Monday, 26 October 2015

Friday Download: The Movie

Director: John Henderson
Writer: Toby Davies
Producers: Jules Elvins, Jeremy Salsby, Daniel Shepherd
Cast: Dionne Bromfield, Shannon Flynn, Tyger Drew-Honey
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: screener

Despite the presence upstairs of a nearly-12-year-old couch potato nerd, the CBBC channel doesn’t really figure in this house. TF Simpson watches Deadly 60 and Horrible Histories and we used to sometimes watch Dani’s House but those are all viewed on iPlayer. CBBC is never watched in real-time the way CBeebies was, and so neither he nor his parents have any real concept of what’s on there. He tells me he’s caught a bit of the programme called Friday Download on a couple of occasions, but since he has no real interest in pop music (apart from Weird Al, whom we saw together last week!) it’s not the sort of show he would watch.

Instead his televisual diet largely consists of Doctor Who, The Simpsons, Futurama DVDs, wildlife documentaries, dinosaur programmes and endless repeats of Top Gear on Dave. Plus whatever retro shows his parents turn him onto; we’re halfway through Lois and Clark right now.

So, working on the assumption that you know as little about Friday Download as I do, here’s a primer, largely gleaned from Wikipedia and the CBBC site. The show seems to be a mix of interviews, games and performances based around music, video games and movies. The guests are contemporary pop stars: the sort of production-line teenybop automata that you and I have mostly never heard or even heard of (and wouldn’t admit if we had). It’s presented by bland stage school Stepford teenagers indistinguishable from the bland singers they interview. A perusal of the online bios of the current presenters (not the ones in this film) shows them to be shallow and dull, their interests limited entirely to sport and pop music. None have even the slightest interest in science, or history, or nature, or art, or literature, or anything beyond vacuous soundbite pop culture.

Let’s put it this way. If Jeremy Corbyn gets elected Prime Minister and turns Britain into a totalitarian Communist state, none of this lot run any risk of being arrested for being dangerous intellectuals. One boy does list Of Mice and Men as his favourite book but then admits that it’s the only one he’s ever read(!) and in fact the only glimmer of anything approaching any sort of credibility is that one girl says her favourite band is the Stone Roses.

Friday Download has been running since 2011 and has apparently won a BAFTA at some point. The whole thing all looks rather ghastly, to be honest, like an ADHD Why Don’t You for the X-Factor generation. Presumably it’s what some kids want but you can see why someone like TF Simpson wouldn’t be interested. (Please note that I have never seen even a second of the show and hadn’t actually heard of it until I was sent this screener. All the above is based on minimal research. I wouldn’t want anyone to mistake my disdain for the programme as anything except good old-fashioned, uninformed prejudice.)

So why, you may ask, am I bothered about any of this? Because in 2015 Friday Download spawned a spin-off feature film. And dang me, it’s a haunted house horror comedy. And while it’s not something that I would ever choose to watch, as a British horror completist I feel it my duty to view the screener I was kindly sent and report back to you what’s what. So, in summary: it’s not terrible and I’ve seen worse. Like the bands who feature on the show, it’s inoffensive, forgettable and corporate.

But it also has its moments.

There are five presenters playing themselves, or rather, their one-name screen personas, in this movie. Richard (Wisker) had been a regular on the show through all previous eight series; Dionne (Bromfield) was a regular up to series 7, and a guest presenter in series 8; Shannon (Flynn) had been part of the team since series 5; George Sear since series 6. Bizarrely, Bobby (Lockwood) hasn’t actually presented the TV series (according to Wikipedia) although he plays a presenter in the movie.

I’m sure each of these kids is the life and soul of the party in real life, but there’s precious little personality to their screen personas. Bobby is a bit dim, and frequently talks about his dog Cujo (a horror reference that’s never acknowledged or touched upon). Dionne is a bit vain and obsessed with make-up, hair products and skin conditioner. Shannon is probably the most rounded and interesting character, a take-charge Mancunian with a no-nonsense attitude. Richard and George don’t seem to have any distinguishing traits at all and I’m not sure I could even tell them apart.

The plot, such as it is, has the quintet finish the latest series of Friday Download and head off for a holiday in a battered old van. After pausing for no apparent reason at a cemetery, they get lost in the fog and crash (harmlessly) into a ditch, conveniently close to an enormous mansion that looks like the Bide-a-Wee Rest Home. (It’s actually Margam Castle, a gothic monstrosity near Port Talbot which was designed by Thomas Hopper in the 1830s for William Henry Fox Talbot’s cousin.)

