Street look far wealthier than it should: Though supposedly set in Surbiton (a suburb on the edge of South London that’s a byword for middle-class respectability), the series was never actually filmed there, and for the film version a rather too wealthy cul-de-sac in Banstead, Surrey, was used.
Technically, production is very smooth. Seamless editing by Geoff Hogg is to a point where the viewer forgets only two actors are playing most characters; and a mock-Sinatra song score adds shine and warmth to the whole movie.