By PAUL ROSE
As Mr Biffo I wrote professionally about video games from 1993 to roughly 2008. In those 15 years I gave countless bad reviews, made snarky comments about hundreds of games, and took potshots at every single games company in existence. I probably made cheap jokes about prominent games developers of the day. Once, I even wrote a feature about a retro gaming emporium, and repeatedly referred to the owner's son as "Half-Beard", due to his distinct facial hair, alleging that the boy was kept caged and malnourished, living in terror of a psychotic, cybernetic bird creature called "Birdok".
I built a career out of that snark, out of trying to make people laugh at the perceived uselessness of others. It paid my bills, and it was all too easy to get a quick fix from saying something was bad in a funny way, or give a comically low review score just to provoke a response (frankly, I figured, if something is bad it’s bad – you’re not going to buy Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on the Game Boy, regardless of whether it gets 43% or 0%).
In all those years, I rarely stopped to think about the people affected by my reviews. Sure, there were times when a PR person would ring us up to have a pop, or not give us review copies of their next game, because we’d taken the piss out of the previous one. But my job was to review the games, not to have empathy with the poor people whose hard work I was so casually trashing with just a few easy keystrokes.
But that’s ok, because these days I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a bad review possibly better than anyone. Because I’m the idiot who wrote Pudsey The Dog: The Movie.
In case you’re unaware, I’ve been writing for TV for about 15 years, mostly for kids (there was some crossover with the games stuff – I’m old, but not that old). Roughly two years ago, a producer I work with asked whether I’d be interested in writing a film for the winner of that year’s Britain’s Got Talent. She wasn’t involved in the project, but had been asked by Pudsey’s agent whether she knew of any good children’s writers. I missed the foreshadowing at the time, but the signs were there even then; when she mentioned it to me, it was with a wry roll of the eyes, as if to say “Why would anyone in their right mind ever wish to sup at this poisoned chalice?”.
Now… I didn’t watch Britain’s Got Talent, but for some reason I had seen the final of the most recent series. I knew that Pudsey was a dancing dog, and here was an opportunity to write a fun, heart-warming family film in the vein of Babe and Nanny McPhee, that might even pay my bills for a few months (it was not a big pay cheque…). I knew they wanted something that felt very British, so my initial thinking was inspired by the Children’s Film Foundation movies I used to watch at Saturday morning matinees. Films like Sammy’s Super T-Shirt, and Electric Eskimo, with a pinch of Digby The Biggest Dog In The World. I wanted to imbue our film with an innocence, the sense of bygone days, of long summer holidays playing in sun-dappled fields. Frankly, I wanted to write something old-fashioned.
Perhaps mistakenly, I wasn’t interested in the four-quadrant appeal that you get from the likes of Shrek, or How To Train Your Dragon. I was aiming for the under-10s that seemed to be Pudsey’s core audience. Adults can go and watch Gone Girl if they want something grown-up and depressing. This was going to be for the little ones.
So, of course, my pitch to Vertigo Films was “Beethoven meets Midnight Express”. Regardless, it got me the job – but whether you’ve seen the film or not, you can probably tell that the end result is not Beethoven meets Midnight Express. Indeed, Pudsey The Dog: The Movie still stands at 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, one of a select group of movies to achieve such an honour.
It seems absurd now, but I honestly thought it would turn out to be a cheery, low budget kids film, which snuck out with the minimum of fanfare. Looking back, my naivety is jaw-dropping.
It was a film based around the winner of one of the biggest TV shows in the country, produced – for publicity purposes, if not in reality – by Simon Cowell (he literally had nothing to do with it), one of the most famous men in the world. With a dog that ended up being voiced by David Walliams, a judge on one of the biggest TV shows in the country, who only has to brush his teeth to get a tabloid headline. Two years after I first started writing the thing, I couldn’t step outside the house without seeing a Pudsey-emblazoned bus drive past, or switch on the TV or my laptop without being hit in the face by that bloody trailer.
You’d think that would be the most surreal aspect of the whole endeavor, but nothing quite tops the fact they were filming for a week literally around the corner from the house where I wrote the film. I used to drive past Ashleigh and Pudsey every morning. However, the only time I visited the set was on the widely-reported day when Pudsey had to be sent home because he’d suffered an upset stomach. Just halfway into the filming, the crew were walking around sporting a grim, thousand-yard stare – a consequence of weeks spent trying to get the animals to perform.