This vast pile of masonry is inhabited by two posh siblings, Clara (Louisa Connolly-Burnham from House of Anubis and Wolfblood) and Caleb (Tiger Drew-Honey) who live alone there since their parents died. Drew-Honey was a presenter on Friday Download series 1-4 although he is better known for either (a) playing Jake in Outnumbered, or (b) being the offspring of porn professionals Linzi Drew and Ben Dover (depending on one’s own cultural sensitivities). Invited to stay the night, the five friends are shown to separate bedrooms, each of which contains appropriately monogrammed pyjamas.

Overnight, spooky things start to happen and this is where the film proves surprisingly effective, since some of these would actually be really good and scary in a proper horror film. Shannon hears a beeping, as of a smoke alarm requiring a new battery, and opens the door to the passage only to find it leads into an exact copy of her bedroom, including another door which leads to another copy. She ends up running through room after room in a brief but hallucinatory sequence that is not played in any way for laughs.

Richard (or possibly George) is woken by a wide-screen TV switching on which he groggily realises is showing footage from a camera somewhere in the room, of himself in bed, at which point a shadowy figure appears beside him on the screen. Dionne, going through her nightly rituals in front of a mirror, finds a scary-faced version of herself staring back. Bobby hears his dog at the door but is dragged under the bed by the unseen animal, emerging with shredded, slimed PJs. And something probably happens to George (or possibly Richard) but I can’t remember what.

The spooked kids head back to their van but find that it has left the ditch and somehow got stuck halfway up a tree. Forced to return to the house, where Clara and Caleb remain welcoming and understanding (if stiffly eccentric), the gang are joined by Fraser (Ethan Lawrence: Joe in Bad Education), who runs a ghost-hunting blog and has been camping outside the mansion grounds. Once he has sneaked inside with his new friends, Fraser goes exploring.

After spending the rest of the night sharing a single room, blithely unaware of the ectomorphic entities around them, the FD team are awoken by Mr Peck (Angus Barnett: Mullroy in Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 3 and 5), a property developer who wants to buy the house, knock it down and build something else. The precise details of the financial situation aren’t exactly clear. Peck has purchased a £20,000 debt and the siblings have until sunset that day to come up with that amount, otherwise he will own the house. Or something.

We also learn that Caleb and Clara’s late parents are haunting the place. We don’t learn at this point that the siblings themselves are also ghosts, although it was screamingly obvious from the moment we first met them.

The gang decide that they can raise the required 20 grand by calling in a few pop star mates and staging a concert in the grounds – which they do. Coachloads of screaming, pubescent girls arrive (plus one or two boys) and are treated to performances by Dionne (Bromfield is a singer, rather than an actor) plus Bars and Melody and The Vamps.

Apparently Bars and Melody are two kids who came third on Britain’s Got Talent and have subsequently had a top ten single and album. After this movie, they both became regular presenters on the ninth series of Friday Download. The Vamps are a four-piece boy-band who sound like a McFly album track and actually supported McFly on a 2013 tour (I’ve got no problem with McFly – plenty of McFly CDs on my shelf). Each of the three artists performs one song, intercut not only with shots of the screaming training-bra battalion but also with scenes of Fraser finding out the truth about Caleb, Clara and their parents.

Apparently – according to a spooky story told early on in the van, and a book browsed by Fraser – if ghosts are allowed to own the ground that they haunt, they can take over the world. Or something. The interesting upshot of this unique idea is that, in raising the required £20,000 (by passing a bucket among the crowd, most of whom presumably get decent pocket money), the Friday Download gang have actually done the wrong thing. They thought they were helping two new friends stand up to a greedy property developer, but they have actually brought about the end of mankind by unleashing unstoppable ghostly forces upon the Earth.

Well, I didn’t see that coming.

I’m prepared to give props to the film for not only that twist, but also for the way it gets out of this situation, which is that they use social media to alert every ghost-hunting nutter in Britain to the inarguable presence of two ghosts (the siblings having now revealed their true natures). An army of paranormal investigators immediately descends on the house and Fraser makes it clear that from now on the two spectres will never have a moment’s peace. This is enough for them to realise that they would be better off with their parents, which they achieve by magically entering a painting that Fraser found in an attic.

The final gag of the film sees the team heading off to a town which, it is implied, is populated by werewolves.

