Looking back at Funny Bones

Blackpool, Lee Evans, Jerry Lewis and Oliver Platt converge in Funny Bones. Here's why it's a film worth seeking out.

“Why do all the best things in life belong to the past?”

It seems a strange thing to be obsessed about, it wasn’t a franchise, and didn’t come with much buzz, but when Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones was released in 1995 I instantly latched on to it. It didn’t even receive a general release in the cinemas around my area. It was released during that period when you had to check the local newspaper adverts to discover the cinema times. Disappointingly it didn’t appear, not until a few weeks later when it had just one showing, on a Thursday night. I’d been talking about the film for ages to my brother, who was now at university, and once I found that it was screening I practically begged him to take me to see it. So, being the great brother that he is, he specifically came home just to take me to see this film.

The film starred Lee Evans in his first feature film role, Oliver Platt and legendary American comedian Jerry Lewis in the main roles. It also had a superlative supporting cast, including Leslie Caron, Richard Griffiths, Oliver Reed, Freddie Davies, Ian McNeice and more. It baffles me why Funny Bones failed to find an audience and not become the British classic it deserved to be.

Funny Bones was the second feature film from director Peter Chelsom, who was actually born in Blackpool where the film is set. His first film, Hear My Song, was a madcap, magical picture about the estranged Irish singer Joseph Locke. Funny Bones has the same free flowing narrative formula as Hear My Song, even more so as the plot unhinges in all directions, but always engages.

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The opening scene works as a metaphor for how the central characters within Funny Bones feel: abandoned, lost at sea and surrounded by nothingness with no escape. Circumstance has left the majority of the characters in the film in a strange limbo, they cling to comedy as the thing that’s going to pull them through. There’s an odd subplot concerning a Faberge egg, but the crux of the main narrative begins with Tommy Fawkes, who is performing a prestigious stand up comedy gig, his debut in Las Vegas. Unfortunately he is upstaged by the arrival of his father, legendary comedian George Fawkes. Tommy’s act culminates in a ‘sheep shagging’ joke that kills the set dead. It’s the catalyst for Tommy leaving the stage and the country, to head to Blackpool, where his father started in comedy and where he spent many years of his childhood, “when the sun always shone”.

Blackpool, often mocked for its cheap and seedy side, is also a brilliant cinematic spectacle of a location with many traditions and eccentricities to explore. Blackpool does have aspects of Las Vegas and France, which tie together the plot elements of the French criminals illiciting the reaction upon them seeing Blackpool Tower that the British are thieves, and also the Fawkes’ glitzy Vegas background. In both instances the comparisons leave Blackpool looking less extravagant, even run down and on the verge of falling apart, a little like the lives of the Parker Family.

Tommy sees Blackpool as the mine of all great comedy, harking back to the years when Britain was known for its variety acts. This hark back to a golden era of variety is shown in a series of audition montages. Tommy Fawkes’ Blackpool auditions begin with a crush of people fighting over the free sandwiches. The first act is Steve from Ormskirk who can hammer a tune on his head, he’s followed by an invisible man (just a man in bandages) identical twins who mirror each other, a knife thrower, men in tutu’s on unicycles, an old woman playing a saw, the backwards talking man, the biscuit tin tap dancer and a singing dog. At the time of release these scenes were an affectionate look back to a time where variety was still a form of mainstream entertainment, maybe a place like Blackpool with it’s piers full of matinees and night time entertainment may have kept that type of culture going, but nowadays this entertainment has been thrust back into the limelight through old fashioned variety shows like Britain’s Got Talent, which seem to shave off the eccentric edges.

Although these scenes revel in their nostalgia of British eccentricity and variety, Funny Bones goes deeper than that to look at what it actually means to have talent.

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Tommy Fawkes is seriously annoyed with living under his famous father’s shadow and is giving himself only two weeks to realise his dreams of being funny. The centre piece to this is a beach conversation between father and son.

On the beach George is oblivious to Tommy’s anger to the point that Tommy has to spell it out. He’s angry because his dad stole the act that made him famous, leaving the Parkers a lifetime of pain and sullying his childhood memories of sunshine and golden smiling people. This leads George to the key piece of dialogue, his denouncement of his own son Tommy:

“It kills me that I got lazy, using writers, not using me. We were funny people, we didn’t have to tell funny stories, we were funny. We had funny bones. And the thing that kills me the most is watching my own son flop, time after time. What kills me is however much I spend on writers and coaches it hasn’t worked for you Tommy, God damn it, it’s like you’re too educated to be funny. Tommy, I think there are two types of comedian, there’s a funny bones comedian and a non funny bones comedian, they’re both funny, one is funny, the other tells funny. Tommy, it’s time you knew, and this kills me the most, but you’re neither. You’re not funny.”

The last lines are delivered by Jerry Lewis with venom, the years of anger at his son’s failure pouring out. Jokes are the only thing worthwhile in his life and his son cannot provide that.

Jack, on the other hand, is the one everyone sees as having funny bones; instead of a love child he is referred to as a laugh child, and this has led to problems. An accident during a performance in his youth led to him being sectioned. Jack was never allowed to perform legally in public again. Comedy which often walks a thin line with tragedy, unless it’s bought.

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The casting choices highlight a nostalgic look at a more traditional brand of comedy; the film took a nostalgic U-turn to a more traditional approach to comedy. The whole tone of the film evokes a nostalgic feeling. Funny Bones confronts nostalgic feelings head on. After Jack’s performance Tommy sees Katie singing, and this sparks a series of memories in him. The performance is interspersed with Tommy’s memories of the past, shot in a handheld, Super 8, home movie style with the colours enhanced. Tommy is six, sitting in a toy red car, everyone smiles and waves at the camera, the sun shines. Tommy’s mother is in a bright yellow dress, pushing him in his bright red car. It’s the idyllic, perfect picture. That is until Tommy turns the corner in his car and the camera catches Katie straddling his father, and the reality of the situation is exposed, but a reality that the younger Tommy wouldn’t realise until revisiting it.

“But we were happy right? Why did we leave in such a hurry? Why did we never see you again?” Tommy questions. It’s nostalgia but skewed by truth, showing the darkness underneath these memories, the real pain and emotion which can be forgotten through the nostalgic haze. The reality makes everything far more complicated, and with Tommy running away from the life he hated hoping to get back to simpler times he is informed that those times never existed, and the past should never be revisited.

These are poignant themes, the opportunity to look back evaluate and assess, our country, our culture, our lives and our comedy. The eccentricity and talent that is explored in Funny Bones is real, but the price paid was overlooked at the time, only through looking back is the truth uncovered. Does that destroy the memories?

If you’ve seen Funny Bones, I’d recommend revisiting it. If you’ve not seen it, then you have a duty to seek it out. You’ll be blown away by its eccentricity, its portrayal of Blackpool and its unflinching look at comedy, talent, and the secrets of the past. I’m just hoping I haven’t misremembered my brother coming home just to take me to see that special screening the first time I saw my favourite film of all time. Because the truth can be very different from the dreams of the past we create, whether that’s on the big screen or in our heads.