Film Advent Calendar – Day 23: Bernard And The Genie (1991)

Enter ye! Enter ye!

I don’t normally cry at film and TV. Perhaps I’ve been hardened by time and life, but on the whole, they just don’t get to me. Well, apart from most of this year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. And the “You bow to no man” bit at the end of Lord of the Rings. And “Superman” in The Iron Giant. And the bit in Field of Dreams where he plays catch. And when Wonder Woman went into No-Man’s Land.

But apart from those, I never cry at stuff…

Except for pretty much anything by sodding Richard Curtis. I know his work, especially his more recent output can be emotionally manipulative – Love Actually being a prime example – but he’s just so good at pulling the old heartstrings and getting one all choked up. Like when Blackadder and chums went over the top. Or when Mrs Cropley died in The Vicar of Dibley. Or when Josephus discovered the true meaning of Christmas. Or when The Doctor showed Van Gogh his legacy. Etc.

“Wait… Go back one. Josephus? What are you talking about?”

I’m talking about the BBC’s 1991 Christmas special Bernard & The Genie. Most people I meet have never even heard about it, but I seem to recall a big deal being made of it that year. 1991 was also the year that the Beeb acquired Tim Burton’s Batman for their Christmas Day big film, a year sooner than films normally made it to the small screen. Perhaps the hoo-hah surrounding the Dark Knight overshadowed this comedic gem, but for me, BATG was the must-see TV that festive season. It featured Lenny Henry, Rowan Atkinson and was written by the co-creator of Blackadder and Comic Relief so I was bound to enjoy it!

After a string of brief appearances in Scottish shows like Taggart and Take The High Road, Alan Cumming scored his first starring role as the titular Bernard (the name alone is a Curtis in-joke). Bernard is a yuppie who has it all. Then loses it all when he is unfairly fired from his job and his girlfriend leaves him, taking everything except a dusty old lamp. Enter Josephus, a 2000-year-old genie who has been trapped in the lamp since biblical times.

What ensues is part culture clash comedy, part revenge caper and all festive fun. As was often the case in his 80s & 90s acting roles, Lenny Henry mugs shamelessly for the camera but it works as the wide-eyed Josephus discovers the joys that the late 20th century has to offer like fast food and multiplex cinemas. This was before Cumming went on to greater fame as eccentric characters in the likes of X-Men 2, The Good Wife and Doctor Who but here plays his role relatively straight. As the nice guy everyman who doesn’t deserve the bad things happening to him, he gets our sympathies within the first few minutes.

Playing exactly to the type we had come to expect (by 1991’s standards at least) is Atkinson as Bernard’s dastardly former boss. Of course, he plays the sly, conniving Charles Pinkworth to a tee – making a season-appropriate boo-able pantomime villain. The opening quote of this piece belongs to Pinkworth and I still use that, and another of his idioms (see below), often in everyday use!

Where BATG really works best though is it’s heart. It’s a charming hour of TV with a real emotional punch in which good guys are ultimately rewarded and bad guys are suitably punished. When Josephus finds out what happened to his friend Jesus, our heart breaks a little for him. And when the adventure is over and it’s time for the Genie to go back into his lamp you’re genuinely sad to see the end of the film.

Also – Gary Lineker who, at the time, was one of the world’s top footballers makes what I believe to be one of the funniest cameo appearances ever committed to celluloid – definitely up there along with Bill Murray in Zombieland.

And it made this 16-year-old weep like a baby. In fact, writing this is making me well up a little…

Now bugger ye off!

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.