Shown 20th December 2009
If anything was going to put you off your Ferrero Rochers over Christmas, it had to be The Fattest Man in Britain, ITV’s comedy drama about a man in an orthopaedic armchair eating himself to merry hell. Timothy Spall looked dangerously at home in the title role as Georgie, with comedian Bobby Ball admirably cast as his “manager”, Morris, turning up with a cabful of Japanese tourists eager to take pictures and lay their hands on the big man’s folds. “I would ask you to respect Georgie’s private zones,” said Morris (though, frankly, you imagined these people might get enough blubber at home). Frances Barber completed the homely trio as Janice, who came in every day to shovel Georgie’s meals together and grease his legs, which was as attractive as it sounds.
With Caroline Aherne co-scripting, there was as much pleasing northern drollery as you’d expect amid the ill-lit claustrophobic clutter and junk food and trash TV familiar from The Royle Family, though admittedly the oxygen tank looked ominous.
Things took a turn when a crew of youths was sent by the social services to tidy the garden and Amy – a pregnant teenager on the run from a violent boyfriend – ended up moving in. Aisling Loftus was excellent as the underfed, beaten waif looking for a father figure and finding it in kindly Georgie. There was a worrying moment, in his late mother’s bedroom, when you wondered what kind of a comedy this was turning into… but no, Amy was soon settling in, cooking and tidying up, nibbling a dark chocolate Magnum with Georgie (not the classiest of product endorsements), helping Janice with his pig-sized legs and restyling his terrible 80s mullet – an early clue that he hadn’t been out in 23 years. That’s how long it had been since his mum died. “It’s like I was eating for her,” Georgie confided. “Like there was an angel on my fork.”
All was well until a rival barrage balloon from Birmingham challenged Georgie to a TV weigh-in and Morris – aided by locals arriving with mountains of pizza and bakewell tarts – set to bulking him up for the contest. Amy – now almost as big as Georgie (well, not quite, but who remembered she was even pregnant?) – railed against the freak show that would surely kill him.
Events were channelled into a poignant denouement, but when the baby died and Amy called it a day with Georgie, it didn’t feel like tragedy. Even when Georgie rose from his chair and struggled down the street to see her, it was more Love Actually than love. There was a late attempt at profundity with a short disquisition about the desire to make failure look like success. “If I’m not the fattest man in Britain, what am I?” cried Georgie. “I’m just a fat man!” It was a great line, but it just made me think that inside this broadly entertaining drama was a sharper, less funny one trying to get out.
The Fattest Man in Britain looked as if it was going to be filed under Northern Grotesque. You had Bobby Ball in a cab promising his excited Japanese passengers “the eighth wonder of the world”. And then you saw Georgie’s pudgy hand reaching for the aftershave bottle and splashing it on underneath a bingo wing the size of a sofa cushion. When Timothy Spall, just visible inside his fat suit, began singing “Turning Japanese”, complete with slitty-eye gestures, for his paying guests it looked as if we were in for an exercise of gleeful bad taste. In fact, Caroline Aherne’s drama (co-written with producer Jeff Pope) turned out to be a lot sweeter and life-affirming than you might have expected, contriving a Beauty and the Beast relationship between Georgie and Amy, the community-service girl who came to clear his garden. For her, he was the dad she’s never had; for him, she was the first person to care for him who didn’t have an interest in him getting bigger. Although he was initially devastated by the realisation that he had a heavier rival (“If I’m not the fattest, what am I, eh? I’m just a fat man”) he finally struggled out of his chair and slimmed down to win her back. I wasn’t entirely convinced that it would have been as easy as it was made to look, but very happy to pretend while it lasted.
Aherne’s ear for everyday dialogue and proven skill with a script was reason enough to catch this delicious comedy drama, but its appeal went way beyond the writing.
Timothy Spall played the morbidly obese Georgie Godwin, a housebound porker who spends all day in front of the telly, snacking on ice creams and jumbo sausage rolls and serenading the occasional gawping tourist with a misjudged karaoke tune. Spall, as ever, was smashing. Counteracting a huge blubbery fat suit, he turned in a delicate performance with a hint of Corrie’s Fred Elliott.
It’s hard to steal the show from a man dressed like a Cyril Smith balloon but Bobby Ball nearly pulled it off. He was terrific as Georgie’s potty mouthed rat of a manager, Morris. If Peter Kay was watching he’d have surely been kicking himself for not offering Ball a job on Phoenix Nights.