One entire subplot had already been abandoned and rewritten on set, without my input, due to a difficult cat. In fact, so little of the scripted action was able to be achieved, due to time and budget constraints, that at least half of the animal dialogue ended up later being improvised on the fly in the edit, in a bid to make sense of what exactly was going on in the scenes. Upon seeing the finished film, I was taken somewhat by surprise, as I had hoped this dialogue would at least be used as a guide track for some witty improvisation from the talented voice cast. Alas, no.
I wasn't always able to let criticism wash past me, but over the years I’ve developed a pretty thick skin when it comes to work. As a writer you have to, or you crumble. In 2014 alone I wrote twelve 30 minutes of kids TV, and a 45 minute episode of Stella for Sky One. Each of those episodes went through multiple drafts, and I got notes on each of those drafts. Every set of notes has the potential to knock a person’s confidence, call their writing ability into question, and make them want to give it all up to become a librarian. Sometimes notes can get through the armour, but for the most part you just have to detach your emotion from it.
It’s just as well that I’ve developed that skill, because I’d never have survived the tsunami that was headed my way. The negative buzz around Pudsey started arriving months before anyone had seen the finished thing, not helped by a trailer that didn’t exactly promise a classic.
Twitter went into meltdown:
· "Why has mother fucking pudsey the dog got a movie I deserve a movie more than fucking pudsey the rat dog"
· "Pudsey The Movie? You are fucking kidding me??!"
· "I used to fancy Pudsey's minder a bit but a film about him is beyond the fucking pale."
· "Good grief - do we really need a whole movie? Scraping the barrell I think."
· "Truly a golden age. A golden Brown age of dog crap."
· "On July 18th 'Pudsey the Dog: The movie' is being released?!?! IN CINEMAS?!?! Seriously there is no fucking God. #Seriously #NoGod"
· "Pudsey movie will be shit"
· "Mrs Browns Boys D'Movie. Pudsey the Movie. Please can shitty TV stay on TV channels I don't watch, and keep out of my cinema"
· "who is funding these low budget movies?? mrs browns boys, postman pat now this they can't possibly make any return on these films"
· "They've made a film about that Pudsey the dog? Christ it's a dog that can dance it doesn't need a bloody movie"
· "The fact there's a Pudsey The Dog movie, is every that's wrong with our film industry in a neat little package. #ItWillBeTerrible"
· “Just having that parent/child talk. The one when you explain why going to see the new pudsey film is never gonna happen!!!”
· “pudsey the movie, i couldnt think of anything worse”
· “Everyone involved in Pudsey the Dog: The Movie should hang their heads in shame.”
· “No way has pudsey the dog got a fucking film out, what a tit”
· “Pudsey the dog movie???..........oh fuck off”
· “That Pudsey movie is probably the worst film ever created, who would waste energy going to watch it”
· “Pudsey The Dog will definitely be the worst film ever made.”
· “They're making a Pudsey film with David Walliams as the main character? I don't want to live in this world any more”
· The Samaritans've only just talked me down off a ledge over Mrs Brown D'Movie and now there's a Pudsey dog film? Where've I left my cyanide?”
· “Just seen the trailer for Pudsey the movie and done a sick in my mouth. Why would they even attempt to make such a film”
· “If you pay money to see the pudsey the dog film, we can't be friends”
· Pudsey the movie is an all time low for motion picture #forshame”
· “Because British cinema isn't quite dead yet, there's something called Pudsey: The Movie coming out July 25th.Enjoy!”
· “Idea - a Mrs Brown/Pudsey crossover movie, where Pudsey contracts rabies & bites Mrs Brown. #MakeItHappen”
· “I'd rather drink toilet water than watch a whole fucking film about pudsey”
· “If anyone actually pays to go and see this pudsey film, then they need to be sectioned!”
· “WTF are they bringing a film out for that stupid dog Pudsey #shit #sackwhoeverisincharge”
· “Just seen a trailer for a film with that dog from BGT in, called 'Pudsey: the Movie'. And it has genuinely upset me that the film exists”
· “There is a film about Pudsey?!?!? You fucking serious?!? Where has film gone wrong these days?!”
