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Stella Street
cast: John Sessions, Phil Cornwell, and Ronni Ancona

director: Peter Richardson

80 minutes (12) 2003
Columbia Tristar DVD Region 2 rental or retail
Also available to rent or buy on video

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Thomas Cropper
It's the 1960s and, in black and white newsreel footage, we're about to see the start of a phenomenon. In a small street in Surbiton, a car draws up and out stumbles Richard Burton, played with rumbustious glee by John Sessions. "Wait here all night," he barks at the driver before storming up to the door. At the door, the matronly Mrs Huggett meets him. Richard Burton is at her front door and, in the back; we can hear the Beatles tinkering away. But she's not fazed - not in the least - because this is just another day in the life of Stella Street.
   For those who haven't seen it Stella Street began as a series on the BBC in which an unassuming street became the home for an eccentric collection of celebrities, rockers and movie stars portrayed - to varying degrees of success - by John Sessions and Phil Cornwell. As a simple concept it was mildly diverting, but would the same idea last the course of a 90-minute feature?
   Earlier this year the BBC put that to the test as they showed the long-awaited Stella Street movie. However somebody somewhere decided to bury it at around midnight on a weekday. Conspiracy theorists might think that they were deliberately trying to keep viewers away. See it on the TV and you wouldn't need to buy the DVD when it came out - we wouldn't want that now would we?
   The DVD is now here, along with a planned cinematic release in the US, and it is Americans at whom this is primarily aimed. Constant references throughout the movie of stereotypes - both ours of Americans, and theirs of us - soak the film in themes of transatlantic miscommunication. Furthermore the commentary contains the occasional reference for the Americans. We're introduced to the concept of Dean the builder "I don't know what it's like in America," says Sessions, "but he's pretty much typical of English builders."
   But what of the film? It almost feels incidental to the whole package. You anticipate a longer version of the series, but happily you'll be in for a nice surprise. Tying the film together is a loose plot regarding a plan to steel the fortunes of Stella Street's famous inhabitants. Michael Caine serves as the narrator and the closest thing we get to a hero as he leads a flood of famous faces such as Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards into the neighbourhood. Some of the impressions are better than others - prompting a few 'hey aren't you Al Pacino' moments, just so we know who we're watching to, but that's not really the point. It's the overall effect that matters and even when the voices miss, the portrayals strike home.
   However, it's the street's non-famous inhabitants who steal the show: Dean, the incompetent builder, Len, who likes to burn things, and the redoubtable Mrs Huggett. It is she who makes Stella Street what it is, as she serves as cleaner and surrogate mother to her impetuous neighbours.
   All in all, it's a much better film than you expect. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and the characters are so vivid that they manage to sustain the pace for whole 90 minutes. Sessions describes it as a celebration: "a celebration of some stars we love and bringing them together with some normal - or perhaps not so normal - people and showing some of the problems and pitfalls that fame can bring." If it is a celebration then it's of our own conflicting desires to both elevate and humble, the rich and famous - eager to exult them as demigods, but delighting when they come crashing back to Earth. If they are the delusional, spoilt or immature, it is us who have made them so, but that's beside the point. What we have here is a fun, almost exquisite, pantomime in the best traditions of British comedy. We're always being told that Americans don't get the British sense of humour but, if this does get a cinematic release over there, then I guess we'll find out.
   DVD extras: as well as the commentary, there are a whole load of bells and whistles which give this the feel of a big release - the obligatory making-of featurette and some spoof shows the pick of which is Michael Caine's lost classic Bongo In The Congo.

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