For the first half-an-hour or so, it tottered along happily with Georgie wheezing in front of Jeremy Kyle, his neighbour Janice massaging his doner kebab ankles and Morris ushering in foreign visitors to ogle his obesity. Alan Bennett might have left it there, but on we went. Pregnant wrong ‘un Amy was sent “to community service” Georgie’s garden and so began a chaste love affair, like a lardy Beauty and the Beast. Morris, meanwhile, set up a televised weigh-off with the challenger to Georgie’s reinforced throne, Big Brian from Birmingham, who emerged from the back of a van in a cloud of dry ice.
Georgie lost but gained the will to leave the house, waddling in to town to meet Amy to a barrage of abuse from passing motorists. Splendid.
A comparatively new festive tradition that’s sneaked up on us in recent years is the pre-Christmas one-off comedy-drama, usually shown on ITV1 a few days before the big event and often relying more heavily on charm than actual chuckles.
This one, co-written by Caroline Aherne and Jeff Pope (and bucking the trend in at least one sense, by not featuring Mark Benton), is inspired by a true story, with Timothy Spall as the enormous, housebound Georgie Godwin, a man proud to call himself the UK’s fattest.
Bobby Ball is Georgie’s agent Morris, who encourages him to stay this way, knowing it earns money and gives Georgie a sense of purpose. Frances Barber plays Georgie’s neighbour and carer Janice, with Aisling Loftus as concerned teenager Amy.
From the title, you’d expect it to be a channel Five documentary, but The Fattest Man in Britain (ITV1, Sunday) is actually a drama, co-written by Caroline Aherne. Timothy Spall, looking quite at home in a fat suit, plays Georgie, a good-natured human bouncy castle in Rochdale. But the star is Bobby Ball, who plays Maurice, his agent. Maurice takes foreigners on guided tours of Georgie, for £11.50. It’s in his interest to keep Georgie as big as possible. So he feeds him up, like a goose, for foie gras.
Some of the dialogue has a nice, natural Royle Family feel to it. But it’s a bit silly really. And as sugary as one of the pop tarts Georgie keeps popping. “That’s why this title is so important to me, Amy,” he says to the nice girl who’s come to live with him. “The Fattest Man in Britain. Because if I’m not the fattest, I’m just a fat man. Just a big fat man sat in his chair.”
“You’ve already got a title Georgie: you’re My Friend.”
Pass the sick bag will you. And give that man a gastric band.
Cast and Credits
|Akira Koieyama||Japanese Man|
|Yuriri Naka||Japanese Woman|
|Timothy Spall||Georgie Godwin|
|David Williams||Mad Bob|
|Brendan O’Carroll||Father O’Flaherty|
|Tim Woodward||Morley Raisin|
|Mark Chatterton||Richard Barter|
|Barry Austin||Big Brian|
|Liz Hume Dawson||Woman|
|Moira Mann||Joan Cropper|
|Manchester Diamonds||Dance Troupe|
|Badly Drawn Boy||Music|
|Dan Winch||1st assistant director|
|Laura Coggan||2nd assistant director|
|Jen Leng||3rd assistant director|
|Jane Houston||Script supervisor|
|Dominique Molloy||Production Manager|
|Simon Hailey||Production Accountant|
|Lisa Corkill||Production co-ordinator|
|Kevin Jackson||Location Manager|
|Andy Ferrans||Unit Manager|
|Anna Valdez-Hanks||Focus puller|
|Rob Gilmour||Clapper Loader|
|John Welsh||Best Boy|
|Frederic Evard||Art Director|
|Chris Kay||Stand-by art director|
|Anita Gupta||Prop buyer|
|Sion Clarke||Graphic designer|
|Colin Mutch||Property master|
|Reg Mills||Sound recordist|
|Gareth Hemes||Boom operator|
|Peter Johnson||Construction Manager|
|Kevin Smith||Standby Carpenter|
|Lindsey Davidson||Costume Assistant|
|Amanda Isaacs||Make-up Supervisor|
|Davy Jones||Prosthetics make-up supervisor|
|Charlene Sant||Prosthetics costume supervisor|
|Stephen Hilton||Music producer|
|Bea Arnold||Post production supervisor|
|Lisa Clifford-Owen||Assistant editor|
|The Farm Group||VFX|
|Nigel Edwards||Dubbing Mixer|
|Jacob Harris||Floor Runner|
|Jodie Campbell||Sound Trainee|
|Susan Dunn||Line producer|
|Kate Rhodes James||Casting director|
|Jane Anderson||Casting associate|
|Grace Boylan||Production executive|
|Mary Jane Reyner
|Janet Horsfield||Make-up designer|
|Neill Gorton||prosthetic make-up designer|
|Pia Di Ciaula||Editor|
|Luana Hanson||Production designer|
|Saurabh Kakkar||Executive Producer|
The Fattest Man in Britain was also released on DVD shortly after its TV broadcast.