Film - The Tall Guy

Our own tall guy [well, we look up to him anyway - Ed] Barnaby Eaton-Jones looks back at the classic film The Tall Guy and chats exclusively to cast members Hugh Thomas and Kim Thomson ...

DEXTER: I hope all your children have small dicks! And that includes the girls!!

There are a lot of firsts associated with this movie, for creative people who went on to become huge names.

It’s Mel Smith’s first feature film as a director, it’s Dame Emma Thompson’s first feature film role, it’s Richard Curtis’s first feature film script, and it’s Rowan Atkinson’s first major feature film role (six years prior, he was very briefly in rogue 007 film Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery’s much-lauded return and definitive swansong as James Bond).

With this in mind, there’s a wilful sense of experimentation and energy in this film that comes from a group of creative minds stepping up a gear and being let loose on the cinematic landscape. It seems to meld elements of three type of films – a satire on the theatre (and comedy) world, a traditional romantic comedy, and a fantasy fish-out-of-water tale of a leading man in a foreign land. The fact that it switches between all of these makes it more interesting than a standard comedy tale.

For a film that is actively silly, surreal and unconventional, it’s also very ‘real’. The characters may be doing fantastical things and playing out coincidences and interconnected storylines, but there’s a realism to the exchanges and conversations and feelings that grounds the film. It also features the best afternoon sex scene committed to celluloid, which involves a buttered piece of toast, a piano, and a potted plant.

(Dexter is visiting Kate in her flat)

KATE: Sorry about last night, I was very tired. (Pause) I’m less tired now, though…
DEXTER: I’m not tired either.
KATE: Great! Two people… on their own… in the middle of the afternoon… and not tired!


DEXTER: Ideal circumstances for Scrabble?

Whilst writer Richard Curtis went on to hone his style in bigger and more conventional hits (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually), here he’s at a halfway house – one foot in his quickfire television comedy past and one foot in his new career writing blockbuster rom-coms for the silver screen.

There’s also two main things that put this film above your average comedy – the juxtaposition between an open heart and cynicism.

Dexter King (Jeff Goldblum) has been the sidekick of mega-comedian Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson’s) for six years, in his West End stage show. Ron is beloved by the public but an egomaniacal horror in private. When Dexter meets a nurse called Kate Lemmon (Dame Emma Thompson), it takes him out of the repetitive doldrum of being belittled by Ron Anderson, and his world is turned upside down – she’s forthright and pragmatic, he’s downtrodden and introspective.

Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson as patient and nurse

KATE: Are you going to walk me home? Or shall I just get murdered on my own?

Dexter gets fired from his job as the comedy stooge and ends up gaining the lead in a big, new musical of The Elephant Man (a brilliant parody that veers between Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables). His relationship with Kate fades as his star ascends, and he is attracted to another member of the stage company, but he finally realises what he’s losing and the happy ending is a little too simple but makes sense – feeling wrong initially because of Kate’s strong character who you don’t feel would allow him a second chance, then feeling right too because the down-to-earth character of Kate would be more accepting of Dexter’s discretion than anyone else.

Putting Jeff Goldblum, Dame Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson together as the main trio of such a quirky film is a genius move. If you’re used to seeing Richard Curtis dialogue in the mouths of your Hugh Grant’s and Bill Nighy’s of the acting world, the initial speech patterns of Jeff Goldblum (in almost Woody Allen-esque asides) - saying sentences that you’d associate with that template of an English actor - is briefly distracting, but exactly what this movie needed to stand apart from the crowd. The role was originally going to be played by an English actor (and Rowan Atkinson was said to have expressed an interest) but, when there was an actor’s strike in America, actors were looking for work and Jeff Goldblum’s signing was seen as a bit of a coup at the time – even though it necessitated a name change from ‘Camden Town Boy’ to ‘The Tall Guy’.

The charm and chemistry that brings the main leads alive is palpable and Jeff and Dame Emma are not your conventional romantic double act. With Rowan Atkinson being Mr Bean-like in his antics on stage and spitting out sarcasm like Blackadder manning a vocal machine-gun, you get the best of both worlds of the way he creates comedy.

