What We Did on Our Holiday

February 14, 2015
Billy Connolly in 'What we Did on Our Holiday' (2014)
Billy Connolly in 'What we Did on Our Holiday' (2014)

Viewers who have come staggering, glaze-eyed, out of Selma or American Sniper, and are looking for a change of pace, might appreciate the whimsical charms of What We Did On Our Holiday. This comedy-drama by British writer-directors, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, is a spin-off from the popular BBC comedy series, Outnumbered. The actors may be different but the roll call remains the same: mum, dad and three small children, engaged in a contest that continually exposes the fragile dignity of the adult state.

Although it must have been tempting to use the same cast as the TV series, children have a tendency to grow up, undermining a comic format that relies heavily on very young children saying things that are ‘age inappropriate’.

It’s a curious observation that in Britain, when a couple of TV directors turn their attention to the big screen they make a cinema version of a comedy series. In the United States there is a tendency to put directors of TV shows and video clips in charge of $100 million blockbusters, presumably on the assumption that they will be more ready to do exactly what the producers require, with no auteurish interpolations.

This is not always a tick in the box for the Brits, as spin-offs of TV programs are usually mediocre affairs. The low-budget What We Did on Our Holidays is a surprising exception to the rule, as it manages to be consistently sharp and funny, garnished with a touch of worldly philosophising.

With all family-based movies, however, there is a fine line between comedy and sentimentality. That line is occasionally crossed, particularly towards the end of the film, but by this stage most viewers will be too far into the story to feel aggrieved.

We meet Abi and Doug Macleod (Rosumund Pike and David Tenant) as they are packing the car, preparing to drive from London to the Scottish Highlands for the 75th birthday of Doug’s father, Gordy (Billy Connolly).

The characters take on strong definition from the first scenes. Jess, (Harriet Turnbull) the youngest child, is determined to bring a pet rock and a pet breezeblock along on the trip, and threatens to hold her breath if refused permission. Her brother, Mickey, (Bobby Smalldridge) is a font of useful information about Vikings; while the eldest child, Lottie (Emilia Jones) is keeping a notebook detailing all the lies they will be expected to tell their relatives.

The big lie is the fiction of a happy marriage. After an infidelity on Doug’s part, he and Abi are on the verge of a divorce, and are no longer living together. They have reunited for this trip, knowing that Gordy has terminal cancer and this will be the last time he will see his extended family.

The humour is broad in this first part of the film as the Macleods arrive in Scotland, to stay with Doug’s snobbish, sharetrader brother, Gavin (Ben Miller) and his highly-strung wife, Margaret (Amelia Bullmore). At this stage Billy Connolly takes over, letting it be known that he is more interested in spending time with his grandchildren than preparing for the grand birthday bash Gavin is organising.

Connolly is masterful in the role of an aging larrikin who can’t adjust himself to the idea of dying. His impending mortality allows him to speak with the children in a way that is touchingly sane, while tensions run high with the middle generation. If I were to reveal the big plot twist it would ruin the movie, and so will dutifully remain silent.

It’s a testament to Connolly’s screen presence that he can hold his own with the three children, who tend to dominate this film. In Outnumbered Hamilton and Jenkin allowed the child actors to improvise much of their dialogue, and they have applied the same method here with amazing results. This is, perhaps, the reason What We Did on Our Holiday is a cut above the usual situation comedy. The written gags are framed by a humour that arises spontaneously, through a mixture of innocence and guileless precocity that comes so effortlessly to children, and so painfully to scriptwriters.

What We Did on Our Holiday
Written & directed by Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin
Starring David Tenant, Rosamund Pike, Billy Connolly, Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore, Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge, Harriet Turnbull
UK, rated PG, 95 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14th February, 2015.