By Robert Ross
The Eyes Have It
Ah, the 1970s, what a source it's been for BBC 4 biopics.
Go back to when "I phone" meant you picked up the receiver and used your finger to dial. Take a bunch of ordinary guys and fewer gals. Use cod psychoanalysis and camera angles to magnify and simplify any ordinary faults and frailities already magnified by fame and tabloid scrutiny. And you have a perfectly enjoyable pacey rollercoaster story. At least you should have.
Marty Feldman has lived on for new generations in repeats of Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein and comedy fans can also peruse Robert Ross's detailed 2011 biography
With the Carry On Team, also covered by Ross, already nabbed by Terry Johnson in his excellent stage play performed at the National Theatre back in 1998, Ross has the monopoly on the one BBC 4 missed with the two-hander Jeepers Creepers. Maybe because as Feldman's sole biographer, he has guarded the material waiting for the right moment?
Well, Monty Python veteran Terry Jones, who knew and worked with Marty agreed to attach his name as director of the project. With Jones on board and Jeepers Creepers presumably named in honour of Feldman's most distinctive feature ('Jeepers Creepers, where'd ya get those peepers? Jeepers Creepers, where'd ya get those eyes?') and for Feldman's love of jazz, it all seems very promising.
On the positive side for Ross, the thinly sketched script of Jeepers Creepers has just enough in it to whet the appetite for the book sold in the foyer. But if in the Feldman sketch everyone spoke in the voice of Sydney Lotterby, Ross's narrator's voice for the most part stifles any of this piece's dramatic potential. Save for a few moments in the second act when Rebecca Vaughan's betrayed wife Lauretta springs to life and leads one to wonder what a stage play about betrayed first wives might be like.
As the couple and Marty solo lurch from 1974 US hotel room to hotel room, there's a bed in every scene. Possibly an attempt to evoke a history of broadcast comedy - the Laurel and Hardy stalwart brought to British television by Morecambe and Wise's scriptwriter Eddie Braben and, perhaps one of the much later victims of the '70s generation gone sour, Paula Yates
There's a memento mori of a skull in the background to reflect Feldman's skeletal TV and movie persona beside the fleshy David Boyle as Feldman looking more of a Gene Wilder. Nothing wrong with that but Boyle struggles with the lack of pace in script and direction and his truthful imitation of Marty's subdued thoughtful tone, unlike the aggressive sharp-beaked TV persona, only serves to emphasize an under powered production determined to index rather than grow organically with subtext the facts of Feldman's life.
Perhaps Ross, with his knowledge across the period, would have spread his playwriting wings more if he had chosen to write about a fictional career spanning jazz, music hall, radio, television, movies, drugs and drink in the context of the times. A generic 1970s' manslaughter of a celebrity. But what we have is an amber/red light for this plodding amble through a life and talent which merits a more insightful exploration.