Idle Weekend - Nuns on the Run

With interviews from writer/director Jonathan Lynn and co-star Camille Coduri and a final word on the film from Eric Idle, Barnaby Eaton-Jones makes a habit of talking about Nuns on the Run...

Brian Hope/Sister Euphemia: God is very busy. He can't control all the details. He's running a franchise operation.

Sometimes, you can tell exactly what a film is like by the music that begins it. In this case, we've got Yello's The Race. It couldn't be more perfect. A few years earlier, Ferris Bueller's Day Off featured Oh Yeah, by Yello again, very prominently and it seemed to match the flavour and the feel of the movie so well that it's inextricably linked.

But that's what music is supposed to do, I hear you cry.

Well, yes. Of course. However, you'd be surprised how many films get it wrong. There's an urgency and speed in The Race, which builds up nicely and never becomes repetitive even though it doesn't change that much. It's a pitch-perfect analogy of Nuns On The Run too.

Even though this was released in 1990, there's a mid 1980s aesthetic to this film and it never feels massive but deals with something small that gets out of control. A lot of '80s films seem to have the same basic formula. In this case, it's the double-act of small-time criminals Brian Hope and Charlie McManus who provide our impetus and it's odd how many films make heroes out of villains. In the real world, these wouldn't be the sort of people you root for but the casting is perfect, with an Abbot & Costello-esque Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane providing the laughs and such a good chemistry that it's a surprise they haven't been teamed up again.

Essentially, they end up fleeing their own mob and a rival mob of Triads, with suitcases full of £1,000,000. The nearest sanctuary is St. Joseph's College, run by the Missionary Brides Of Christ, where they disguise themselves as Nuns. Brian's girlfriend, who – due to a severe case of short-sightedness (physical and mental) – doesn't know he's a crook and, although she works for one of the mob leaders, tries to help them out of their habits (ahem) but ends up getting mixed up in it all and sustains a fair few injuries along the way. The delightfully comfortable uncomfortableness, played to perfection by Idle and Coltrane, as they make their way through the Holy Order, makes for some funny comedy and – even though the central idea borrows from Some Like It Hot – there's an individuality and Britishness that sets it well apart.

Jonathan Lynn's sublime direction showcases the comedy perfectly but also doesn't skimp on the action sequences. He's a master of the understated sometimes but I always think a director should be viewed and not seen. He perfectly enhances the story without getting in the way of it. The fact he wrote the story (and the script) means that he knows exactly what he wants and there's no confusion to be found. Being one half of the writers behind political satire Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, you get the same tight plotting and great character interaction in dialogue. It's the sort of film that's easy to underestimate and, whilst it isn't a classic, there's always something to be championed in a good comedy that makes you laugh. After all, that's what it's made to do!

Aside from the pairing of Idle and Coltraine (the former showing great control as the 'brains' of the gang and the harrassed but smooth co-lead, against the latter's bumbling but brave sweetness), the other stand-out performance is that of Camille Coduri as Faith Thomas, the waitress-cum-heroine. There's a sweet innocence to the character, which makes her instantly loveable and she's brings that same sweetness to her supporting role in the following year's King Ralph (with John Goodman and Sir Peter O'Toole), which is needed because she's playing an erotic dancer in that one! But, it does seem a shame that – after these two roles in big English films with top names – she didn't continue on to have the film career she deserved. She's better known now as Jackie Tyler, mother of Billie Piper's Rose, from several series of the highly successful revival of Doctor Who. Although there's twenty-plus years between her films and the Timelord's television series, she hardly seems to have aged a day!

Eric Idle and writer/director Jonathan Lynn were friends from way back and it's clear to see how Lynn knows how to build a film around Idle's talent for comedy. I always find, watching Eric Idle, that there's a sadness behind some of his creations – masked by the inherent cheekiness – that never gets explored and I think he'd make a very fine dramatic actor if he put his mind to it. His motormouth and ability to veer from manic to martyr would, I think, create a brilliant Malvolio from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

As always, with films that aim to entertain, they sometimes get overlooked. I don't think Nuns On The Run has had the recognition it deserves and that may be because of the unprovoked critical attack that popular reviewers Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel provided, with a scathing essay that so upset the head of 20th Centruy Fox at the time that he banned them from attending previews of any more Fox films (a ban that lasted a year). This furore seems to have created adverse publicity and possibly contributed to the audiences missing out on what is a good, old-fashioned screwball comedy of the kind they used to make decades earlier.