· “They have made a film about Pudsey the dog off BGT...seriously. what a waste of money”
· “The "Pudsey the dog" trailer makes me want to hurt people. What on earth would watching the film do.”
· “They made a film about pudsey?? Does the dog die at the end??”
· “Pudsey the dog movie? Hang on while I rip me face off”
· “Awww, Pudsey The Dog. The Movie. Fuck Pudsey The Dog. The Movie!”
· "Pudsey. The Dog. The Movie. I am officially over this planet."
· “Pudsey the fucking movie. Fuck off”
· “Please tell me I haven't just seen an advert on the side of a bus for Pudsey the Movie, dog voiced by David Walliams.”
· “So Pudsey the Dog now has his own movie. This might be what actually causes me to become a full-on supervillain. I hate everything forever.”
· “Pudsey has it's own fucking movie?! FFS..I'm done!”
· “a bloody pudsey movie?? kill me now”
· “Pudsey the dog the movie' kill me now”
· “The trailer for "pudsey the movie" makes me want to kill myself”
· “Pudsey the dog has his own movie... that's it I give up on life”
· “Never will I ever watch Pudsey the dog movie”
· “Pudsey The Dog: The Movie looks like the worst thing since they invented AIDS”
· “Pudsey the dancing dog has a movie? Now I understand why the bear tried to gouge its own eyes out.”
· “If anybody goes to see Pudsey the movie they are blocked. No exceptions.”
· “Pudsey the movie ?? Get me a bucket Ffs”
· “still so confused why that dog pudsey has a movie out. who is funding this”
· “I thought it was a sick joke, but having seen an ad on a bus I now know PUDSEY: THE MOVIE is a real thing that exists.”
· “Pudsey 'The Dog' the movie. How. Why. Actually I kinda want to see it now. Just to see how bad it is.”
· “Pudsey the dog movie? PUDSEY THE FUCKING DOG MOVIE?! What the fuck?”
· “Niquita is cryin on the phone to me cos I told her to YouTube pudsey the movie”
· “I've just seen a trailer for Pudsey the Movie - starring the dog that won X Factor. Hell's gates open and Cowell rides out on a puppy's back”
· “Pudsey the movie? Mrs Browns Boys the movie? Think I would rather throw myself in front of a bus........”
· “'pudsey the movie' what is the world coming to”
· “Oh...my....god. Pudsey the dog the movie. Pudsey the fucking dog??? What is the world coming too #madness”
· “sweet shit in a bucket i've just seen the advert for the movie about pudsey the dog. what is the world coming to?”
· “'Pudsey the movie' what is this world coming to”
· “As if Pudsey the dog now has a movie... what the hell is wrong with the world?!”
· “I get to work and Lorraine Kelly is fucking talking about Pudsey The Movie and I hear Jessica Hynes is in it. I feel betrayed”
· “Mrs browns boys 'da' movie ? ashleigh and pudsey the movie? I'm emigrating. To Mars.”
· “*snaps an old nun's neck and pisses on the burning corpse* Sorry!... Sorry, I saw an advert for Pudsey the Movie and red mist took over”
· “Because every talent show winner must become a SyCo cash cow, Pudsey the dog now has a movie coming out. Fucking hell.”
· “I'd rather eat glass than watch Pudsey the Movie”
· “there is going to be a movie about that pudsey dog that won britains got talent ahahah wtf is this country”
· “Pudsey the dog has got a fucking movie. A fucking dog”
· “Why does pudsey the dog have his own movie? That bitch jumped through a hoop and got a contract and there's me forking out 9k for a degree.”
· "That Pudsey movie looks awful! Obviously David Walliams is voicing him just cos Simon Cowell owns both of them thanks to BGT!"
Well… That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the general idea. Nobody really knew anything about the movie at the point the above messages were tweeted. They’d seen the poster and the trailer, and knew that the dog was going to be voiced by David Walliams. However, I had seen the film – or a rough cut of it, anyway – and was pretty certain that it wasn’t going to change anyone’s belief. I hunkered down, and prepared for the worst.
Disclaimer time: I actually don’t think the finished film is as bad as the reviews stated. I honestly don’t. That’s said without any degree of defensiveness, and trying to look at the thing objectively. Certainly, such is the nature of a creative collaboration, there were some fairly hefty creative challenges along the way, which were met with solutions that I don’t necessarily agree with, there were changes to the original script that I struggle to watch (some of them I even agreed to at the time), but just as nobody ever intends to develop a bad game, or record a terrible album, nobody working at the coalface of Pudsey The Dog: The Movie set out to make an awful film.
