Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye) is a working class Torquay lad who works alongside his friend Trevor (Johnny Vegas) and his uncle Mutley (Bernard Cribbins) as a painter and decorator. Like his uncle, Cliff is obsessed with the game of bowls, but despite his world-class talent he has always refused to join the local club due to his dislike of the elderly, stuck-up reigning champion Ray Speight (James Cromwell). Cliff eventually changes his mind when he realises that winning the district competition is the only way he can ever play for England, an ambition he is well on the way to achieving when a minor breach of club rules (writing “Ray Speight is a tosser” on his scorecard) has him banned from the game for fifteen years.
Review by Jake Wilson:
I can see how a film about international lawn bowls might appeal to the British, because this must be one of the few sporting contests they could imaginably win. But viewers who can’t watch Blackball with a glow of patriotism aren’t likely to find it entertaining for other reasons. Tim Firth’s script is functional on a sitcom level at best, and Mel Smith's direction differs from the usual hack job only in being a bit worse (especially in the frequent montages set to rock songs). While the supporting actors are more than adequate for their undemanding roles, it didn’t take me long to grow weary of Paul Kaye’s theatrical monkey walk and chirpy banter; frankly, he looks a bit long in the tooth to play a young rebel hero, even a bowling one.
I never thought I’d say this, but I much prefer Mick Molloy’s homegrown Crackerjack, an equally unoriginal but more chilled-out comedy which viewed the lawn bowls world as the last Edenic bastion of amateur sport: egalitarian rather than snobbish, with success in competition ultimately beside the point. Like so many products of cinematic cottage industries around the world, this was a cunning exercise in populism that managed to exploit both conservative and progressive forms of nostalgia. As a social allegory, Blackball is more forward-looking but also more neurotic, pitting stuffy tradition against a global cult of celebrity without clarifying which is the greater evil.
The emphasis on British success at any price seems less than wholly tongue-in-cheek despite or because of the diminished context: it’s no surprise that the smooth American wheeler-dealer played by Vince Vaughn turns out to be a villain, or that the film ultimately throws its anti-establishment premise to the winds by having the cheeky working-class hero make peace with his stuffed-shirt rival. They then set out together to battle the true foes of honour and good manners in sport: the Australians! I suppose we should be flattered, but as a fantasy of national triumph, this is about as lame as it gets.
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CAST: Paul Kaye, Imelda Staunton, Vince Vaughn, Johnny Vegas, James Cromwell, Terry Alderton, Bernard Cribbins
PRODUCER: James Gay-Rees
DIRECTOR: Mel Smith
SCRIPT: Tim Firth
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Vernon Layton
EDITOR: Chris Blunden
MUSIC: Stephen Warbeck
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Grenville Horner
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 13, 2004