So, if you fancy seeing men dressed as Nuns, getting a dressing down and seeing other Nuns getting undressed, look no further than Nuns On The Run!


Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Hello, Jonathan! Was Nuns On The Run an idea you had long before the film, maybe as a sketch? Or how did the inspiration hit you for such a clever idea to base the film around?

Jonathan Lynn (JL): A couple of nuns walked past me in the street and I realized that, in their habits, it was impossible to actually tell if they were men or women. The perfect disguise for a couple of criminals on the run.

BEJ: If you had to re-cast Nuns On The Run now (being as Hollywood seems to be remaking every film that's older than the current teenage audience!), who would you choose? And did you have a hand in casting Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane for your original?

JL: Yes, I cast Eric and Robbie. I had known Eric for years, we were friends, we went to the same college, Pembroke College Cambridge. Afterwards, we briefly shared a flat in Shepherds Bush. He suggested Robbie. I wouldn't want to remake it. I like what I did!

BEJ: Is it easier to direct your own written work or do you like how other directors take your words and make a different vision with them? Was it your idea, for example, to do the brilliant 'alternate' endings for Clue - did that come out of the script or an idea you had when directing?

JL: Yes, it's easier to direct my own work. I know what I had in mind when I wrote it, I don't offend a writer if I rewrite or change it. The alternate endings in Clue were John Landis's idea - I originally wrote it for him to direct. (See Jonathan's book: COMEDY RULES)

BEJ: The Penultimate Supper is my favourite comedy sketch, though not hugely well-known aside from Monty Python's Hollywood Bowl show, where it was performed by Eric Idle and John Cleese. I wondered if you had any memories of performing it as you were the first Michelangelo, as it were, with John Cleese in 1976?

JL: Yes, of course, I remember it well. John wrote the script for Python but the BBC banned it - "blasphemous", they said. So, John wanted to try it out at the charity show for Amnesty International. We rehearsed it over the phone, we were too busy to meet that week. John didn't have a punchline - they didn't use punchlines on Python - and I added that. He liked it. On the day, we rehearsed once on stage, that afternoon. It was the only new sketch performed in the show, which made it scary. But, it went very well.

BEJ: Twice A Fortnight (a 1967 British sketch comedy television series with Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and yourself) seemed to encompass both legendary comedy teams The Goodies and Monty Python, in their early fame, with you linking them all. Did you have any yearning to be in a 'group' and/or carry on with a set of writers/actors?

JL: I wanted to be an actor, not a comic. I didn't write then, not till a few years later.

BEJ: And finally, what would Jim Hacker, of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister fame (which Jonathan co-wrote with the recently passed Sir Anthony Jay), make of Jeremy Corbyn; if he'd suddenly appeared as leader of his opposition?!

JL: Mixed emotions! He would be jealous because he, Jim, never had the courage of his convictions. He would agree with Corbyn about some things - Jim thought Britain had no need of an independent nuclear deterrent (see 'The Grand Design', the first episode of Yes, Prime Minister). On the other hand, he would be confident that Corbyn will crash and burn. And what's the point of being in politics if you never have power?

BEJ: Jonathan Lynn, thank you very much.

(with thanks to Paul Ballard)

Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Hello, Camille! Thanks for agreeing to this interview. My first question is, did you have to audition for the role of Faith Thomas and, if so, do you recall getting the call to say you had the part? If you didn't have to audition, how was the role offered to you?

