In the 1950s Frankie Howerd, the famous radio and film comedian, meets a young waiter Dennis Heymer, who,like himself,is a closet homosexual. Their relationship blossoms into a partnership, rather than a purely sexual one, and Dennis becomes Frankie’s manager. By the early 1960s however things are looking bleak for Frankie. He has lost popularity with mainstream audiences and suffered a nervous breakdown.He is full of self hatred about his appearance – he wears a wig – and his homosexuality, putting huge stress on his relationship with Dennis. Matters are not helped by the death of Frankie’s mother Edith. However, Frankie is able to reinvent himself as a satirical comedian, with a gig at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club and his fortunes soar,with successful television comedies and a well-publicised appearance at the Oxford Union.
Stars:David Walliams, Rafe Spall
Review by Erastes
I went into this with a little trepidation because I am a huge fan of Frankie Howerd and wasn’t sure if someone so entirely unique could be done with the respect I feel he demands. While I never really thought Walliams captured Howed as perfectly as Michael Sheen did in Fantabulosa! it was clearly a studied and well-prepared performance, and going on the reaction of Dennis Heymer, Howard’s lover and manager (see further reading at the end of the review) it was certainly convincing for those who knew him well.
There’s two aspects to this film that I liked a great deal. Firstly that Williams didn’t do an out and out impression of Howerd, and other than prosthetics to imitate Howerd’s baldness (strange how I never really acknowledge his wig, when it was so very obvious) he relied on performance to play him, rather than make up. Secondly, that although the film touched on much stress–such as Howerd’s denial that he was homosexual, (despite being notorious for trying it on with every pretty boy who passed his way) his treatment to be “cured” and clashes between Heymer and himself–despite this, I felt the overall tone was quite upbeat and the ending in particular had me smiling like a loon.
The affection between the two men comes over well–even if there may have been more love from Dennis’s side than Frankie’s–it’s hard to tell over time and distance. The whole thing does seem a little rushed, which is hardly surprising seeing as how they cram 20 odd years into the film, and would have worked better as a three-parter perhaps. You would almost believe from this that Howerd had no friends other than a fag-hag and Dennis and never socialised, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s a little bleak, and certainly does not hold the glamour of something like “Mad Men” – because it’s set in austere 1950’s Britian, still reeling from the war and rationing. Howerd was one of the best paid entertainers and he lives in a brown-coloured flat such as Mad Men’s Don Draper wouldn’t rent for his maid. There was glamour there, in fact Dennis says “I’m not in this for the glamour” – but it’s not really shown on screen, and a touch of that, mixing with the Carry On crowd and the Krays, might have enlivened this up a smidge.
But on the whole it was a solid and interesting watch, especially, if like me, you grew up not having a clue that Howerd, who portrayed himself as a lech in films, was homosexual. I wasn’t convinced by Walliams’s performance, but there’s no doubt of the man’s depth of talent.
Further reading: There’s an indepth article here as Dennis helps Mark Walliams and Rafe Spall prepare for the film. Frankie Howerd’s lover breaks his silence.