Movie Review: Blackball


Blackball has all the makings of a cult classic, it’s certainly an engaging plot, but it never quite gained the recognition that I felt it deserved. In fact the reviews were largely mixed, with some agreeing, like me, that it’s a carefree and enjoyable little sporty romp, while others felt, with some merit I suppose that I added little, or brought nothing new to the genre. Others felt that Paul Kaye’s character Cliff Starkey was an aggressively unlikable lead character (and I guess I can see their point) but that was kind of the point, he was supposed to be rough around the edges, and supposed to me unlikable, it allowed him room for growth throughout the film.

It has many superficial qualities in common with movies Wimbledon and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, and it certainly holds its own against those other sports movies, while also being delightfully entertaining and very British. Something else that I liked is that it focuses on the low key sport of Bowls, managing to make it look appealing as a game, for anyone under the age of 65.

Interestingly enough, the story of Blackball is apparently based, loosely, on the real life experiencing of a Bowls player, Griff Sanders, who was banned from the sport for a variety of indiscretions such as drinking, swearing and most famously for defacing a points card, an element which appeared in the actual movie.

As I mentioned above, I applaud Blackball for taking a fun look at a sport we don’t often get to see on mainstream media. It also shines a light on British culture, with a particular focus on class disparity which plays a major role in our society, even today. We see both sides of the spectrum, with Ray Speight (played by James Cromwell, and am I the only one who can only picture him as Arthur Hoggett, from Babe) who represents the rich elite, he’s a member of the typical crowd of old school players that you would typically imagine playing Bowls, whereas Cliff Starkey is a young upstart with a chip on his shoulder, he’s from the wrong side of the tracks, but is very gifted and clearly has a love for the game, he just can’t bring himself to play by the established rules of the game, or play nice. 

Funnily enough, right before filming started they discovered that the entire main cast were all terrible at Bowls, in fact the only cast member who could actually play Bowls was Johnny Vegas (who played Cliff’s best friend, Trevor) and he does not play Bowls in the movie. 

Turning to casting for a moment, Bernard Cribbins was great in this, he managed to show pride for his grandson, blended with apprehension, embarrassment and sometimes even humour at his antics. Cribbins does however play a character who is inexplicably called Mutley.

Now I mentioned that the movie dances the cultural divide that exist in Britain, it serves to provide considerable tension and friction between the main characters, and it makes Starkey’s rise to success all the more important. I like how the movie balances this concept, for example, in the opening sequence, we see the morning rituals of both the main characters (Starkey and Speight) and the disparity between the two.

Now I mentioned that people believed Starkey to be unpleasant, and the movie goes to great lengths to show he is far from perfect, he proves throughout the film that he can be selfish but he’s willing to admit that he was wrong, and he really does try to win back his friends and family.

They even slipped in a little opposites attract love story, between Starkey and Kerry Speight (played by Alice Evans) who is Ray’s daughter. I will say, redeemable or not, I honestly don’t know what she sees in him. He’s reasonably good looking, I guess, but he’s too rough around the edges, and I just don’t see the attraction. I think in reflection this was probably a case of the plot taking precedence over how people actually act, or maybe I just don’t understand romance, but hey whatever.

The movie also does a good job of hand holding us through the rules of bowls without boring us, which I imagine is harder to do than you’d probably think.

Until I was re-watching this for the review I completely forgot that Vince Vaughn was in this movie, he played sports agent Rick Schwartz who catapulted Starkey into sports stardom by capitalising on his flair, penchant for breaking the rules and turned him into the ‘bad boy of bowls’. He brought a little bit of America, to this distinctly British film, also I wonder if when they got around to filming Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, that Vaughn had any notes on the script, because the ending especially had a lot in common with Blackball, especially the finale tournament. 

So with all that in mind, I strongly recommend this film, it’s an enjoyable comedy, with an eclectic cast of characters, and managed to make bowls interesting. I think I’ll give Blackball a 7/10.


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