Its origins go all the way back to the Ealing comedies of the post-war era but it was revitalised in 1997 with The Full Monty and its group of retrenched Sheffield steel workers retraining as male strippers.
The latest example, Fisherman’s Friends, is an equally fanciful tale, although it happens to be drawn from life – with the usual fictional flourishes added to spice up the characters and tidy up the storyline. We’re used to that. Moviemakers don’t have much time for lives that can’t be neatly divided into three acts and reality rarely obliges.
In this case, however, truth really is stranger than fiction for the basic facts of the story are harder to believe than the made-up bits. These triumphant underdogs are Cornish fishermen whose sea shanties have turned them into Britain’s unlikeliest pop stars. In 2010, they signed a big contract with Island Records and they have since performed at Glastonbury and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. In another melding of fact and fiction, they come from the north Cornwall village of Port Isaac, home of British television’s habitually grumpy Doc Martin. Headline writers addicted to bad puns have labelled them a “buoy band”.
They first got together in 1995, putting on outdoor concerts for the Port Isaac locals. The word got around and they were spotted by some music industry executives from London – a meeting which gives the film’s screenwriters, Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth, the chance to unleash their imaginations. In their version, Danny (Daniel Mays), a talent manager who’s in Cornwall for a bucks’ party, is conned by his so-called friends into believing that their London recording company will sign up the singers. By the time they get around to telling him they were joking, he’s become a fan, convinced that he can give them a future in show business.
He’s also made himself very much at home in the village among the fishermen and their families. In particular, he’s taken to Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of Jim (James Purefoy), the lead singer.
It’s a cheering success story highlighting the homely pleasures and eccentricities of English village life. The pub is the place’s social hub and it’s staffed and patronised by familiar TV faces – but that’s the problem. A score full of venerable sea shanties isn’t really enough to raise it above the level of a television sitcom.