This review contains spoilers
Would it still be Christmas without a David Walliams special? Well, maybe. But this clever and fashion conscious story makes a welcome addition to the Boxing Day line-up.
Dennis (Billy Kennedy) has always felt like he doesn’t belong in his ordinary town, and doesn’t quite know why until he spots a copy of Vogue in his local newsagent. What follows is a delightful and emotional series of events, as Dennis befriends the most popular girl in school, Lisa (Temi Orelaja), who reveals her own fashion design skills and shares them with Dennis. Dennis ends up posing as a French exchange student named Denise, being expelled for wearing a dress, being rejected by his father, taking a few star turns in football games (one in a dress, one not), being accepted by his father and being un-expelled.
The young Dennis makes for a suitably likeable protagonist, and the on-screen partnership with Lisa works very well with the energy both actors bring to it. The stand-out of the piece, though, is the script – which is exceptionally cleverly written, highly comedic and impressively moving.
The story makes use of a few really nice techniques that take us deep into the mind of the twelve-year-old Dennis. The dream sequence with Kate Moss and the moving photograph of Dennis’ absentee mother are two of the best examples. This adaption really achieves in showing us the vibrancy of a young person’s mind and how he feels it contrasts with the drabness of his home town.
The town itself, however, is filled out with a variety of memorable characters, most played by suitably well-known actors. Surprisingly, one of the funniest turns is by Inbetweeners actor James Buckley (this might not be surprising to people who like The Inbetweeners) as the rather lacklustre football coach whose pep talks leave something to be desired, despite being accompanied by ironically inspiring music. As he says, “Win or lose, you’ve made it to a cup final. And that looks great on my CV.” The sparkling script that rings with zingers, making us laugh with their familiarity.
The most delightful scene takes place in the final football match, where the entire team emerge wearing dresses – a move masterminded by Lisa – so that Dennis can play with them. As the swiftly reformed captain says, wearing a gold shift dress, “You can’t expel all of us” (although he can, as it turns out, maintain Dennis’ expulsion – at least, for now). What follows is a triumphant, and colourful, sequence in which they win the match and look pretty fabulous doing it. Personally, I think this would make Match of The Day much more interesting. And hey! Gary Lineker’s there. Could happen.
The show also does a very good job of portraying a certain aspect of the high school experience (unless my school was the only one that did actually have a uniform checkpoint), and the kind of strictures in place – which are probably intended as parody – actually ring true. Tim McInnery does a lovely uptight headmaster, until it is time for him to reveal that, actually, dresses are just more comfortable – or, well, a blouse and skirt ensemble.
If there is one flaw in the story, it is the resolution of Dennis having been expelled for wearing a dress. Having guessed that Mr Hawthorn was concealing his own cross-dressing tendencies, I had rather hoped for a story of learning to accept himself through Dennis’ brave example – whereas in fact we get Lisa and Dennis threatening to reveal his secret and this being what forces him to accept Dennis back to school. Maybe it’s a general discomfort with people threatening to out anyone, but I did think this could have been done better.
All in all, however, the story is one of acceptance of difference – which, even if it is a little ham-fisted at times, is still an endearing and important message. As Dennis says in a fourth wall break to the camera, he feels different, but then “doesn’t everyone?” And then a cross-dressing Tim McInnery sails past on a bike calling “Merry Christmas!” as snow falls around him – probably proving Dennis’ – and the story’s – point.