Plans were afoot for many years to bring 1991’s Bernard And The Genie to the movies – and there may yet be a flicker of life for the project too.
There’s nothing quite like celebrating a Christmas favourite in the middle of the year. But then there’s rarely any reason not to enjoy the much-loved BBC television movie Bernard And The Genie.
The 67 minute production debuted in 1991, with an ensemble cast featuring Lenny Henry, Rowan Atkinson, Alan Cumming, Angie Clarke and Dennis Lill. Richard Curtis penned the script for the production, and Paul Weiland – returning to the UK a few years after making his Hollywood feature directorial debut with the Bill Cosby-headlined misfire Leonard Number 6 – was behind the camera.
It was a coming together of talents that absolutely gelled. Debuting on BBC One on December 23rd 1991, it became much loved pretty instantly, and it remains a festive – and non-festive – favourite for many, nearly 30 years on. Part of its growing reputation was also its scarcity, given that for contractual reasons, it could only be shown by the BBC once at the time. It relied on word of mouth to keep its lamp burning, and boy did it get it.
And as it turned out, its success didn’t go unnoticed in the world of film, both in terms of the production itself and the people involved.
But let’s start with the production itself. The story of Bernard And The Genie sees Alan Cumming’s Bernard Bottle losing his job and his relationship around the same time. And just when he thought his life couldn’t take any more turns, he discovers a genie in a bottle. A genie… no, a brilliant genie, played by Lenny Henry, who it’d be fair to say is unfamiliar with the modern world.
This was all achievable – and I’m coming back to this – on a BBC budget, and here’s how the show was trailed to give you a flavour of it…
And so it came to pass that Hollywood took notice. In particular, Miramax. It’s hard to pin down exactly when it signed an option to make a movie of Bernard And The Genie, but it certainly had one in place at the turn of the century. Not that there was particularly fast progress. In fact, the first report I can track down of a film version of the production was nearly a decade after it had debuted on the BBC. Yet it was a notable report, as it revealed for definite that a Hollywood big screen remake of Bernard was in the offing. You can read it here.
Separately to the option being taken, American writer David Lindsay-Abaire had been garnering attention. He’s had a hugely impressive career since, notably winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama back in 2007 for his play Rabbit Hole for instance. Yet even back in 2000, his profile had risen off the back of 1999’s play Fuddy Meers and 2000’s Kimberly Akimbo. Film offers were forthcoming, and Miramax was keen on his services.
Thus, his story and Bernard’s converged, with Variety reporting that a deal was being closed between the pair. That Lindsay-Abaire would take on two projects. One of them – as per the April 2001 report – was not yet determined at that stage. Yet the project that was named was a new take on Bernard And The Genie, “that Lindsay-Abaire will adapt as a feature for the mini-major”
The trail then went cold for a while, but digging further, Miramax continue to hold the rights for some time. The company at that stage had been bought by Disney, but its founders – rapist and sexual assaulter Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob – would leave in 2005. It didn’t seem that they’d taken the project immediately to their new venture – The Weinstein Company – but as I’m coming to in approximately two paragraphs, they’d have the rights again soon enough.
For work was continuing in some form, with Empire for one reporting that Bernard was one of the projects then held up by the Writers’ Guild of America strike that began in late 2007 and ran into early 2008. Still, it seemed by that stage Lindsay-Abaire had moved on, and indeed he’d realise a sizeable amount of big screen work. He’s now credited on the screenplays for films such as Robots (that he’d penned before he got the Bernard And The Genie job) Inkheart, the 2015 retelling of Poltergeist and Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great And Powerful. Plus, he would adapt Rabbit Hole for the screen as well, with Nicole Kidman taking on the lead role.
But his departure from Bernard didn’t end the project. Once the dust of the WGA strike had settled, there was another glimmer of light for the movie. A report in 2010 now suggested that Curtis himself was tackling the project himself.
Pajiba broke the exclusive that the film was now set up at Dimension Films, a part of Miramax that Bob Weinstein took with him to The Weinstein Company. Dimension was the firm’s label primarily for its horror output – Scream and Scary Movie amongst its big hitters – and it was looking to set up projects quickly come the end of the decade as it sought to bounce back from the box office failure of Grindhouse. Scream 4 was the highest profile title on its slate at the time (and we covered its story in a podcast episode here), but Bernard And The Genie was again in the mix too.
Curtis was thus revealed to be producing the film at this stage as well as writing the screenplay. No word at that point of a director, just that nearly 20 years after its debut, there was still interest in it.
Genie In Limbo
Yet Bernard still continued to linger in development hell, seemingly no closer to getting to the big screen. In fact, stories about the possible film disappear at that point, with one caveat that I’m coming to shortly.
Before that, it’s worth taking a minute to acknowledge the cinematic knock-on that this one-off BBC drama had on two of its creative forces..
For Curtis, Bernard And The Genie would have what proved to be a major ramification for his career. He found that working on a BBC television budget, he could achieve more than was possible, and this led to him starting to pursue Four Weddings & A Funeral, that would head to the big screen three years later. When that film was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, it opened the door to a host of big hit movies to follow.
Paul Weiland, meanwhile, would land his second and highest profile movie as director six years later with City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly’s Gold, the success of Bernard and his work on Mr Bean bringing him to Hollywood’s attention. A handful of other films would follow, too.
Lenny Henry had, incidentally, at this stage already inked a multi-picture deal with Disney that came to an early end after the release of the movie True Identity. Whether he, or any of the brilliant cast of the TV version, would have carried over to the Hollywood version is unknown.
And so that’s that, then. Or – hang on a sec – is it?
Because digging around, there’s one flicker left. It’s the loosest of threads, but if you head over to the agents of Richard Curtis, they list his work and his upcoming projects. It’s an up to date list as well it seems, noting that 2019’s Yesterday has been released (so this isn’t some old archive page on the internet), and you can guess what’s coming.
Three upcoming movie projects are listed for him. An animated film of his co-authored The Empty Stocking children’s book, that’s been known for a while to be a Locksmith Animations project. Then there’s Lost For Words, with Jamie Lee Curtis.
And the third of those projects? There it sits: Bernard And The Genie.
Whilst it’s unlikely Dimension still holds the rights, there’s a sporting chance that this has now reverted back to its original creatives. And with that in mind, there may yet be one more chance for Bernard to practice his magic on the big screen.
Although most of us would, I’d suggest, be happy with a proper DVD release of the 1991 TV production that started it all…
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