The first film premiere I went to was in Leeds for the comedy, A Private Function. My friend Eileen played the farmer’s wife and I sat one row behind the scriptwriter, a chap called Alan Bennett.
It’s been downhill all the way since then, ending at Zeffirelli’s in Ambleside tonight for the premiere of Downhill, an endearingly funny road movie about four guys who avoid all the roads and attempt to walk the Coast to Coast path. They covered – and drank – 192 miles of glorious northern countryside and glorious northern hospitality, apart from the B&B where the mushrooms got mixed up with the baked beans.
Such detail never bothered Alfred Wainwright whose description of the route inspires thousands every year to make the pilgrimage from St Bees in the west to Robin Hood’s Bay in the east. And inspired writer Torben Betts to tackle a comedy full of errors, directed by James Rouse, and produced by Benji Howell.
They call it a testament to the tragically incompatible, a blow-by-blow account of the highs and lows of decades-long friendships. Their actors – Richard Lumsden, Karl Theobald, Jeremy Swift and Ned Dennehy – were calling it torture after the first day. But they survived – at least, most of them – to make the crossing intact, with only one drop-out, one cheat (a small misdemeanour) and one gay outing.
It’s filmed as a spoof documentary, with the invisible cameraman revealed briefly as the son of one of the characters (who steps from behind the lens and to his dad’s defence. And there’s a bit of the plot revealed briefly.) The technique works very well indeed, as do the closely-studied shots of the landscape, revealing the slate and the stone of the Lake District and North Yorkshire more dramatically than the leaf and the lane.
The early stages are my home territory, the end of the route sentimentally familiar. My running club, Clayton le Moors Harriers, once tackled the Coast to Coast as a relay event and I ran the last 19 miles from Glaisdale to Robin Hood’s Bay carrying the baton – a pebble picked from St Bees’ beach. I can still taste the fish and chips that the Downhill wanderers relished at the end of their journey.
Sand in their shoes, stars in their eyes, they asked guests at the premiere to turn up in evening dress and hiking boots. Or wellies, like the main star of the night, Dorothy Smith, manager of Zeffirelli’s, who hosted a gala night with a difference. We had champagne, we had canapés, we had a jazz band. We had a green carpet, and sheep on the pavement outside.
Zeffs is the cultural centre of the Lake District, a five-screen cinema which hosts live music, a café bar by day, a packed restaurant by night, and an artistic sibling in the next street, Fellini’s. Dorothy and her team rise to all sorts of occasions, and won a customer service award at a recent ceremony. They served stars and guests as if they hosted the Oscars every week, and they handed over a cheque for £900 to the local mountain rescue team at the end of the evening. It was night to remember, even if it was Downhill all the way.
Downhill is on general release from Friday, opening in London at the Empire, Leicester Square.