80s Movie Challenge Week 34: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Welcome back friends, for another exciting instalment of #80sMC. This week Paul Childs takes a look which introduced him to a classic British teenage rite-of-passage as he recalls the first time he saw 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda.

I do have to apologise for the lateness of this week’s instalment. When I sat down to watch it on Thursday I discovered, to my dismay, that it wasn’t on Netflix or Amazon Prime. This was dreadful news as it meant having to get up from my chair to fetch the DVD down from the shelf. Even worse, then, was the discovery of absolutely nothing between The Fifth Element and Flashdance, meaning that I do not actually own A Fish Called Wanda. After a trip to the local HMV at the weekend, I was finally able to watch it. Yes, I could have written everything below based on my memories of having seen it a year or two ago, but I’ve been watching all of the 80s Movie Challenge films as I go (even the ones I’m not writing up myself) so it felt like the done thing. Anyway, on with the retrospective…

If there’s one thing any British teenager HAS to understand if they’re to develop a sense of humour to cope with the disappointing world of adulthood, it’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Since its 1969 inception the Pythons’ subversive, surrealist brand of comedy has been a favourite with students up and down the country. On top of that, its influence with comics and writers has made a massive mark on British pop culture. From The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy to The Young Ones, The Mighty Boosh to The Simpsons and Spinal Tap and beyond, the importance of their legacy cannot be denied.

This fourteen-year-old discovered the Pythons courtesy of the UK VHS release of this week’s film in 1989. Of course, I’d heard of Monty Python before, but I didn’t really get what they were about or who their members were. After my friend Mez, who introduced me to so many of the films in our 80s Movie Challenge, told me I had to watch a film called A Fish Called Wanda, I rushed down to Anne’s Videos and got myself a copy. Mez’s track record with films always was second to none.

From the limited information I had on Python, I expected A Fish Called Wanda to be an uproarious laugh-a-minute slapstick. What I got, while still funny, was a much more subtle affair. Or so I thought. Until the first laugh. And the next. And the next. In short, I loved the film and it led to me seeking out repeats of MPFC on BBC2, not to mention The Life of Brian. Pythonesque humour and reciting favourite sketches became a big part of my 6th Form and university humour and remains so today.

All thanks to a low budget heist caper.

The directing credit went to Charles Crichton who, until Wanda, was best known for Ealing comedies such as The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt as well as the studio’s rare venture into the world of horror with Dead of Night. Crichton had been planning to make a movie with John Cleese since the late sixties and work on Wanda began in the early 80s. The plan was to co-write the film with Cleese taking the reigns for his directorial debut. However, Cleese felt out of his depth so persuaded Crichton to take over. The studio were concerned about Crichton’s advanced years so Cleese served as co-director, shadowing his hero in case he suddenly had to take over.

The studio needn’t have worried as Crichton lived for another eleven years! In the end he took the sole credit for the film and earned himself an Oscar nomination for his trouble. The movie attracted a fair amount of award attention in fact, gathering writing nominations for Cleese and Crichton at both the Oscars and the BAFTAs as well as acting nominations for all four of the leads. The highest-profile success, however, was Kevin Kline’s win at the 1989 Academy Awards, taking the Best Supporting Actor gong for his role as inept jewel thief Otto West.

Upon accepting his award, he said, well, first he said “There’s a lot of Brits here tonight… Scary!” but he went on to dedicate his win “To Charlie Crichton, who at seventy-seven proves that even with twenty or twenty-five years off there’s no such thing as growing old when you’ve got a dream.”

And a well-deserved award it was too. Kline’s ability to switch between dim-witted buffoon and calculating killer, while keeping the character likeable and believable is a true work of comedy genius. And then there are his many one-liners, delivered so brilliantly.

Archie: How very interesting. You’re a true vulgarian, aren’t you?
Otto: You’re the vulgarian, you fuck! Now apologise!

A week earlier Cleese and Palin had swept the board of male acting awards at the BAFTAs. Sadly, the film’s titular character, although garnering a nomination, didn’t result in a win for the last of the film’s four big stars, which is a great shame as Jamie Lee Curtis is the glue that holds the entire film together.

Curtis’ Wanda Gerschwitz takes command of all four male leads (the fourth being Tom Georgeson’s gangster George Thomason) to get exactly what she wants from all of them, changing from sweet to calculating and back again with ease. Out of her natural environment and flanked by national heroes Cleese and Palin she never lets them dominate the scenes or intimidate her, holding her own against them.

People often credit Andie McDowall with popularising the “American actress in a British rom-com” in 1994’s Four Weddings And A Funeral and perhaps that’s actually a testament to Curtis’ performance here. While McDowall somewhat stands out from the array of British talent in her film (as does Julie Roberts in Notting Hill), Curtis manages to insert herself as part of the ensemble with ease, while never losing her individuality. And this is very much a team effort.

Cleese plays very much against type as barrister Archie Leech (the real name of Cary Grant), taking the straight man role. We all know thanks to the likes of the Python sketch The Ministry of Silly Walks and his beloved (and somewhat controversial these days) sitcom Fawlty Towers, that Cleese is a remarkable physical comedian. But he reigns that in here, taking the role of the put-upon everyman. He does, however, deliver his lines just as brilliantly, capturing much of what is fabulous about British humour, with a deadpan snark that Jack Dee or Stewart Lee would be extremely envious of.

And then there’s K-K-K-Ken. I’ve always liked Michael Palin. Partly because he looks a lot like my dad. Seriously, he really does. Despite being wheelchair-bound since his late 40s, people still stop him in the street as he rolls past to enquire if he is the ex-Python. But I also like Palin as he always seems, from MPFC to Ripping Yarns to Wanda and his nonfiction travelogues, to be the nice, normal guy who everyone seems to treat badly or overlook. Despite the overstated stutter which, when viewed through a modern eye is a tad uncomfortable and more than a little ableist, Ken is the character I like the best.

Poor Ken, pining after Wanda, naming his favourite fish after her. Nothing seems to go right for him, from his increasingly hilarious failed attempts at being a hitman to his “torture” at the hands of Otto towards the end of the film. I always find that scene uncomfortable to watch. Never mind Lawrence Olivier’s dentist’s drill in Marathon Man, Ken having a ketchup slathered chip shoved up each nostril always makes me wince.

If you haven’t seen it, A Fish Called Wanda is well worth your time and is probably not what you would expect. It’s not as subversive, slapstick or silly as Palin and Cleese’s previous work. Nor is it as polished as the British rom-coms of the 90s and 2000s which it would go on to inspire. It’s a fascinating time capsule of not only the British film industry on the cusp of a massive boom but London life in general, capturing a snapshot of a city in dying gasps of the Swinging Sixties influence and the emergence of gentrification in the Docklands. The story, of double-crossing jewel thieves trying to find the location of their loot, is in itself nothing special, but with Python’s influence, an injection of Hollywood cool and the guiding hand from the golden age of British cinema, not to mention amazing performances all round, A Fish Called Wanda is a film like no other.

Next week we say “G’Day” to Cameron Mcrorie as he takes a trip to Manhattan via Down Under when he looks at 1986’s second-biggest film, Paul Hogan’s culture-clash romantic comedy adventure Crocodile Dundee.

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.

Join the fun - leave a comment below!