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Chelsom, Peter (1956-)

Director, Actor

Main image of Chelsom, Peter (1956-)

Peter Chelsom was born on 20 April 1956. His first steps in the entertainment business were as an actor, making regular appearances on stage and television, in Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad (BBC, tx.19/11/1983), for example. His short film, Treacle (1987), which reflected his fascination with end-of-the-pier show-business, comic tradition and his Blackpool roots, was followed by his first feature, Hear My Song (1991), loosely based on real events in the life of tax-fugitive Irish tenor Josef Locke. A desperate impresario wants to get the great man to do a concert in Liverpool despite police surveillance overseen by an officer bent on vengeance. Chelsom's sympathy with actors manifests itself in a string of fine performances, and his ability to get the best out of visual gags without disrupting the narrative marked him out as a director to watch.

Chelsom's second film, the masterful Blackpool-set Funny Bones (1995), was even more impressive. Chelsom and his co-scriptwriter Peter Flannery, incorporate serious issues about comedy: originality versus tradition; verbal versus physical - the relationship between comedy and cruelty, indeed the relationship between comedy and tragedy. The son of a great American comic struggles to follow in his father's footsteps and comes to Blackpool in search of a routine he can purchase to revive his fortunes. Instead he discovers the roots and traditions that nurtured his father's career and also comes into contact with his own step-brother (a superb Lee Evans), the naturally gifted visual comic he can never be. Jerry Lewis is the father, here largely eschewing physical comedy in an effortless master-class demonstration of verbal comic delivery. Chelsom gives space for fabulous performances by a string of great comic players - including rare film appearances from clowns George Carl and Freddie Davis - but nothing in the film is gratuitous.

Since Funny Bones, Chelsom's career has been American based. He apparently clashed in an unequal battle with star Warren Beatty during the troubled shoot of his Hollywood debut Town & Country (2001). By the time the re-worked film emerged to general disdain, Chelsom had released The Mighty (1998) a welcome return to a more intimate style. His most recent movie, the romance Serendipity (2001), is a sustained drama based around chance happenings - a recurring Chelsom theme - and is pleasant enough, but seems a long way from the inspired heights of Funny Bones.

Medhurst, Andy, 'Unhinged Invention', Sight and Sound, Oct. 1995, pp. 6-10

Richard Dacre, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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