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Camp comedy has its day along with Smurf the dog

IT is a dog-eat-dog situation in the canine stardom world.

Currently punting his autobiography in all good bookshops is Uggie, four-legged hero of The Artist and last year's winner of the Palm Dog, the Cannes prize for the best canine performance in a movie.

But the dog flap of commercial opportunity for Uggie is closing fast. Next week, this year's Palm Dog winner, Smurf, will be seen in Sightseers, a new British comedy. Smurf does not yet have plans to put his life in print, but it can only be a matter of time. As rivalries go, it's like Voltaire and Rousseau, Coe and Everett, Nixon and Kennedy, but with fur.

Sightseers director Ben Wheatley recalls: "He was a great dog. Cheerful. Never complained. He had two lovely friends that came with him, helpers, who talked to him a lot. We came away from Cannes with a prize, which is what we all dreamed of. Hopefully he'll go on to get his own show. He's writing something."

Wheatley says this with a face as straight as a plumb line. It's an attitude much on display in Sightseers, a comedy that deploys 50 shades of black humour to tell the tale of Tina and Chris, a Midlands couple who go on a caravan holiday to the north of England. Besides seeing such wonders of the world as a tram museum, the holiday is enlivened by a spot of, to put it mildly, lawbreaking.

The characters grew out of an act put together by writer-actors Alice Lowe and Chris Oram. "We developed it as a TV idea but didn't get anywhere with it because all the channels said it was too dark originally," says Lowe.

They sent the idea to Edgar Wright, writer-director of Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, and he agreed to executive produce a film. The next step was to find a director. Wheatley had just scored a hit with the equally bleak crime caper Down Terrace, and he was about to go into production on the no-holds-barred horror Kill List. "I knew [Kill List] was going to be really horrible and depressing, so I wanted to do something that was going to be a comedy afterwards."

Wheatley could see a link between Sightseers and his other films, which also feature apparently ordinary but ultimately extreme characters.

"I genuinely try to make movies I'd want to go and see. Movies that are a bit more challenging. This is slightly less narratively challenging than Kill List but it's quite a quirky movie for a comedy. It's my kind of film."

Besides drawing on memories of their childhood holidays, Oram and Lowe hit the road in a caravan for a week.

"We did a lot of research on camping and what annoys people," says Lowe. "It's quite often children playing ball games. It's a huge debate in the caravan world whether children should be allowed to play ball games or not."

Oram, now a veteran caravanner, chips in: "They shouldn't, no."

The duo are from the Midlands. While their accents have softened slightly from living in London, Tina and Chris in the movie have Brummie accents that wouldn't have been out of place in the Crossroads motel. It's hard to stand out when you are from Birmingham, says Lowe. While Manchester has a reputation for being cool, Birmingham's unique selling point is more difficult to find.

"Growing up, I didn't feel very cool having come from the Midlands. When I was a kid the highlight of my week would be doing a fossil hunt at the local quarry."

For advice on the best sights, Oram turned to his dad. "He's very into sightseeing and castles and he's extremely knowledgeable. When we were doing the research trip he designed a route for us from Birmingham through the Peak District. That stayed the same for the film."

Though the characters visit some unusual attractions, the film was not out to make fun of these places, stresses Wheatley. "The Pencil Museum; it's not a joke to me. I think it's brilliant, a really fascinating place."

Visitors who were already at the attractions when the film crew turned up took it in good part, apart from one woman who had flown from Los Angeles to hug some standing stones. "We just had to let her get on with it," says Wheatley.

Lowe hopes the movie will lead more visitors to the locations featured. "I hope it does make people think about things or feel something. We always wanted to make a comedy that was a little bit more than that, had tragic elements to it, that people engaged with. An intelligent comedy, essentially. It's nice to think people might be talking about it after they've seen it."

With a Palm Dog to its name, the film is already a prize winner. It is also up for several awards, including Best Film, at the Moet British Independent Film Awards, to be announced on December 9. Uggie had better get a move on with those books.

Sightseers goes on general release on November 30

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