RON ANDERSON: What in the name of Judas Iscariot’s bumboy is going on?

There’s a lovely supporting cast of individual characters, who all stand out – from the mad Doctor who gives Jeff Goldblum’s Dexter his vaccination shots when he signs up for a course of them in order to try and meet Nurse Kate properly, to the alluring flame-haired actress who tempts Dexter away from Kate during the rehearsals for The Elephant Man movie (both of whom have given exclusive interviews for this review). You even get Suggs, the lead vocalist of the band Madness – who’s It Must Be Love song is a motif – making a quirky appearance when all the cast sing the song to us, the audience.

Because this film was shot a year or so before it was released in 1989 in the UK (and 1990 in the USA), it was treated at the time by critics in the same way they would treat a ‘straight-to-video’ release; which is a real shame. Many reviews seem to miss the fact that this is a debut film and, as such, tries to create something new and happy that doesn’t require a deep analysis. It’s often silly, it’s always engaging, it’s witty, romantic, and doesn’t overdo the cloying sentimentality that could have turned it into something more conventional.

DEXTER: How was your day?
KATE: Not great. A nurse’s day is always pretty grisly. A woman I was with gave birth to a baby in a lift. It would have been okay, but her husband slipped on the afterbirth and broke his collarbone.

Mel Smith and Richard Curtis would team up with Rowan Atkinson again (they were previously in the television comedy sketch show Not The Nine O’Clock News together, which Richard Curtis contributed writing to) for the phenomenally successful Mr. Bean movie – the character that has, like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp before it, become iconic around the world because of the limited-speaking, physical slapstick and occasional pathos that is easily universal. And, of course, Dame Emma Thompson and Rowan Atkinson would pop up in roles for Richard Curtis too, from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Love Actually.

Sadly, Mel Smith didn’t seem to get the career that Hollywood called him for (his next film, after The Tall Guy, was a pet project of George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas – called Radioland Murders, that badly flopped) and, aside from the Mr. Bean reunion of talent nearly a decade on from The Tall Guy, he seemed to get a little side-lined. His passing at the ludicrously young age of 60, in 2013, robbed television and cinema of a hilarious performer and a brilliant director.

If you haven’t seen The Tall Guy, then you’re in for a sweet treat. If you have, then you’ll know why this film really stands out among the overly crowded romantic comedy market.

DEXTER: Vengeance shall be mine!

Interview with HUGH THOMAS who played Dr. Karabekian
Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Hugh, hello! Firstly, I have to say Dr. Karabekian is such a gloriously brilliant creation. It's the role in the film that makes me laugh the most. How did you come about getting the role and was there any direction in the script as to how to play it?

Hugh Thomas (HT): Nice to hear of your highly amused reaction to Dr K. I got the role after going to read for Mel Smith and Richard Curtis, both of whom I knew and had worked with before. I don't recall whether or not there were detailed instructions in the script about how to play the part, but there may well have been - 1988 was a long time ago!          

BEJ: Did you know who'd you'd be playing opposite when you were cast? There's such a funny chemistry between yourself and Jeff Goldblum, I just wondered if you'd had time to rehearse or you just found that it all clicked instantly into place?

HT: I had no idea who else was in the cast, as far as I remember. I do remember that the original title of the picture was ‘Camden Town Boy’, which obviously had to change when Jeff Goldblum came on board. Working with him was great fun, and he was as laid-back and as humorous as you'd expect. The US presidential election was imminent - George Bush the Elder versus the unfortunate Michael Dukakis - and I have a clear memory of discussing that with him - he was going to vote Democrat, as you'd expect.      

BEJ: The look of Dr. Karabekian is quite striking (as is his funny vocal noise he often makes). Was that something you helped engineer or were you at the mercy of others?!

