It must be something in the water. Or maybe something in the air. Or the large amount of water that is frequently in the air. American sit-coms, if successful, will run and run and run for a decade of seasons waaaaay too long with episode counts deep in the double digits past the point of drying up all the ideas. British Sit-Coms? Season 1, Season 2, BAM! Done! Maybe a Season 3 if you are really lucky. And episodes per season? 6. Possibly 7. Certainly not double digits. Black Books, the BAFTA award-winning show from writer and star Dylan Moran, clocks up at 3 seasons and 18 episodes airing between 2000 to 2004. That’s yer lot!
Black Books revolves around a second-hand bookshop run by Bernard Black (Moran). His approach to customer services is one that starts at indifference, quickly moves on to aggravation, and frequently resorts to violence. Existing in a permanent state of drunkenness and with a cigarette constantly in hand, Bernard would rather not sell any books at all. Along with best, and probably only, friend, Fran (Tamsin Greig) the pair are content to drink, smoke, and read their time away. Yet Bernard’s taxes are due and he reluctantly takes on the stressed but good-natured accountant, Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey) to work under him. Under his foot, preferably.
Misanthropic characters are not unusual in comedy, but Moran injects so much of himself into Bernard Black that the frequent and hilarious rants carry the sting of truth to them. He rages at tax return forms that ask for mother’s maiden name, (“Maiden name? What’s her first name?! I just called her ‘Ma’!”, adding later “Ma, possibly deceased…”) and lobs around insults that are as crafted as they are cutting (“You hated school…You don’t have to tell me anything, I can just look at your life now and work backwards.”). This reviewer has seen Dylan Moran live and can testify that the wonderfully poetic and comedic rages are very much as present in his live act as they are on the screen.
Contrasting Moran’s chaotic energy is the sublime Bill Bailey. Bailey had struggled to break into the mainstream before Black Books despite a successful stand-up career but his performance as Manny would levitate him like a swallowed Little Book of Calm into the light. Like most sit-coms, the first episode has to go through the motions of introducing characters and Bailey’s lack of acting experience wobbles through.
But he quickly settles into his almost child-like dogsbody role and quickly develops into one of the highlights of the show. Many episodes focus on his exasperation at Bernard’s anti-social and messy attitudes, (“I’m eating scrambled eggs, with a comb, from a shoe!” he complains in the face of Bernard’s sullen protestations) and his, inevitably failed, attempts to actually get some of those customer type people in the shop. That he lives in the shop with Bernard means that the two of them have a mutual co-dependency in the classic Odd Couple / Steptoe and Son / Red Dwarf mould.
Adding the vital third element is Tamsin Greig (before hitting it big with Green Wing, Episodes and more) as Fran. Fran is pitched at a level between her two male co-stars but, unlike Bernard and Manny, has some great comedy set-ups on her own terms. Whether she is battling with an unscrupulous landlord who is gaslighting her about her oddly shrinking apartment, trying to date a man who clearly has other preferences, or trying to relive her youth with old school friends who gather more out of shared history than current love, Greig’s down on her luck Fran is a brilliant piece of the Black Books puzzle.
Whilst the show is predominantly Moran’s you can sense the influence of Father Ted writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews in the first series. There are heightened reality flourishes where the every day life of begrudging bookshop sales are detailed with things like sudden piano virtuosity, a hungry creature under the bed (“We just call it….’the thing’.”), and a hiding space under the dinner table complete with a cocktail bar. These moments are peppered lightly enough to never take over, but give the show it’s own self-contained universe in which to play (much like it’s spiritual ‘sister’ show, Spaced, which shares the same producers and shares many cast members for one-off roles).
Black Books was designed to rage at the futility of effort by purposefully choosing a dying craft (second-hand bookshop) as its setting. You could argue this is analogous to the decline of multi-camera studio-based sitcoms after their 90s heyday. Comedy may have largely abandoned the format as old hat, but shows like Black Books prove that with strong characters and visual flair there is plenty of scope for long-lasting belly laughs. Don’t bend the page corners back. No browsing. No haggling. Just buy a book or get out.
Words by Mike Record