BOOTLEG FILES 650: “Freddie & Max” (1990 British sitcom starring Anne Bancroft and Charlotte Coleman).
LAST SEEN: Three of the series’ six episodes are on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A flop that never turned up in America.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
In the spring of 1990, the British newspapers were aflutter over some extraordinary news: Thames Television had signed Hollywood legend Anne Bancroft to star in her first sitcom. Bancroft was to receive a $175,000 salary for appearing in six episodes of “Freddie and Max,” a production that carried a budget of $1.4 million, the largest (at the time) for a British television series. And with the writing team of Dick Clement and Ian Le Fresnais – the creative force behind the popular British TV comedy “Porridge” starring Ronnie Barker – the project seemed very promising.
But by the time “Freddie and Max” premiered in November 1990, critical reaction was ho-hum and audiences didn’t bother to tune in. The six-episode season was the first and only for “Freddie and Max,” which faded quickly into obscurity.
Why did it fail? Well, you can’t blame that on the premise. The title characters were Freddie Latham, a scrappy young researcher for a British television production company (played by Charlotte Coleman, best known stateside for her work in “Oranges are Not the Only Fruit” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and Maxine “Max” Chandler, a faded movie star living in London’s Savoy Hotel (played by Bancroft). Freddie, through a convenient case of mistaken identity, is hired to be the ghost writer for Maxine’s autobiography. Freddie’s pragmatic and blunt personality creates friction with Maxine’s haughty and mercurial behavior, although the two women quickly find that they have a great deal of affection for each other.
But despite a fun foundation, writers Clement and Le Fresnais had no clue where to take their show. One might assume that the selling point would have been Bancroft – by this stage in her career, her propensity to deliver hamming rather than acting made her ideal talent for a broad sitcom. Yet the Maxine character was strangely absent for long stretches of the episodes, and when she did appear Maxine was curiously smaller than life – not so much what people assume to be a grand movie star in her twilight, but rather an abrasive yenta who ping-pongs from irritating petulance to curious bouts of sincerity.
While much of the fault could be placed on weak scripts, Bancroft never delivered on character – too frequently, her indifferent line readings suggested that her charisma must have been left on the other side of the Atlantic. This was especially acute when she was expected to deliver some smutty joke lines – one that stood out was recalling how her bisexual ex-husband bedded his stunt double because he loved the idea of screwing himself. But Bancroft spit out her ribald lines quickly and recklessly, as if she was annoyed that her salary included such blue humor.
Instead, most of the attention was anchored on Coleman. In the first episode, Freddie is going from the worst day of her life: homeless after walking out on her boyfriend, she carries her clothing garbage bags that are accidentally thrown away by trash collectors. She is late for work and threatened with unemployment by the producer at the television company where she labors as a researcher. But then she gets the job as Maxine’s ghostwriter, which includes free room and board at the ultra-luxurious Savoy, which gives her a place to stay for free. Freddie’s working-class accent (remember, this is British telly) and grungy clothing make her seem like a fish out of water in the posh Savoy, but Maxine (as an American) doesn’t see anything wrong with her background and appearance. But, then again, Maxine is too self-focused to be snobbish to others.
Sadly, Coleman did not rise to the occasion and her performance as Freddy is strangely lifeless. Much of the problem could be rooted in the script – Freddie is not the life of the party, but mostly plays off the silly behavior of those around her. And while Freddie has no shortage of strange characters to encounter – a horny teenage bellhop, Maxine’s oversexed French third ex-husband, and even her emo ex-boyfriend – her presence is strictly reactive and not proactive. And despite a few caustic one-liners, Coleman is not funny in her role.
Only three of the six “Freddie and Max” episodes are available for online viewing via YouTube, and when viewed in broadcast order it appears that the show gained some strength with each new installment. Some shtick was allowed to congeal. Most notably, there was a running gag had Maxine firing Freddie for supposedly overstepping her limits in compiling research for Maxine’s memoirs, only to result in a treacly reconciliation with jokes about Freddie’s nonexistent salary. Maxine’s small dog seemed to inspire contempt from the star and the bellhop assigned to walk the canine – which was odd, as the dog was very well behaved and never made a peep. And the bellhop, well played by a young Ian Congdon-Lee, turned on the charm to Freddie in the worst possible way – her exasperation at his clueless crassness was a bright spot.
“Freddie and Max” was dubbed “magnificently forgettable” by the London Sunday Times when it premiered on ITV, and it seemed everyone wanted to forget it. No effort was made to create a second season of episodes and the series never made it to U.S. television, although it did play briefly in Canada. The show has never surfaced in any home entertainment format and there is little reason to believe that it ever will.
“Freddie and Max” was an interesting failure. Maybe someday the promising premise for the show can be revived – with better writing, casting and acting, the idea could work. But if it doesn’t…well, hey, that’s show biz.
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