Greatest Literature banner

Tristram Shandy


Tristram Shandy, 1884 edition1884 edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Original title
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

First published
1759–1767 in nine volumes

Literary form

Literary, humour

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 199,500 words

The Diviners scene
Rob Brydon, left, and Steve Coogan are the cockups in comedic 2005 adaptation of Tristram Shandy.

A little cock and bull go a long way

A Cock and Bull Story (2005): Also called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story; director Michael Winterbottom; writer Frank Cottrell Boyce; featuring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes, Gillian Anderson, Stephen Fry

Very clever is A Cock and Bull Story. The novel is famously unfilmable, so make a film about filming the famously unfilmable book.

And by pulling back to reveal the creative process, just as Laurence Sterne does in the novel with his character Tristram as the author of the book being read, the film adds one more layer to the whole deconstructionist ambience of the piece. Or maybe two layers because, after all, this filming of the book is itself being filmed by another crew we don't get to see, right?

The movie (the one we're watching, not the one we're watching being made) gets its name from a witticism at the end of Sterne's novel. But the Cock half perhaps also comes from repeated references to male members, including Toby's war wound, the falling of the sash on young Tristram's part while he's peeing out the window, an actor who has hot chestnuts dropped down his pants, and so on. The Bull half can represent the entire story.

Sometimes British comic actor Steve Coogan addresses us, the viewing audience, directly as Tristram, but sometimes also as Steve Coogan, the actor playing the role of Tristram, as well as the role of Tristram's father, Walter. (The film-within-the-film has a small budget.)

Other times—especially for the first quarter of the film—we watch the eighteenth-century characters in scenes from Tristram Shandy, oblivious to anyone watching.

And then, for much of the film, we follow Coogan and the rest of the company going about making the film, seemingly oblivious to us watching them. Especially engaging are the scenes between the self-obsessed Coogan and fellow comic Rob Brydon, who portrays the naive and lovable (too lovable for Coogan's liking) Toby and considers himself the film's co-lead. Hardly a joke in the whole film, but plenty of that dry and wry British character humour.

It's all very low key. Even when American star Gillian Anderson is brought in to play herself and Sterne's Widow Wadman, which creates nervousness in the shy Brydon and jealousy in Coogan.

Perhaps too low key. At the end when the cast and crew watch the final rushes of the film they've made, they're surprised at how little there is to it. No battle scenes, no big romance, no big ending.

The joke is that this is to be expected, since it's how the book goes (it's why it's considered unfilmable). But the viewer of A Cock and Bull story may also feel a little cheated because not a lot happens in the enveloping story either. A few emotional skirmishes but no major contradiction resolved in any big conclusion. Just a...cock and bull tale.

But I enjoyed falling for it.

— Eric



See also:


The French Lieutenant's Woman


Buy the book:

Book cover
Tristram Shandy

On Twitter:

Follow on Twitter