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I'm having two days off from the day job. La, la, la! Look! I'm still in my jammies at 11:50 on a weekday!

Later today I will be popping into town to collect the bundle of books waiting for me at the R'n'R bookshop and making a list of all the books that have been added to my "to be read" pile in the last month. The R'n'R bookshop is like a sane version of Black Books. Books everywhere, no coffee, no sofas, no tinkly easy jazz. (To be fair, my favourite bookshop in London is Foyles and I will always use their Jazz cafe because it has something curiously boho and 50s about it.)

I spent last night drinking red wine and watching the entire season 2 of Black Books on DVD. The BBC had an utterly stupid Best British sitcom ever poll recently and Black Books didn't even make the top 50. Philistines! Fools! (Admittedly Father Ted, co-written by Graham Linehan who created Black Books, just missed the top 10 so I'm assuming it is merely the lack of age that prevented Black Books from getting anywhere). The show also suffers, reputation-wise, from a mind-staggeringly slow production rate of one season of six shows every 2 years so don't expect it to ever appear in America. Unless badly remade.

So here are my reasons for Black Books being a great sitcom:

  1. Situation, situation, situation
    It is one of those dreadful truisms about sitcoms that the good ones work on the principle that the main character is trapped in a situation from which they wish to escape. Be it the tedium of suburban life (The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin), old age (Waiting for God), the hospitality trade (Fawlty Towers) or prison (Porridge, taking the idea of inescapable to its logical end).

    In Black Books, Bernard Black has no interest in escaping the situation. He likes the situation. Manny and Fran are the two who occassionally try to escape the shop. Or, more precisely, they try to escape Bernard. Manny frequently leaves, only to find himself at the whims of people even worse (the bear pornographer in He's Leaving Home, the corporate bookstore culture in Manny Come Home). Fran's attempts are more subtle but just as doomed. The three characters are utterly trapped by their co-dependency and Bernard fully intends to keep it that way. These aren't Friends' or Coupling's lot: this is a social group whose co-dependency is acknowlegded as an alluring trap.

  2. Characterization
    There've always been ensemble sitcoms. Most tend to assume that four is the very minimum (Red Dwarf when it began, The Golden Girls). Even Father Ted had four. Black Books decides to make it even smaller. Three characters. You can't do a sitcom with just three characters. Yet they do. Each one is a cliched stereotype on paper: the drunk Irish slob; the sandal wearing beardy hippie; the hypertense single woman. And every one works perfectly on screen because the three actors don't seem to play the parts, they embody them. I saw Moo-ma and Moo-pa being filmed and, in breaks, Bill Bailey would be the one to come over to chat to the audience (saving us from a truly dreadful warm-up man who actually managed to cool us down). There is something horribly plausible to their playing of the parts.

  3. it's black
    I can't get into the pretty world of things like Friends. Not just the tone of the narratives but in visual terms. Black Books looks skanky: the shop is chaos, Bernard and Manny look like single men who have never quite got to grips with laundry or clothes shopping. It's plausible rather than the usual TV neatness. And the tone is relentlessly bleak, cynical and dark. This, again, comes down to Bernard's acceptance of his place - anything upbeat is undercut with his pessimism.

  4. it's about books
    Yes, Ellen was set in a bookshop too but that was a corporate drone bookshop. I just adore the notion that Bernard loves books so much he doesn't actually want to sell them. Anyone who spends much time wandering about second hand bookshops will be familiar with that aspect of the trade. I would chat for ages with Dawn, the propriatoress of Barbican Books in Exeter's New Bridge Street, and as she was in the process selling up she told me that anyone who works in the second hand book trade is there because they love books. They want to spend their time surrounded by them. Bernard is unusally grouchy with the customers, true, but he loves his books.


One thing that confuses me though, and which I never noticed till I went to the filming: there are too many staircases. There's one at the front of the shop, with its own door - quite clearly the usual seperate flat above a shop thing. And there's one going up from the kitchen, at the back of the shop, leading to Bernard and Manny's bedrooms and a bathroom (seen in season 2 during the Wallace and Grommet section). So how the hell is this building divided up? The angles are all wrong. Possibly thinking about this is a sign of my own insanity. I should go write something proper...(update: so I checked The Fixer on the DVD - not only are the stairs all wrong, there's a window where no window could possibly be. Perhaps it's a side effect of the well-known TARDIS effect in bookshops? Or the 'magical shop' thing?)

On the rather good C4 microsite for Black Books, the 'diary' notes that Bernard has Doctor Who underpants. The mental image of Dylan Moran with Tom Baker's beaming face on his crotch is very very disturbing...

update for LJers - no I don't see or get notified about comments. You should go to the blog and post any there.

Posted @ 11:50 am on Thursday, April 01, 2004
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