Entertainment & Arts

Billy Connolly's 'joy' at being Outnumbered by What We Did On Our Holiday child stars

Billy Connolly with Bobby Smalldridge and Emilia Jones in What We Did On Our Holiday Image copyright Film company
Image caption Connolly plays the grandfather of Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) and Lottie (Emilia Jones)

What We Did On Our Holiday sees the makers of Outnumbered bring their popular vein of semi-improvised comedy to the big screen. Scotland's Billy Connolly reveals why he got involved.

It has two harassed parents, a trio of precocious children and several scenes containing humorously improvised dialogue.

But new film release What We Did On Our Holiday is not Outnumbered the Movie - despite having the same creators as the popular BBC One sitcom.

"The nature of a sitcom is that things go back to how things started," says Guy Jenkin who, with writing and directing partner Andy Hamilton, steered five series of that show to the small screen.

"I guess that we wanted the scope to have a story where extraordinary changes happen."

"We also wanted to write about a family in genuine peril," said Hamilton, a familiar face (and voice) thanks to his guest appearances on Have I Got News For You and Radio 4's The News Quiz.

Image copyright Film company
Image caption Rosamund Pike (centre) and David Tennant (second from right) play divorcing parents Doug and Abi

"We wanted to write something in which what the kids were seeing was much more serious trouble."

The trouble to which Hamilton refers is an acrimonious marital breakdown that has left Scotsman Doug (David Tennant) and his English wife Abi (Rosamund Pike) on the brink of divorce.

Yet for the sake of appearances, and their three children, the pair agree to put on a united front for a trip to the Scottish Highlands to celebrate the 75th birthday of Doug's father Gordie (Billy Connolly).

Skeletons and crises

Things, of course, do not go to plan as family skeletons tumble out of closets and simple misunderstandings escalate into massive crises.

All that, though, is thrown into sharp relief by a tragic event and the unconventional way nine-year-old Lottie (Emilia Jones), middle child Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) and four-year-old Jess (Harriet Turnbull) deal with it.

To say more would be an injustice to this BBC Films production. Yet it is fair to say being buried up to his neck on a remote Scottish beach is not the only indignity Gordie suffers over the course of the narrative.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Pike, Tennant and Connolly were reunited at the film's London premiere on Monday

Despite having a pronounced aversion to sand, however, Connolly said he had no qualms about shooting the scene in the remote Wester Ross village of Gairloch.

(Spoiler alert: Key plot details revealed below)

"I used to say that having your kids grow up is great because you're away from the beach," he told the BBC News website. "But then you have grandkids, and you're back to the [expletive] beach again.

"I hate sand - you're stuck with it for days. But this was a joy. Anything with those kids will do me lovely."

Shooting on native soil was another incentive for a proud Scotsman whose career in stand-up comedy led to acting roles in Mrs Brown and other acclaimed films.

"I don't get offered many British films, so it was a real pleasure," said the man known to millions as the 'Big Yin'. "Except for the [expletive] midges, which are like pterodactyls."

Yet a scene in which Gordie tells Lottie he has cancer struck an unexpected chord for the 71-year-old, who had surgery last year for prostate cancer and has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Image copyright Film company
Image caption Filming took place in Scotland during the summer of 2013

"It was really weird, because I hadn't told any of my friends or anything," he revealed. "I did have cancer, and no one knew it but me."

Improvisation proved a relatively straightforward challenge in contrast, though Connolly said swapping newly minted lines with his pint-sized co-stars still demanded he be on his toes.

"You have to join in, there's no other way to do it," he explained.

'Accidental metaphor'

"Otherwise you're just a pin cushion, sitting there wide-eyed at all the stuff flying at you."

According to Jenkin, however, the feature film format did not prove as conducive to free-form ad-libbing as Outnumbered had.

"A film has to move forward all the time, so there's slightly less room for improvisation," said the veteran writer. "But we tried to create a few spaces here and there where you could enjoy those moments."

What We Did On Our Holiday arrives in cinemas in the wake of Scotland's impassioned referendum on whether it should go independent or remain part of the United Kingdom.

Image caption Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis with the child stars of Outnumbered

The parallels between its story and recent political events are not lost on Hamilton, who admits the film "turned out to be a completely accidental metaphor".

"It's a broken Anglo-Scottish marriage, there's a lot of argument and tension, and in the end they have to solve how to heal their wounds," said the writer and director.

"I'd like to say we foresaw it, but it was a complete fluke."

What We Did On Our Holiday is out in the UK and Ireland on 26 September.

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