Bulgarian Humour Translates Better on the Page than the Screen

Wild Rooster, Marcus Agar, review of Mission London. Bulgarian box office hit.

Humour is a funny thing. What can have one person in fits of laughter can leave another entirely dumbfounded. Add cultural and social differences and the recipe often falls flat, as evidenced by the number of hit UK TV comedies that have failed to survive a trip across the pond.

As a case in point, take the misjudged US version of the phenomenally successful UK sitcom Gavin and Stacey, which was reportedly put on the back burner after the social comedy nosedived stateside.

Whereas the written word can be translated well on the page, if the translator is worth their salt, films can often find it more difficult to find an audience abroad.

Comedies have any even harder job to be accepted across borders. It is not surprising that one of the most successful comedy crossovers, Mr Bean, is devoid of dialogue that can be lost in translation.

Sensitive English Translation of Bulgarian Novel

Mission London (cert 15) is a film that suffers in this respect, although a forthcoming English translation of the original novel by Alek Popov delivers a far more satisfying experience.

Let me begin by saying that I really wanted to like this film. On paper, it should be a good watch. This film was an unparalleled success in Bulgarian cinemas, where it broke box office records in 2010. But for me, it failed to hit the mark. Now the subtitled film has been made available in the UK and Ireland via iTunes, English-speaking audiences will be able to make up their own minds about if the absurd comedy and larger-than-life acting has travelled well.

Mission London is taken from a popular novel of the same name, in which author Alek Popov brings together themes of corruption, confusion and incompetence in a farcical tale of identity, culture and change.

Istros Books, Wild Rooster, Marcus Agar, review of Mission London. Bulgarian box office hit.

Leading publisher of literature in translation, Istros Books will release the book in a crisp and energetic English language version (April 16).

In the hands of a publisher who is sensitive to the importance of achieving the right tone and pitch in any translation, Mission London shows that humour can cross borders better on the page than on the screen.

But whereas the novel translates well, with the eccentric characters and their humourously incompetent antics delivering a fast-paced farce, the exaggerated caricatures and unfunny slapstick presented on screen might be best enjoyed by those with one foot firmly in the Balkans. Or maybe aficionados of 1970s sitcoms.

The plot centres on Bulgaria’s new ambassador to the United Kingdom, adequately played on screen with suitable restraint by Julian Vergov, who is sent to London to organise a gala to mark Bulgaria’s entry into the European Union.

What should have been a simple task for a well-run embassy is made all the more difficult as the president’s wife – in all her tasteless glory – has set him the task of securing HM Queen Elizabeth as guest of honour.

Bulgarian Embassy in Chaotic Disarray

Of course, though, Varadin does not find an efficient embassy in London. Instead, this Bulgarian outpost is in chaotic disarray. Left to their own devices, an incompetent staff hell-bent on exploiting the embassy’s diplomatic status to their own ends has created a den of crime and black market trafficking. From cack-handed Russian crooks stealing ducks from the Royal Parks to a duty free shop being run in the basement, everyone seems to have their own racket. So far, so stereotypical.

Things take a farcical turn when Varadin employs lookalike company Famous Connections to bolster the VIP guest list. Unaware that they deal only in pretenders to the throne rather than having access to the real royals, he is fobbed off with a fake queen (Rosemary Leach) for his EU bash and the inevitable chaos ensues.

Throw into the mix an office cleaner with a sideline as a stripper (Ana Papadopulu) and the scene is set for more clichés and farcical exchanges.

The story and its cast of overblown characters takes on an additional twist when we remember than the author, Alek, worked at the Bulgarian Embassy in London in the late 1990s. It can be assumed that Alek’s experiences there informed his composite characters and provided the detail that makes the book such an enjoyable and fast-paced read.

Strong Lenswork Saves Film

To his credit, Bulgarian director Dimitar Mitovski chose locations that pay respect to the city without resorting to the red bus, black cab and phone box formula that has become so jaded in many other on-screen outings. Indeed, the camerawork, lighting and atmosphere are strong. If only the editing were a little tighter, maybe the comedy might have more pace and be more satisfying.

The film unabashedly revels in its somewhat crass, lowbrow comedy and tasteless moments. While this is presumably part of what made it such a success in Bulgaria, it doesn’t translate well to a British screen and virtually guarantees that Mission London will have only limited appeal beyond its homegrown audience.

In its defence, the film was probably not made with its eye on an international audience. It was clearly enjoyed in Bulgaria, where its stars are well known and its style of comedy is much loved. Indeed, the film is popular throughout the Balkans. But, judging by the deadpan response from most non-Bulgarians in the audience at the London screening I attended, the exaggerated clowning and over-the-top acting style that would seem more suited to the stage than the screen mean that this is a mission impossible.

It is clear that this film is an acquired taste. It was a smash it in Bulgaria. But, for me it is a comedy that falls flat in one key area: it is simply not funny.

Like an affordable wine that tastes fine when on holiday but disappointingly pales when brought  home, Mission London should have stayed where it worked best. This film does not travel well.

Don’t take my word for it: Make up your own mind. Download Mission London from iTunes now.

Alternatively, just wait for the book.

If you like it, please share it:

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment