When you’re dealin’ with one-dimensional cockney characters in a film, there’s only one way to introduce them: with laughably cheesy narration and text that spells out their ridiculous cockney nicknames—typically something like “Bodger” or “The Don”. It’s an unwritten rule, but one that Outside Bet, a light-hearted British comedy film directed by Sacha Bennett, has chosen to abide by.
So, as the film opens, we pan around a typical South London boozer in the mid-1980s. Here’s where we meet the lads. First, there’s Bob Hoskins, the original pearly king himself. He plays Smudge, the biggest geezer Bob’s portrayed since Super Mario. He’s the head of a group of Fleet Street hacks, and a cracking friend to his best mate Threads (Philip Davis). Threads has a son, a proper wide-boy named Bax, and ever since Bax was just a lad, he’s loved to bet on horses with his old man.
It’s a touching story, the tale of a father and son and their unacknowledged addiction to gambling. It’s an addiction that the missus, Bax’s mother (Jenny Agutter), must never find out about. She did once before, and she gave Threads a right proper bollocking for it. “She’s never understood,” Bax explains. This, presumably, is why the film paints her as thoroughly unlikable, like almost all of its female characters.
Only one of the ladies comes across well: Katie (Emily Atack), a bubbly barmaid that just wants to be one of the boys. Naturally, she also has eyes for Bax, who can’t seem to summon the courage to make his move. As Katie dreams of being his girlfriend, Bax persuades his drinking buddies and Smudge to invest in a race horse. The stakes then double when Threads becomes hospitalised with cancer, and winning races becomes a way for his son to cope with his diminishing health.
The horse becomes a great addition to the film because where there’s a horse, there’s inevitably horse crap (the funniest of all excrement), and Smudge just can’t help standing in the stuff. In fact, his inability to avoid treading in manure, at times, borders on insanity. It’s not so much funny as it is worrying. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really get much funnier than Bob Hoskins repeatedly stepping in shit.
“`One of the few amusing moments comes, unintentionally, from Richard Blackwood, who remarkably fails to deliver his one line by squealing it like an injured seagull. Most of Outside Bet’s humour, however, is enjoyed, not by the audience, but by the characters themselves. Bax and co spend much of the film cackling uncontrollably at each other’s jokes, which are often breathtakingly unfunny.
To its credit, though, Outside Bet is, at least, quite watchable. It’s the kind of film that you find yourself sticking with just because you need to know how it finishes, even though you that you’ll inevitably be annoyed by the outcome. It feels a lot like an underwhelming television serial, the kind that you’d expect to find airing on a Sunday afternoon on ITV 1. The drama doesn’t have much bite, the comedy is weak and the production values are exceptionally poor at times. It’s not terrible; it’s just not worth bothering with.