HT: Yes, Dr. K was indeed very eccentric both in appearance (very silly hairstyle) and in behaviour. I can't remember where the funny little noises came from, whether they were in the original script or maybe came out of rehearsal, but I do remember that I copied them from a very funny character played by Sam Kelly in Mike Leigh's film ‘Grown-Ups’, though Dr K's version was a bit more extreme and I think I added a few alarming little barks.

BEJ: I would have loved to have seen a spin-off with your character running the hospital. Ha! Do you have any stand-out memories of your time working on 'The Tall Guy'?

HT: Stand-out memories? I can't recall any more particular details but it was a very enjoyable couple of days. There weren't any pre-shooting-day rehearsals - it was all done on the day - but we did have a read-through (everybody sitting round a table) a few days before filming began.   

BEJ: Did you remember the reception to the film's release? It's grown into a cult classic over time but I know, sometimes, it's just another job. Did you expect it to be still talking about it 30 years later?

HT: The film seemed to be very well received, as I recall, though again my memory's a bit hazy after all these years. I was invited to the premiere but sadly I was unable to attend because of work commitments. 
BEJ: Ah, that’s a shame. But, Hugh, thank you for your time and your memories.

Interview with KIM THOMSON who played Cheryl
Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Did you get the role of Cheryl through an audition or were you spotted in something else? Did you know who'd you be playing alongside when you got the role?  

Kim Thomson (KT): I auditioned for the role of Cheryl. I actually had another job which clashed with ‘The Tall Guy’. It was a theatre production of Glass Menagerie. I remember Mel Smith telling me to take the role of Cheryl because I could do theatre anytime. I never for a moment considered turning down ‘The Tall Guy’! But I was deeply flattered that Mel wanted me so much for the role that he thought he had to 'persuade' me.

BEJ: What was it like being directed by Mel Smith, on his first film as a director? You played the role so beautifully, and the burgeoning affair between your character and Dexter felt so real, that it's always so effective when Dame Emma's character, Kate, explains all the signs when she confronts him about it. Playing it so believably straight in a comedy is a true skill, is it more fun for you to play comedies or dramatic pieces or do you enjoy the challenge of both?

KT: Mel Smith was lovely to work with. Honestly, working on the film was pure joy. Mel, as you might imagine, always had great ideas for the scenes. I love doing comedy and drama. As you say, keeping it real is all that matters for both.

BEJ: I always assume Jeff Goldblum is a fan of improvising around scripted lines but I could be wrong! Were the scenes fun to film with him and can you remember anything specific that stands out?

KT: Jeff Goldblum was amazing to work with. So much fun. He did improvise a bit, but the script was so good that mostly he stuck with the lines as written. The thing about Jeff is that his delivery is always surprising. He brings such a fresh and unique interpretation of lines to the work that I certainly felt I had to up my game. He kept me on my toes!

BEJ: Can you recall how you felt when the film was premiered and what the reaction was?

KT: ‘The Tall Guy’ was Richard Curtis's first film. Pretty sure I'm right about that. It didn't have the success of his later films, but it was appreciated and grew a strong fan base. Other actors loved the film. I was just excited to be in it. It was a great cast. Emma Thompson is one of the nicest people on the planet.

BEJ: Your career has encompassed some classic long-running series and mini-series, working with so many brilliant people. Are there a few that really stand out for you, in terms of fellow actors and any series themselves?

KT: It's a cliché perhaps but honestly I've rarely had anything but a good experience. There's something about all coming together -- cast and crew, for a limited time to create a world, and create it from day one. We bond quickly, and everyone is vested in making the project the best it can be. But I will say the only time I've been star struck was working with Anthony Hopkins on 'Great Expectations'. I didn't have any scenes with him so I asked the director to introduce me one night at dinner. I just wanted to meet him! I've always been a huge admirer of his work. He was very gracious.

BEJ: I’m sure he was delighted to meet you too. Kim, thank you very much for your time.

Many thanks to Barnaby Eaton-Jones for letting us print these wonderful exclusive interviews along with his review. Follow him on Twitter @BarnabyEJ

Images - IMDb
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