Obviously I’m not the target audience for this film so I can only offer my personal subjective opinion as a seasoned film reviewer. I reviewed plenty of kids movies back in the SFX days so I’m not completely unfamiliar with the genre and its tropes. What struck me most, I think, was that this is a curious chimera of two well-established themes. Normally when established entertainment characters find themselves in a haunted house, the template is Scooby-Doo and they work to solve the mystery and/or lay the ghosts to rest. Alternatively, there is the well-worn plot of needing a large sum of money to save someone/where/thing and achieving this by calling on showbiz mates to stage a mini version of Live Aid. Friday Download: The Movie bolts these two ideas together and the end result is not unsuccessful, to be fair.

More problematic for me is the subtext of the film, which is very much that there are the cool, beautiful people – and then there are the freaks and geeks. Though he is never rejected, Fraser is very much the outsider: a loner, an obsessive, someone more interested in research, discovery, heck just reading, than in ‘important’ things like pop music, partying and looking good. Because of his outsider status, he must be fat, with unstylish clothes and a bad haircut.

There’s a disturbing lack of diversity in the film. Apart from TBG Bromfield, the only non-white face is an obsessive mega-fan of the series named Darren (Nathan Bryon: Jamie from Some Girls). With his cheerily oblivious attitude to social convention and his lop-sided ‘fro, Darren is rather obviously modelled as a younger version of Moss from The IT Crowd (I don't know if he's part of the series or just created for the film). As with Fraser, he is a loner, desperately unstylish and classified as a nerd, a geek, a nutter. He can only watch the cool kids from afar; he can never be part of their gang. And that really is it as far as diversity goes in this film. There may be a few black faces among the hordes of little girls watching the concert, but everyone else is as white as sour cream. If you’re disabled, or Asian, or think you might be gay, or you’re a goth or an emo, or if in any other way you feel ‘different’ or are suffering the sort of emotional crisis that comes with puberty and adolescence – well, my friend, this is not the movie for you.

The subtext here is that cool, white kids with trendy haircuts and exciting media careers are so much better than you. If you don’t wear the right clothes, don't listen to the right music, don't have the right haircut, demonstrate weird interests like reading or science or history – then you are The Alien Other. You may look at the cool kids. You may speak to them if they speak to you first. But you can never be one of them. You are a weirdo, a loony, a freak.

In the entire film, I don’t think there’s a single character who wears spectacles. That, for me, sums it up.

Now listen. Yes, I know I’m reading too much into this. It is just a silly kids comedy with some slapstick and some pop music. And I’m not asking for some righteous, politically correct, box-ticking of a black kid in a wheelchair as a token member of the gang. I’m just saying that the presenters of a show like this, and hence the stars of a film like this, could be more representative of today’s youth, instead of all looking and sounding and behaving the same. And the script could have been less at pains to point out that Fraser and his many ghost-hunting web friends - who actually save the day, remember – are ‘nutters’ and ‘geeks’.

Just saying.

The film was directed by the very experienced John Henderson whose notable genre credits include the 1990s TV series of The Borrowers, Ted Danson starrer Loch Ness (and Loch Ness lite feature Mee-Shee: The Water Giant), Hallmarks’ The Magic Land of the Leprechauns, unfunny scifi sitcom Hyperdrive and legendary Doctor Who Comic Relief Special The Curse of Fatal Death. He also directed episodes of Spitting Image and brilliant Steve Coogan sitcom Saxondale. Scripter Toby Davies previously wrote sketches for Sorry I’ve Got No Head (oh yes, that’s another CBBC series we have actually watched) and That Mitchell and Webb Look, as well as episodes of Yonderland.

John Henderson’s regular cinematographer John Ignatius lit the picture; in his early career he was focus puller on Brazil and The Crimson Permanent Assurance. Production designer Blair Barnette started out in LA doing props and sets work on superior kidcoms like Clarissa Explains It All and Kenan and Kel before moving to the UK where she actually has a couple of BHR credits in Sightseers and In Fear.

Kevin Eldon, David Mitchell and Marcus Brigstocke make utterly irrelevant name-value cameos as respectively a creepy security guard, a comedy policeman and himself. Also credited as themselves are Connor Ball, Tristan Evans, James McVey and Bradley Simpson. I have no idea who they are (presumably they’re in the phone-round-our-celeb-pals montage) and I can’t be arsed to look them up.

Released theatrically in May 2015 as Up All Night (with a West End premiere), the film swiftly learned the lesson that TV spin-offs must have the same title as the show from which they originate so for the October 2015 DVD release it became Friday Download: The Movie.

MJS rating: C+

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