‘The worst film ever made’: how Sex Lives of the Potato Men broke British cinema

<span>‘The same reason that Fleabag did disproportionately well would be the same reason that Sex Lives of the Potato Men did badly’ … Stewart Lee defends Sex Lives of the Potato Men.</span><span>Photograph: PR</span>
‘The same reason that Fleabag did disproportionately well would be the same reason that Sex Lives of the Potato Men did badly’ … Stewart Lee defends Sex Lives of the Potato Men.Photograph: PR

Actor Dominic Coleman was about to board a flight back from Australia when he received a text from Mark Gatiss about a film they had starred in together. It was a quote from the Sunday Times: “Is this the worst British film ever made?”

By the time Coleman was changing planes in Hong Kong, disgust at the film had spread to the front pages of the British newspapers on sale at the airport. It was, he remembers, “like the end of the world. It felt like people were pointing at me on the plane: that’s the guy, it’s him. It was a really difficult time and it really freaked me out.”

February 2004 was not a slow news month in Britain, but a British sex comedy starring Johnny Vegas and Mackenzie Crook – and the national lottery money that had financed it – ignited a culture war that may have changed UK film for ever.

It started with a script. Andy Humphries had spent his 20s and 30s in TV production at Granada under Tony Wilson, liaising with Madchester bands and comedy talent.

“I saw a van in Finsbury Park that said Dave’s Potatoes on it,” says Humphries, who began to work on a screenplay pitched as Dumb and Dumber meets Confessions of a Window Cleaner. It was, he says, intended as “an apolitical take on the working class”, and drawing on his time working at a petrol station.

“There was a real buzz around it,” remembers Coleman, “there had been a bidding war on the distribution deal, and the cast was brilliant.” Vegas, Crook, Lucy Davis, Julia Davis and Gatiss were all fresh from gamechanging television success and signed up to the picture. When Coleman received the script, he remembered thinking it was particularly gross-out. “But there was a lot of quirky little moments in it,” he says, “and I remember thinking there could be enough balance.”

In 2000, the New Labour government set up the UK Film Council, a quango with more than 75 staff responsible for streamlining and sustaining the allocation of national lottery funding to British film.

“We were quite outspoken about what we were doing because we wanted to change the British film industry,” says Ian Thomson, formerly the UKFC’s chief publicist, “what we ended up doing with Sex Lives was a very specific exercise.”

The UKFC wanted to disrupt the idea that British film was “making quite worthy films for itself”, exemplified by recent successes such as Touching the Void or Bloody Sunday. “What about young lads who want to go out on a Friday night together,” says Thomson of a demographic the UKFC viewed as underserved: “Are they going to go and watch Gosford Park?”

The Potato Men proposal was hotly contested within the council. “The debate was, dare I say, robust,” remembers Thomson, but resulted in the UKFC financing around £1m of a £3m budget for what Thomson terms was always understood as “a bawdy sex comedy”.

It was during the first script read-through that Coleman sensed something was off. “Andy Humphries kind of froze,” says the actor, “he looked so nervous. Suddenly this thing was happening and the pressure was on.” Though still set in Birmingham, due to budget constraints, shooting would mostly be confined to Hayes and Chigwell. If you want to know what London’s orbital edgelands looked like on an overcast weekday in the Blair years, watch this film.

“It wasn’t the happiest of shoots,” says Coleman, “it was tough. Because it was smutty, and all a bit grim, you found yourself in quite grim locations.” One day shooting took place in a tower block. “We had a green room that had been taken back by the council because it had been used as a crack den,” he remembers. “It was all a bit like that.”

Humphries rejects this. “It was the greatest time ever,” he says, “just lovely people and it was a brilliant experience.”

The films audiences love to hate can become hilarious and compulsive, but Sex Lives is not one of those films. With its relentlessly tawdry sex jokes and grubby, downcast visuals, the effect is largely queasy and depressive. Across 82 minutes, Crook becomes locked in a barely consensual tryst with his mother-in-law. There’s a misogynistic running joke about fish paste. Gatiss’s character gives up stalking his ex when he finds romance with Julia Davis, culminating in a sequence of the latter picking up dog excrement with her bare hands. Adrian Chiles – who Humphries knew from the BBC – makes a cameo performance as a towel-clad swinger.

