A Cock and Bull Story

English Title: A Cock and Bull Story

Country of Origin: Britain

Studio: BBC Films/Redbus

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Producer(s): Andrew Eaton

Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce

Cinematographer: Marcel Zyskind

Editor: Peter Christelis

Runtime: 90 minutes

Genre: Heritage

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Naomi Harris, Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon

Year: 2005

Volume: British


A Cock and Bull Story starts behind the scenes, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing versions of themselves as a bickering duo of comedians about to embark in the shooting of a film adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Coogan kick-starts the film ‘proper’ by narrating a series of humorous vignettes about the main character's conception and birth. Mid-way through a sequence in which Tristram’s mother goes into labour, the film turns its attention to the crew shooting the film-within-the-film. The film-making process is beset by production difficulties and the discontent of investors after the daily screenings of rushes. In the meantime, Coogan’s rivalry with Brydon escalates and his personal life is complicated by his fleeting affair with a cinephile production assistant and the arrival on set of his partner and child. 


A whimsical film on the adaptation of the allegedly unfilmable novel by Laurence Sterne, A Cock and Bull Story constitutes a witty, meta-cinematic send-up of the conventions of the heritage film, as well as a humorous reflection on the impossibility of faithfully adapting a work of classic literature.


The film falls within an illustrious tradition of films about film-making. As in Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), the film director (played by a self-effacing Jeremy Northam with more than a passing likeness to Winterbottom himself) remains an observer of the unruly behaviour of his cast. The film, like its narrator, does not tell its story ‘straight’ but gets lost in constant digressions, not least those provoked by the burden of expectations placed by fans of the novel and meddling experts on set. While played up for comedy, these interferences reveal very real pressures on the film-making process, mirroring the actual difficulties encountered by Winterbottom and his long-standing producer Andrew Eaton. The film’s pledged £6.5 million budget was slashed to less than half that figure shortly before the film went into production. Things were then kept afloat by Eaton’s cash-flowing the day-to-day shooting expenses through his company Revolution Films until a new financing deal was secured. Put in this context, the easiness with which the fictional production team in A Cock and Bull Story is able to fly in star Gillian Anderson to play Widow Wadman seems almost like an act of ironic wishful thinking that alludes to the endemic relationship between independent financing in Britain and the American market.


A Cock and Bull Story feeds on Coogan and Brydon’s established television personas, as well as on Winterbottom and Coogan’s previous collaboration in 24 Hour Party People (2002). Rather than deploying comedy to parody the heritage genre, the film inflects familiar heritage iconography with a relish for language and performance, a trait shared by both the literary adaptation as well as television comedy. In the opening credit sequence Tristram (Steve Coogan) launches into the telling of his life as a stand-up comedy routine against the imposing visual backdrop of the heritage estate of Heydon Hall in Norfolk, accompanied by Michael Nyman’s musical score from Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982). This playful mixture of references continues with the comic yet erudite detours into eighteenth-century obstetrics and military history, as well as film-literate jokes (‘a womb with a view’). The English garden, romantic trope par excellence in the heritage film, is played for laughs in a scene in which Uncle Toby (Rob Brydon) courts Widow Wadman whilst she shows rather more interest in his physical ‘fitness for marriage’.


Romance may be a bit of a red herring but the film ultimately exhibits a moving affection for its flawed, talkative (anti-)hero caught between his fantasy film life and the very real demands of parenting, a theme that underpins other Winterbottom films such as Wonderland (1999) or Genova (2008). The meandering structure and parodic tone of the literary original become a pretext to shake off the quaintness of the genre, but also to propose a reflection on film-making as a hazardous team effort, a process every bit as chaotic and yet ultimately life-affirming as the protracted birth sequence the film keeps returning to. 

Author of this review: Belén Vidal

Peer reviewer: Belén Vidal