In Starter For Ten, working-class Essex-boy Brian Jackson (James McAvoy), has always been obsessed with trivia, growing up watching University Challenge on TV throughout the 70s and early 80s. When he passes his exams and gets accepted to Bristol, he leaves behind his widowed mother (Catherine Tate), and best friend Spencer (Dominic Cooper). At a fresher’s week party Brian meets the beret-wearing, right on Rebecca (Rebecca Hall, who also features in The Prestige). Just as something might happen between them, his head is turned by the snooty, stunning blonde Alice (Alice Eve), who is also his team-mate on the Bristol University Challenge squad. The story plays out against the background of the tricky TV quiz, as young Brian works out his priorities, romantic and academic, learning life lessons along the way.
Starter for Ten is scripted by David Nicholls from his own comic novel, once recommended by the Richard & Judy book club. That might tell you more than you need to know about the by-the-numbers plotting of the rites-of-passage story, easy meat for the mid-afternoon crowd, with the added nostalgia of Doc Martens, black leggings and fingerless gloves underlined by an eclectic greatest hits soundtrack. Debut director Tom Vaughan initially takes the traditional approach to his British romantic comedy, establishing new surroundings and exciting changes that lead to initially embarrassing romantic situations, betrayal of friendship and an epiphany of some sort, preferably during a rainstorm. Flipping a few of these standards on their heads in the last act might be clever, but the overall effects are negligible when capped with a last-minute realisation of the true love that was there, all along, under the hero’s nose, over his wry grin.
The airy tone, nuggets of droll observation and rising talent McAvoy’s earnest performance go some of the way towards making up for these deficits, but not completely. The film is never less than perfectly amiable and chugs along at a fair pace, but finds it difficult to sustain much in the way of enthusiasm. Highlights of the sideline performances are The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss’ uncanny impression of pre-Paxman presenter Bamber Gascoigne; an inquisitive, bubble-permed squirrel, and the delightfully named Benedict Cumberbatch as the pompous idiot team captain.