I wrote the script, and that – for the most part – is the script they filmed. Maybe I didn't write a good enough film, but I am happy to raise my hand and take responsibility for the shitting pig which most seemed to stoke the fury of the reviewers.
Any creative endeavor is like a game of bagatelle. Or – if you were born after 1871 – Peggle. The more people involved in a creative endeavor the more pins on the Peggle board. The more pins, the more chance that you’re not going to get the high score you want. In short: it’s random, far more random than I ever thought it would be.
But that’s not the point. Pudsey was just "bad" enough to live up to (or down to) expectations. As a reviewer, whether it’s for films, or music, or video games, it’s about showing off. You’re a performer. You’re standing atop your platform, and you want a response from your audience. There’s a degree of playing to the crowd, and in the case of Pudsey the Dog: The Movie the crowd was baying for blood. The reviewers gave them exactly what they wanted.
Putting its creative merits (or lack of, depending on where you stand) to one side for a moment, the narrative established for Pudsey The Dog: The Movie on social media and in the press was that it would be a cheap and quick cash-in to capitalize on Ashleigh and Pudsey’s victory in Britain’s Got Talent (it was).
It was decided that it would be a creative, financial and critical disaster for Simon Cowell (it certainly wasn't a financial disaster for him, as he didn’t finance the film, or have any creative input into it – he was asked to provide a voice for one of the animals, but never replied). It also didn’t help that it followed in the wake of Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie – a huge hit, despite the best efforts of the critics to hobble it. Along with Mrs Brown and the Harry Hill movie, it became part of a wave of low-budget, TV spin-offs, with no creative merit, designed purely to milk an existing audience and destroy the British film industry.
In failing to produce a movie of such staggering genius and quality that it disintegrated this established narrative, Pudsey handed the world exactly what it was looking for: a stick with which to beat a very rich man. A very rich man who wouldn’t even feel the body blows.
“See how I bravely shatter Cowell’s kneecaps,” screeched an excitable Pete Bradshaw in The Guardian (which was a shame, as he’d previously said very nice things about two of my CBBC shows).
“Watch me laugh as I splinter Cowell’s ankle,” bellowed a snickering Mark Kermode.
“Applaud me, dolts, as I give you what you want and batter Cowell’s thorax to mist,” said every film blogger on the Internet.
Were they right? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course they weren’t. It was a film aimed at six year-olds. And Cowell got off without a scratch; it wasn't him that the world was lobbing flaming torches at, but a bunch of ordinary people hiding inside a wicker effigy of him. People who'd done their best to make an alright kids film, despite no budget, no time, and without the benefit of a human lead actor. All they could do was look on helplessly as the flames licked at their heels.
Some involved in the film were genuinely very troubled by the sheer vitriol it received. Some took it so to heart that they ended up bed-ridden and ill. It still surprises me that I wasn’t more upset by it all. Somehow, probably because of my years of note-taking, I was able to detach myself, and be – for the most part – amused by such foam-flecked rage for a family movie about a talking dog. That said, it’s probably buggered up any chance of me writing another film anytime soon, and that’s obviously a bit of a shame for me personally. Prior to Pudsey being released, the script was generally well received.
But the fact that most of us tend to forget is that behind everything is a human story. Unless you’re an actual robot, none of us are robots. Reviewers are people. The things they’re reviewing are made by people. As a reviewer there’s no logic in worrying about the people you’ll affect by your review, and as the person on the receiving end of the review there’s no real sense in getting upset by a bad review.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t. And it doesn’t mean that reviewers always review things from some cold, emotionless place where they judge things solely on their merit. Back in my Digi days I’m sure I was tempted on more than one occasion to bump up a review score because some PR person had been nice to me, and didn’t want to upset them. A review is a human interaction, and behind every human interaction is a bigger story. Whether it’s one on one, or played out across the media, or the Internet, there’s a broader narrative, underpinning the behavior of the people interacting.
Still. Anyway. There you go. That's what you get for giving Sonic 2 only 72% and slagging off the Amiga. Karma’s a bitch.