Camille Coduri (CC): I did audition for the role and I was only just 23 at the time. I'd had a couple of films under my belt, a bit of telly and then came along this gorgeous script that I'd got secretly so excited about. I say 'secretly' because, as an actor, you never want to jinx an audition or say too much about it if you really, really want it and I really, really wanted to play her. I knew it was perfect for me but, of course, I didn't know if they would like my interpretation! In fact, I went back a few times for the role to read and re-read with Jonathan Lynn and I remember Michael White (the Producer) being there and he and Jonathan seemed to have serious faces on a lot of the time, so I thought they didn't like me and they thought I was pants. Mary Selway, the Casting Director, was also there and she was my champion (always was, really; bless her) and so I thought I had no chance, they hate me and I forgot about it. So when I got the call from my agent, who was Michael Foster at the time, to say I'd been offered the part it was such a huge surprise and of course I was delighted. However, I had just heard that my brother-in-law - who was only 41 at the time - had suddenly died literally that afternoon and so I didn't exactly jump for joy until all that had calmed down really. So, in a way, it was bittersweet. I was amazed afterwards, seeing the DVD extra bit, that Michael White had said we knew Camille was right for Faith from the start. I thought 'Bloody Hell, you could've told me!' Ha ha.

BEJ: Did you have time to rehearse with Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane before meeting them and, if so, were they serious comedians when away from the camera or just as silly comedians as they were on camera?!

CC: We didn't rehearse. The boys and I had a readthrough at the Groucho Club upstairs, which was a blast; followed by gorgeous posh lunch - my first experience of lobster bisque (I kid you not). We did rehearse however before a take on set and I have to say we all got on like a house on fire, we laughed many a time and it was such a happy happy shoot. I'm a great believer in astrology and Robbie, Eric, Jonathan and I were all Aries! All had our birthdays a few days apart from one another and everyone knows that Aries always get on with one another, it's a given. Robbie and Eric were totally not serious comedians at all they made me die laughing on many occasion while we were on camera and off, the pair of them absolutely wonderful in every way and hilarious - they both were - it was one of the most happiest times I'd ever had working. Robbie was always flashing the Crown Jewels at me, so funny you see Scotsmen don't wear any pants under their kilts or their habits!

BEJ: How was Jonathan Lynn as a director? Did he like you to stick rigidly to the script he'd written or was he happy to take suggestions or change things on the day of shooting?

CC: I had the utmost respect for Jonathan Lynn and still do, he always gave great notes and seemed to get right into the heart of a character - huge emotional empathy he had for the character of Faith, almost like he put himself in every characters shoes. I guess, being an actor himself, made that part of the process as a director. We never went off piste on the script, my job was to honour the writer and if it ain't broke don't fix it!

BEJ: Were there any mishaps or unintentional comedy moments that you can recall during production, where things went wrong?

CC: I don't remember any thing going wrong really, I was really absorbed in playing Faith, the good Catholic girl, and held onto that while we were working and it was a fair while ago now! But, I do remember coming off my crash mat when I was doing a stunt running from the crooks and going flying (falling behind that car). I was going at some speed and shot off the end of the mat and nearly smacked my face full-pelt onto the concrete ground but, because I was wearing glasses, I jolted my head up away from the pavement and I must say I still have problems there - but it was worth it, love a battle scar! There was of course the odd fuck-up which was always funny but can't remember specifically what and where.

BEJ: If you could sum up your experience on Nuns On The Run in three words, what would they be?!

CC: Totally bloody fantastic.

BEJ: Camille, thank you very much!


Eric Idle: "Nuns On The Run was a very happy experience for me. Johnny sent me the script and he wanted Palin to do it with me. Mike turned it down, so I suggested Robbie and it was such fun. Johnny is a lovely director, he gets what he wants, then asks you to try what you want. The Yanks very smartly gave us an extra 30G to reshoot a better ending.

Denis O'Brien of Handmade Films immediately bought it. I told him it was appropriate I was in the First and Last Handmade Film. He looked shocked. But it was.

We were murdered by that fat critic Ebel and Siskel. Publicly and on television before the release. Probably because he is a fat nun. I always hated him and indeed once wrote a line about feeling very cheerful, as you do on the day a critic dies.

It took a lot of money and we took little but points but the asshole Steve Wooley refused to pay O'Brien what was due because he'd screwed them on something else so we never got a penny. For many years after Handmade Films was bought it was criminally accounted so again nothing.

Mercifully we sued them to get The Life Of Brian out of them!"

Images - IMDb & Youtube

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