Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?

Whatever Happened To Harold Smith?


UK 2000, dir. Peter Howitt, stars Tom Courtenay, Michael Legge

An early contender for most superfluously unwieldy title of the year, Whatever Happened To Harold Smith? turns out to be a surprisingly effective British comedy which yokes together two of the most pressing concerns of Silver Jubilee Britain : disco music and psycho-kinesis.

The disco element is personified by Michael Legge as a very young looking teenager in 1977 Sheffield, a solicitor’s clerk by day and a would-be Travolta at night. The ESP side concentrates on Tom Courtenay, as Legge’s inoffensive dad, the Harold Smith of the title, who reveals unexpected psychic talents. The two strands are brought together thanks to Legge’s romantic pursuit of work colleague Laura Fraser, whose Ask-The-Family domestic situation – dad Stephen Fry is a university professor – contrasted with the Smith family’s raucous working-class habits – mum Lulu is, like her son, a denizen of the local disco scene. When Courtenay’s powers inadvertently cause the demise of some OAPs, the local, then national media take notice, and Fry is called in to subject Harold Smith to the rigours of a full scientific investigation, while a resulting court case leads to Smith obtaining the services of Legge and Fraser’s boss, an effectively oily, brown-suited David Thewlis.

The real fun of Harold Smith is in the detail – seventies fashions in clothing, hairstyles and interior decor are caught just right, without the enterprise ever falling into the trap of kitsch campery. 1977-era TV personalities Alan Whicker, Angela Rippon and John Craven provide cameos as themselves reporting on the Smith case, while Mark Williams makes the most of his brief appearances as fictional, obnoxious TV interviewer Roland Thornton.

In fact, there isn’t a duff note among the entire cast, with Courtenay and Legge both fully clued into the material’s demands, and director Howitt (not to be confused with Peter Hewitt, who did Sliding Doors) sensibly lets them get on with it without too much intrusion. The climactic scene, in which a club-full of punks make a sudden switch back to disco, isn’t as convincing as what’s gone before, but Harold Smith is, like its title character, so genial and entertaining that it’s very hard to dislike.

by Neil Young
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