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A short while ago we sent out our ace reviewer, Dickie Hearts, armed only with a bottle of "own brand" whisky, and a pocket full of pappadums, his mission was to track down and review Michael Mileham's film on the making of Yellow Beard, "Group Madness". With unswerving accuracy, Dickie popped the video tape into his VCR and almost immediately began scribbling.

If you're interested in purchasing a copy of "Group Madness" you can do so for a measly US$10:00. Details available from:
Please note Michael Mileham will only ship to a US address.

We are aware that our review may not be overly favourable. If Michael Mileham (or anybody else) would care to email us about this, we will gladly host any replies or contrary reviews.

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A couple of months ago we noticed a couple of references on the Internet Movie Database to what appeared to be a new video available only over the Internet called Group Madness, claiming to be a "A behind the scenes romp with the funniest comics in the world," and starring our very own Peter Cook. It required a bit of mucking about to find the site we could Yellowbeardactually buy the bloody thing from but eventually we landed up at which would appear to be the only site where you can actually purchase this film, and for what seemed an entirely reasonable ten US dollars.

Now, before you reach for your cheque books, a few words of warning about trying to get hold of this film. As the page itself warns you, this film is only available for sale within the US, so if you don't live there you'll have to get a friend over the pond to buy it for you (thanks to Rich Henderson) and then arrange to have it sent to you, a complicated process which roughly doubles the total price of getting it. Secondly, it is only available in American NTSC format rather than, say, the PAL format we use over here in the UK, so you'll need a video player that can handle NTSC. And thirdly, it's rubbish.

What you get for your money is basically a 1983 40 minute promo film for Yellowbeard, the film Cook wrote with Graham Chapman and Bernard McKenna starring a whole host of comedy stars from both sides of the Atlantic. Yellowbeard is itself a very uneven film, to be polite about it, and suffers from much the same problem Hound Of The Baskervilles did, a dodgy script with a whole bunch of comedy performers bunged at it in the hope that something funny will come out the other end. Yellowbeard bombed at the box office and it is generally agreed by all the participants to be have been an artistic as well as commercial failure. But what they also say is what terrific fun it was to make - OK so the film was shit and no-one went to see it, but what about the parties? Oh God the parties! Flying the cast and crew out to Mexico to re-create an 18th century English port, what a hoot! And now we have Group Madness, the film that takes you behind the scenes of the shooting of Yellowbeard, with all those stars partying like there's no tomorrow.

So, do you get to see Peter Cook dragging Eric Idle off to a Mexican brothel to score some grass? No, you don't. What you get is a very dull "Making of the Movie" type programme the like of which usually gets itself shown on the ITV Saturday afternoon schedule somewhere between Saint and Greavsie and the final scores which, unsurprisingly, is exactly what Group Madness originally was.

After a rambling introduction promising much wackiness ahead, the film is broken down into sections giving a profile of all the major cast members. Oddly, as Yellowbeard was the brainchild of its star, Graham Chapman, he seems to have little to do with Group Madness and the centre of attention becomes Eric Idle, who appears to be at pains to impress one and all with his trombone impression. The section on John Cleese only actually features a couple of clips from the film and some footage of him mucking about on set between takes with someone else talking about how he has a great "conceptual grasp" of comedy without even an attempt to interview the man himself. For the section on Cook himself, he says little and is generally to be seen wondering around in the background while other people talk about him. There's a nice clip of the crew presenting him with a cake on his birthday, but if you want anything of substance, forget it.

A couple of the sections are quite interesting and is generally at its most interesting when at its most serious - Marty Feldman talks movingly about what motivates him as a performer, and Eric Idle gives us his theory of comedy, which sounds great until you remember Nuns On The Run and Splitting Heirs. And, representing the 'younger' generation, although in fact already well passed the sell-by date several years before, Cheech & Chong look rather sweet as they try to expand their comedic repertoire beyond their usual one-trick "Hey, we smoke cannabis, isn't that hilarious?" routine.

Ultimately the film's greatest failing is that it doesn't involve the viewer in the fun it tries to capture. The subjects of the film may well have been Yellowbeardhaving the time of their lives, but you're never going to make the viewer feel part of it by just sticking a camera in front of the hilarity and saying "Look, here's some fun." The whole effect is rather like being in a pub at a table full of pissed people while you're stone cold sober. Here Michael Mileham, the director, reveals his background in news and documentary film-making - he is reporting on people having a laugh rather than communicating the laughter to the viewer and getting him involved in it. Some of the scenes might have been funny when they happened, they might still be funny if you had been there and were looking back at a fondly remembered time, but for anyone else the whole thing is flat and pointless.

That said, there are a few exceptions to this. Bernard McKenna and Marty Feldman put together some sketches for the camera, one based on McKenna's impression of David Attenborough in the famous gorilla scene from Life On Earth, with him searching for Feldman. While the premise for this sketch has been done to death by subsequent generations of comedians, at least it tried to entertain the viewer. Spike Milligan does a few jokes for the camera, Cook comes up with a couple of nice quips and is quite funny with Ken Mars, and Idle does his trombone impression again, but these are the exceptions.

One thing the film does illuminate, albeit unknowingly, is why Yellowbeard was such a failure. The conscious attempt to combine the Monty Python house style with the Mel Brooks team, as represented by Feldman, Madeleine Kahn and Peter Boyle was doomed from the start; the attempt to marry literate surrealism with broad pastiche, both perfectly fine in their place, is at the centre of the film's problems. This leads to many discussions concerning the differences between English humour and American, but even this doesn't lift itself to the level of insightful debate, with various cast members merely repeating over and over again that, err, Americans tend to be quite extrovert and the English tend to be a bit reserved. Henri Bergson it isn't.

There are nice bits to this film, in a sort of "not actually boring" kind of a way, and it's always nice to see Michael Horden and James Mason being interviewed, and David Bowie even gets a little section to himself even though he only has about three lines in the actual film. However, the film's stated aim is to act as a memorial to a group of great comedians, which they are, many of whom are no longer with us, all gathered together in one place and having the time of their lives. But really the only way to remember them is to go out and buy the films they're actually good in - you won't find anything here about what made them great. If you are the ultimate Cook or Python collector and absolutely must own every square inch of videotape with their faces on it then I suppose ten dollars isn't a huge amount to pay, just don't say we didn't warn you.

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