Shandy but not bitter

Film – What would a Sterne scholar make of a new version of an “unfilmable” novel?

Having spent several confused years writing a DPhil thesis on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, I was excited to hear Michael Winterbottom was adapting it into a film. I was determined to be among the first to see it and eagerly reserved my ticket to the premiere of A Cock and Bull Story. Press stories had already begun to appear, all mentioning Sterne’s “unfilmable” novel. In my view, Tristram Shandy is only as unfilmable as it was unwriteable.

At the premiere, I stumbled through the foyer of the Odeon West End, looking for the friend I had invited along. In the commotion, I was accidentally thrust into a melee, which turned out to be the press line. The actors, who had not yet seen the completed film, walked in file, stopping at intervals to answer questions from television presenters armed with microphones and flanked by blinding lights.

I found myself smiling down at Rob Brydon, who plays Uncle Toby, and himself. The diminutive actor admitted that he hadn’t read the novel. “It went over my head,” he said, but gave a convincing account of the film’s goal: to be “true to the spirit of Sterne”. Shirley Henderson, who plays dizzy Susannah, had read it twice, she told me firmly.

A good sign, I thought, as I spotted my friend and descended into the cinema; after all, the novel is about male inadequacies, broken noses and the fear of impotence, and features some long-suffering female characters. As the film began, I was delighted to find that it articulates these themes brilliantly and hilariously, mainly through the comically competitive relationship between Brydon and Steve Coogan (who plays Tristram, and himself). It was a tremendously enjoyable experience. It works very well as a film of a film about the making of a film based on a book, and the endless layers this implies.

By the end, though, I felt it was rather hijacked by the banter between Coogan and Brydon – who are of similar physical stature – which clearly works for a modern audience able to spot intertextual (or inter-audio-visual) references to the actors’ other well-known roles, (such as Coo-gan’s creation, the dire Alan Partridge). There seemed, indeed, to be a high proportion of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon fans in the audience, who probably had more interest in their heroes than they did in Sterne.

I did wish to have more of Yorick, played by Stephen Fry, and the more serious and tragic elements he brings to the novel. But it was a good idea to leave out the 18th-century sentimentalism and translate it into some New Man baby-holding.

And, of course, a modern obsession with height accompanies the Shandean fascination for noses, knots and bags in all their signifying richness.

Two days after the screening, I watched the South Bank Show documentary on the making of the film, which I hope will be included in the eventual DVD. It was informative enough and occasionally referred to itself as yet another layer in the making of the film, thus adding to the already prolific body of Sterneiana.

It includes interviews with Winterbottom, who may well have been as anxious and underfunded as the director character in his film, played by the wonderful – and relatively tall – Jeremy Northam.

If I were Winterbottom, I would certainly feel a little better having Northam in that role.

A Cock and Bull Story is on general release in the UK from 20 January

Read in the New Statesman here