Idris Elba didn't know the plot to Cats, and he's in it. Columnist Mark Beaumont wants to see actors, and musicians, be more honest with us
Outside of the odd pointless Pointless answer, a shame-free Glastonbury and the occasional Google ranking boost from being abused by Liam Gallagher on Twitter, I find nothing more satisfying than mocking the cultural ignorance of my closest friends. To which end, I created a new pub game – Never Seen The Film.
The idea is you find out which classic film your friend has never seen, then get them to describe, in some detail, what they think happens in it. It was by this route that I discovered that people whose tastes I had previously respected thought that 2001: A Space Odyssey was about monkeys playing kettle drums in space, and that the third rule of owning a Mogwai, after never letting it in sunlight and not getting it wet, is “don’t fuck it”. They didn’t specify which side of midnight.
Often playing this game feels like I’ve woken up in a world where I’m the only person who’s ever heard of David Cronenberg and, rather than make me an unlikely superstar, it just gets me shunned by society and occasionally arrested. And now it seems Never Seen The Film has gone international. “Can you explain to me what the plot of Cats is?” Stephen Colbert asked Idris Elba on America’s The Late Show last week, and Idris was stumped.
“It’s a classic,” he fumbled. “It’s a big musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I guess it’s about a cat? How am I doing?” Eventually he babbled up some Boris-ian nonsense about one kitten’s spiritual journey to cat heaven, what’s known in championship Never Seen The Film teams as The Panicking Four-Year-Old Gambit.
The thing is, Idris should have had a head start on most of us here, since he’s actually in the film. It’s a bit like Pete Docherty being asked what his new album sounds like and going “um… slurred?” Elba’s final shrug of defeat, asking the audience if anyone knew the plot, was his saving grace, however; it’s at moments like this that the Hollywood façade slips and even the most Cambridge Analytica-moulded idiot can see the truth behind the promotional churn.
Idris Elba doesn’t care what Cats is about. Of course he doesn’t. He hasn’t had a burning artistic desire to play Macavity The Mystery Cat since he first trod the boards. He’ll never be down the Groucho boasting “well yes, I caught your Hamlet darling, all very well, but did you see my Macavity? The reviews were sen-sational but, hand on heart, it was just such an honour to play Webber’s most challenging role. The prep was exhausting – I lived on catnip for a month and learnt to lick my own arsehole. The whole internet was awash with me getting stuck adorably in a toilet roll tube and being terrified by a cucumber, darling.”
No, for Idris Cats is just another very well-paid job. And how refreshing would it have been if he’d been entirely honest about it. If he’d just held up his hands and said “I turned up for an afternoon, sang a song in front of a green screen, trousered a couple of million quid and went to the pub.”
Nobody watching The Late Show expects him to care about the film or expect him to be deeply personally immersed in the role, they just care if it’ll keep their kids from gouging each others’ eyes out with sharpened fidget spinners for 90 minutes. Likewise the other film he was on the show to promote, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. He could easily have said “it’s for people who don’t want anything more out of a film than cars, guns and explosions, and secretly want bald muscled men in tight vests to hold them in the night” and those people would still go.
Enough of highly regarded theatre actors trying to justify the artistic value of playing a shit emoji to Graham Norton, I’d love to see more honesty in film promo interviews all round. Unless you think you’re in with a serious shot at an Oscar for inhabiting a biopic scientist so completely you make Christian Bale look like a Keith Richards cameo, don’t bullshit us, give us the elevator pitch.
“It’s your basic superhero formula but the suits are tighter, there’s a funny Australian man made of rocks and it’s way more woke.” Okay, salty popcorn please. “It’s The Wicker Man in Sweden, on drugs.” I’m sure I’ve got my student card somewhere. “Some kid gets possessed, but the demon’s got a different name.” Close to the screen, please. “It’s all just lasers and lightsabers and squeaking droids again.” Is it in 3D Xtreme?
If you’re into genre films it’s the familiarity and formula you’re going for, hopefully with a USP: action fans want the largest thing to blow up, horror addicts want a truly surprising twist, sci-fi kids want the most eye-popping CGI, gore whores want to see a pancreas do something it’s never done before in a place it definitely shouldn’t have ended up, rom-com regulars want a slightly different Snow Patrol song.
A great performance might enhance our immersion into the film, but as long as no-one’s going full Keanu in terms of making all nearby furniture and wooded areas seem wrought with emotion by comparison, the acting is often secondary to the imagination of the plotline. A good actor admitting to being in a bad film is often reason enough to watch it: I recall Michael Caine citing 1978 disaster-horror flick The Swarm when admitting, in a rare case of Honest Actor Syndrome, “sometimes, to maintain a high standard of living, you’ve got to make a low standard of movie”. Suddenly it became, in my mind, a kitsch classic, even if it’s impossible to watch without imagining Eddie Izzard saying “covered in bees” throughout.
The same goes for albums. Now that anyone can stream anything without investing themselves in it in the form of actual money, why don’t musicians stop telling us their new album is their best yet and the band’s in the best shape ever and admit they’ve knocked out a half-arsed contractual filler before they split up because they blew the advance on meth, the guitarist is shagging the singer’s wife, the bassist starts a three year stretch for public indecency next month and the manager has secretly been spunking all the profits away on Foxy Bingo for a decade.
Other than Fat White Family, that is. Surely the fascination factor alone would get them more streams than the usual diminishing returns of grinning and fronting out a shonky third album. In fact, underplaying your record can work wonders – Lee Mavers spent every interview around The La’s debut album telling everyone that would listen that it was crap, and everyone insisted in return that it was actually one of the best records of all time. Warning: this approach is risky if your record really is crap.
There’s nothing risky about the likes of Adele, Sheeran or Ezra blatantly stating “it’s a cash-in copy of the last one” though, or Lewis Capaldi letting slip “what makes me different from other singers? Absolutely nothing!” in a recent ad campaign, because that’s exactly what their fans want – more of the same, with an extra layer of unchallenging predictability and a side-helping of cultural kneecapping please. So actors, musicians, directors, cut the crap, we know we smell like gullible money to you but we know the game, we can take it. The next time we ask you what your summer blockbuster movie’s about or how happy you are with your new album, be more Elba.