The debut feature from BBC veterans Andy Hamilton and Guy Jerkin, What We Did on Our Holiday is one of 2014’s most big-hearted, surprising and thoroughly likable films. While in many ways essentially the big screen version of an acclaimed, subtly developed sitcom – In this case, Outnumbered – it skips around the traps that befell the likes of The Inbetweeners (2011) or The Simpsons Movie (2007). Those films most resembled out of control episodes of their parent television shows, where jokes were allowed to repeat, fester and wear thin on even thinner story arcs. This feature uses allows the themes of the show to crystallise; the writers pushing the boundaries of the classic British family film.
A divorcing couple putting on a brave face for a dying grandparent and their young children on one last family holiday may sound like the set-up for a painfully obvious romantic comedy, but Andy Hamilton and Guy Jerkins, writers as well as directors, skilfully avoid cliché. Thanks in in the main to a quite startling second act, which turns all preconceptions inside-out, What We Did on Our Holiday ends up being one of the more esoteric pieces of family comedy in recent memory. Aside from the obvious up-front changes – Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner are replaced by the slightly more movie-star-esque David Tennant and Rosamund Pike, as well as a brand new preternaturally bright and mischievous family – there is a lot here to please fans of Hamilton and Jerkin’s much loved BBC show.
The semi-improvised dialogue remains, as does the clever dance between the straight-talking innocence of youth and the weariness of life that got in the way. This is the true theme of the television show, for all the wise cracks and outlandish set pieces, and the song remains the same here. The children are each, in their very own peculiar way, resourceful, wise and quite capable of cutting through the detritus of modern life in way that seems simply beyond their elders. Only Billy Connolly, excelling here in a role that is best described as “Billy Connolly”, really connects with the children, as he retreats into gauzy nostalgia, surveying the sweep of his own life.
Connolly, Tennant and, especially, Rosamund Pike are terrific, the latter a masterful still point amongst the chaos, playing it just straight enough to keep us believing. As with Outnumbered, of course, the true stars are the children – and Emelia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge and Harriet Turnbull do a good job, with the majority of the best lines. It is to their credit that Hamilton and Jerkin pull off almost all of their convoluted storylines, save for a quite needless awkward teen violin-led romance introduced late on. While it does not transcend all of the trappings of its televisual origins – chiefly its somewhat cheap-looking lighting, and the slightly hammy supporting performances from the likes of Ben Miller – What We Did on Our Holiday emerges as a hugely likeable, original and even daring example of British family film-making.
Michael Douglas Hunter