After a press screening, the film went on general release on 20 February, as the reviews arrived. In the Times, James Christopher called it “a sump of untreated dung”. To other titles, it was simply “the worst film ever made”. Catherine Shoard in the Telegraph wrote that describing it “is like finding the right words at a nasty accident”, while novelist Will Self termed it “mirthless, worthless, toothless, useless” in the Evening Standard.

The Observer’s critic Phillip French stated his relief that Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson had died before being able to witness it. “The urgent debate for our native film industry seems to me as follows,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, “should we put the gun barrel to our temples, or in our mouths for a cleaner kill?”

Both Labour MP Clare Short and the Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe condemned the film. Julie Kirkbride, speaking on culture for the Conservative party, took up the film as a cause. “You can produce any old rubbish with your own money,’’ she told the Daily Mail, but the public “don’t want to feel their money is being wasted.”

Thomson remembers touring TV studios in a damage limitation exercise. “We fell foul because the film didn’t come up to scratch,” he says. “I thought it was unfair to pick on a film that was essentially well meaning,” argues Humphries, “it felt like bullying to me.” He remembers being aware of having inadvertently tapped into something wider. “Someone said it was what Blair’s Britain had become,” he remembers, “this yob culture being celebrated.”

After being doorstepped by journalists, Humphries broke his silence with an incendiary op-ed in the Guardian attacking a “middle-aged, middle-class” film critic elite.

“I think there was a class aspect,” says comedian Stewart Lee, who remembers trying to phone Vegas from a nearly empty West End cinema screening, “the same reason that Fleabag did disproportionately well would be the same reason that Sex Lives of the Potato Men did badly. They don’t really believe people like that exist.” Lee argues that the film should be viewed in a lineage of ITV comedies from the 1970s that centred on an unvarnished view of working-class life.

“Andy shared with me an email that Mike Leigh sent him,” remembers Coleman, “just saying that I can see what you were trying to do, and keep your chin up.” Though a perplexed New York Times reported on the furore, the film’s cast mostly tried to move on, leading Vegas – in an interview that year with Esquire – to chide his colleagues that “everyone that read that script wanted to be in it”.

Humphries returned to TV, making documentaries on comedy legends for the BBC. “It was disappointing,” he concedes, “but I’ve written and directed a film.” Having penned a sequel to the film he still defends as “fantastic,” Humphries recently wrote a madcap spin-off starring himself “as a mad film director” blackmailing a reluctant cast into making Potato Men 2.

In the meantime, new media has not yet actualised his prediction of a people’s hit: the film has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 0% and has fewer than 50,000 views on YouTube.

Today, noughties culture is ripe for reappraisal. The same nasty puerility that Sex Lives was castigated for brought era-defining success to Russell Brand as well as Bo’ Selecta! and Little Britain, which that year made the prestige jump from BBC Three to BBC One.

For the UKFC, despite backing hits such as This Is England and In the Loop, the furore proved sticky. When the Conservatives came to power in 2010, within weeks Jeremy Hunt had abolished the council ahead of the austerity-era “bonfire of the quangos”. Much of the coverage mentioned Sex Lives of the Potato Men. At a UKFC reunion this month, its former chief executive mourned that the Conservative party had “killed off the most effective organisation that British film ever had.”

The Sex Lives storm prefigured how the Tories would deal with the creative industries in power – preferring to castigate them and stoke culture wars than accept the unique risks and rewards of sectors that contribute enormously to the economy.

“It’s a big and expensive medium and people have to practise,” says Thomson, “it was a totally original idea, and now formulas are where the safe ground is.” Did Sex Lives of the Potato Men show a system that – in fact – worked?

“My background is in experimental theatre,” says Coleman, “and to me it’s a given that you start a project and there’s no guarantee that it will work. But you have to have the inquiry, the experiment, otherwise you’re just constantly making Charley’s Aunt for ever.” Sex Lives of the Potato Men: they don’t make them like that any more.