Did we like it?
The performances from Rafe Spall and David Walliams were fantastic, but because of certain episodes of Frankie Howerd’s life being over-stretched and others condensed into a smile and a wink, it felt more like the opening episode of a short drama series rather than a one-off.
What was good about it?
• Rafe Spall is really a fantastic actor. It was only a few days ago that he played the sullen Frank Taylor, but is unrecognisable here as Howerd’s lover Dennis. Over the duration, he transformed from effervescent groupie to a passionate lover, fiercely protective of his fragile partner.
• Walliams was good too as Frankie Howerd. The scenes between Frankie and Dennis were tinged with the light farce of a comedy sketch yet Walliams deliberately detached his more familiar Little Britain persona(s) for these vignettes, instead letting the acerbic dialogue speak. And the very last scene when Frankie momentarily adopted his stage persona in some good-natured banter with Dennis, but dropped what was essentially a joyful mask to the rest of the world in the knowledge that he couldn’t fool his lover.
• And for many of the scenes between the two, you had to peer beneath the veneer of a cantankerous old couple hawking their outdated business round the university circuit. At the Oxford Union, Frankie asked Dennis to heckle him as part of the act but Dennis, chided by Frankie’s failed seduction of a student, jeered with a mordant spite.
• And their first argument when they were newly acquainted had all the menace of a couple of spoilt toddlers. While their rare moments of affection were tempered by Frankie’s insecurity, such as the hug where he placed his hands gingerly on Dennis’ back with the fingers spaced a deliberate distance apart from one another.
• The consequence of this meticulous storytelling was when Frankie made a piteous outburst to Dennis – “What we do together makes me vomit” – the reason for his ire was not born of disgust but of a dependence on Dennis; that Frankie liked to push his partner to the very limits of his tether to provide a tangible measure of the affection of Dennis for him. Of course, so reckless and impetuous was Frankie at times that he really risked driving Dennis away. Frankie’s unstable behaviour also acted as an excuse for his incessant infidelity.
• You anticipated Walliams would be good mimicking Frankie’s stage comedy as he echoes it in his comedy, both sketch shows and on panel games and chat shows, but here is was more distinct, more authentic as if behind the camp quips there truly existed a real person.
• The way in which Walliams was spliced into an old edition of What’s My Line?, hosted by Eamon Andrews. This is the most plausible insert into an old show we’ve ever seen as it is far more difficult to accomplish than might be imagined.
• The scene in which Dennis spies on Frankie through a half-closed door during a session with a psychoanalyst.
What was bad about it?
• Spall is a marvellous actor, but here, as in He Kills Coppers, he doesn’t age well.
• While the framework of the play worked well with the narrative flitting between the early-90s stage show at Oxford University and Frankie and Dennis’s relationship through the 50s and 60s, there was never an anchor during that period. So we were never sure how long they’d been together when Dennis left him, or how long they were apart before they reconciled.
• Also, while we saw plenty of Frankie’s sadness over his lack of success, his rejuvenation provoked by the success of Up Pompeii was skated over with the same haste as the latter years of the partnership of Corbett and Brambell in their parallel biography a few weeks before.