May 2011: The Gravy Train Goes East
The Gravy Train Goes East is the 1991 sequel to 1990 British mini-series The Gravy Train written by Malcolm Bradbury. It’s best described as satire although those aren’t politically savvy needn’t worry. After all, this is twenty years ago so you won’t be alone in not understanding the in and outs of European policy in the early nineties. But more importantly, while the series often touches on European politics, it’s very easy to understand.
This series once again follows Hans-Joachim Dorfmann (Christoph Waltz), otherwise known as ‘Bloody Dorfmann’, as he is sent to the fictional country of Slaka to sort all the economical problems the country has so as to allow its entry into the European Union. However, back in Brussels and the United Kingdom, things are hardly smooth sailing. While in Slaka, Dorfmann finds himself caught up in political power games and illegal smuggling operations, completely against his will, of course. Meanwhile, both the president, Katya Princip (Francesca Annis), and a mysterious Slakan woman, Galina, (not to mention Mrs. Steadiman) take a shine to the well-meaning Hans, which naturally causes more problems.
As I say, the political side to this series is nothing to be too wary of. There is enough there for anyone who is a fan of satire to enjoy as well as accessible for anyone who drifts off during political discussions.
While this is a sequel and therefore a continuation of the exploits of these characters, it can be watched independently of the first with little problems. You may not be entirely clear why Michael Spearpoint has taken such a great dislike to Dorfmann without it, but the rest is easy to get into without any prior knowledge. That being said, I’d recommend watching the first part to get a wider knowledge of the characters.
Waltz does a great job at playing the so-called ‘Prince Stupid’ who is quite an interesting character in himself. He is clumsy and naïve, yet still clearly intelligent despite the new nickname bestowed on him in this series. Unfortunately his desire to help others leads him into trouble and he inadvertently allows others to take advantage of him. He knows his task is impossible yet he doesn’t want to disappoint. It’s a refreshing change for any newer fans that are used to Waltz playing characters on the darker side of things as Dorfmann is a character with next to no darkness in him at all. This doesn’t make him a weaker character than Waltz’s other roles but it does take a little getting used to, especially as this character is so far from smooth as you can get. He constantly walks into things, trips and stumbles. Thankfully TGGE never settles for slapstick humour on a large scale despite this.
The humour is quite light and isn’t quite laugh out loud. But that’s rather the point. It relies on wordplay and occasionally more obvious things like Steadiman’s terrible stutter. It’s subtle so don’t expect to find something side-splitting. Those who are fans of satire and political comedies, think more along the lines of Yes, Minister rather than The Thick of It as despite poking fun at political procedure, it never gets too serious nor uncomfortable at any point. The politics plays an important part without it overshadowing everything else.
The rest of the cast do a fine job and for those familiar with British television, you might be aware of some of the cast. For example, the late Ian Richardson (Private Schulz, An Ungentlemanly Act, The Hound of the Baskervilles) plays Dorfmann’s almost-rival (even if Dorfmann seems blissfully ignorant of this fact), Micheal Spearpoint, the British Director of the European Economic Community. The role is one that suits Richardson down to the ground and he does a splendid job of it. Francesca Annis (Wives and Daughters, Revolver, Cranford) plays the beautiful president of Slaka, Katya Princip. She is rather wonderful in it and despite one or two moments which don’t seem in line with the character, she comes across as charming and elegant. An honourable mention should also go to Anita Zagara who plays Gianna Melchiori for this as she plays a similar character rather well. Those who are fans of ‘classic’ British comedy might also recognise Roger Lloyd-Pack (Vicar of Dibley, Only Fools and Horses) and Trevor Peacock (Vicar of Dibley) as Slakan inhabitants.
As this is a British series, you will be pleased to hear that it is all in English so non-German speaking fans needn’t worry at all.
Overall, this is an enjoyable effort and I’d certainly recommend it to Waltz fans who have yet to see it. I’m sure those who have seen it would be more than happy to watch it again too as it certainly has its charms.