British sitcom written By Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan, and starring Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig.

Black Books is a tiny little second-hand bookshop in London, just off Russell Square. It's run by the drunken, misanthropic, obnoxious Irishman, Bernard Black, whose only hobbies in life are abusing customers and knocking back wine with Fran, owner of the Nifty Gifty shop next door and Bernard's best friend. When his accountant is arrested for massive fraud, Bernard is forced to hire an assistant to do his accounts, help around the shop and occasionally sell books to customers when Bernard isn't looking. Manny, the put-upon assistant, moves into the flat behind the shop with Bernard, and the three of them form their own drunken, surreal, insular world.

Black Books was originally written by Dylan Moran for Channel 4, and the first episode was produced as a play during the Riverside Festival in 1998. In the original version, Bernard was a lot darker – still drunken and misanthropic, but also hugely depressed and suicidal. Fran was hugely different – rather than the dizzy cow she is in the series, she was the smart one who was always looking out for Bernard. He announces one day that he's going to kill himself and begins making plans. Fran decides to cheer him up by hiring a singing telegram. Unfortunately, the singing telegram – Manny – is even more depressed than Bernard, and congratulates him on his wise decision. The two get horribly drunk on eggnog, and form a suicide pact. When they wake up with hangovers though, they find that unbeknownst to Bernard, a huge cult has been building up around him, and when they discovered that their leader was preparing to kill himself, they all do too. The news that they've inspired 10,000 suicides overnight makes Bernard and Manny reconsider their decision, so they decide to live instead, and Manny quits his job to become Bernard's assistant.

The script went down very well at the Riverside Festival, but Channel 4 weren't happy with it. It was shunted around for about 2 years, until finally they roped in Graham Linehan (co-creator of Father Ted and Big Train) to re-write. The resulting scripts were a lot lighter and a lot wackier than Dylan's original version, but were also a lot tighter, a lot better paced, and if truth be told, a lot funnier.

When it finally did see the light of day in October 2000, it was tucked away late at night on Channel 4's Friday comedy lineup at 10.30 (when all right-thinking people were in the pub). Consequently, the ratings were quite poor – causing Dylan to say, "we're really glad to have won this award, we just wish somebody had actually watched the show" while picking up the BAFTA for Best New British Comedy.

In a weird twist though, C4 didn't drop it and blame Dylan and Graham. Instead, they repeated the first series, commissioned a second and gave it a huge advertising push. At the time of writing, only the first episode has been aired, and it's not known how it scored in the ratings. But here's hoping it does well, because with the possible exception of The Office, this is by far the best British comedy of the past 5 years.

It's also been shown in the states on Comedy Central, and some video clips are available at their microsite : http://www.comedycentral.com/tv_shows/blackbooks/





Series 1 (written by Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan):
  1. Cooking The Books
  2. Manny's First Day
  3. The Grapes Of Wrath
  4. The Blackout
  5. The Big Lock-out
  6. He's Leaving Home

Series 2 (written by Dylan Moran):
  1. The Entertainer
  2. Fever
  3. The Fixer
  4. Blood
  5. Hello Sun
  6. A Nice Change

This one is the UK's Seinfeld.

Not because it had enormous viewership, lasted for many, many seasons, made megastars out of its cast or made millionaires out of anyone, but because it featured a three-man band (two men, one women) of truly obnoxious people you couldn't really care about.

Dylan Moran plays Bernard Black, as previously mentioned - going against the type of the Irishman as a drunken, chainsmoking dishevelled misanthrope. Actually, no, there he is, uncombed hair, ashtray of a mouth, in the first episode mentioning he thought he was gay but he'd in no way tolerate the levels of hygiene and dancing required. Then shoo's out everyone in ths shop to drink furiously.

The shop, by the way, is a ramshackle dim place with books absentmindedly piled everywhere, and Black seems to just have it as a means to pass the time. It isn't making any money and Bernard has no interest in making it any kind of going concern. This goes beyond the Holllywood trope of people being in apartments they'd in no way be able to afford on their salaries (Roseanne's proletarian house and the Bundys of Married with Children aside). In real life London, England has insanely high rents and there's no way Black would have had the resources to start such a place never mind keep it going with such a disparity between his income and outgoing payments.

The only counterbalance to his life when the series begins is Fran, the ditzy neighbor who runs "nifty gifty" - the kind of shop that sells completely useless knick-knacks and in one episode, she cannot work out what the latest item she puts on her shelf even is. (It looks like a bowling ball mated with a new-school tea kettle and turns out to be a novelty cigarette lighter, as Bill Bailey's "Manny" works out instantly.) She similarly runs a shop that shouldn't exist (places like that in real life don't last long - as people go in, browse but rarely actually buy anything) and it's a pointed joke that the beaded curtain in the front door is just as much an impediment to commerce as Bernard's acid demeanor to anyone else. She comes over with wine on a frequent basis and seems to be his only friend in the world.

This is, until Manny, an accountant living a life of quiet desperation in corporate Britain (even though he has a balding mullet and an earring and dresses like a child molester, a uniform that is neither accountantlike or acceptable in finance) inadvertently swallows the "Tiny Book of Calm", a postage-stamp sized book that apparently is about to kill him because it's lodged against various internal organs but when they go to remove it, it turns out he's literally assimilated it. This gives him a Messianic appearance and the ability to calm everyone, even barking dogs and car alarms. This ability immediately disappears when a trio of skinheads harass and aggress him, and this supernatural ability makes no further comeback.

Manny and Bernard meet when Bernard, who despairs about having to do routine life tasks like file taxes, reads that if you're injured or ill you get an extension to file, and goes out to taunt the skinheads in the hope that they do him severe enough injury that he doesn't have to do them. They merely bloody his lip, but beating him up bores them and they leave the two men alone. Manny agrees to do Bernard's accounts, and Bernard drunkenly offers Manny a job. Manny, a quiet, happy and now becalmed soul becomes a kind of counterpoint and "only sane man" between Bernard and Fran.

So okay, we're not in any kind of realistic comedy, this is some kind of absurdist farce. Then again, Graham Linehan has not been one for accuracy in his scripts, preferring to make things a comedy based on human interaction - typically between a misanthrope, a bemused woman, and someone who just lives on another plane. (The IT Crowd had Irish misanthrope Roy, bemused Jen, and autistic Moss, Father Ted had Father Ted, Father Dougal, and Father Jack).

But even an absurdist farce has to have some kind of internal logic, and this one strangely doesn't. It's never truly explained why Fran even remotely cares about Bernard - she doesn't have much of the kind of personality that normally tries to "rescue" broken, alcoholic men ("You don't know him like I do") and there's a lot of pathos and dark comedy that you could have pulled out of the idea of someone who has given up on Black as a lover but not as a human being. But Fran is just as much of a mess as Bernard is, in a different way - and the two merely live parallel lives using the other as some kind of enabling mirror.

As for Manny, okay, he was tired of being bullied and living a life of no meaning as a faceless minion in corporate Britain. I get the idea of The Tiny Book of Calm being a device to make Manny go from a stressed-out salaryman to blissed out person who wouldn't choke the living shit out of Bernard with his own duodenum, like every other human being on Earth would want to do. But it wouldn't make any sense that he would leave a profitable life just to camp out in a place of horrendous hygiene, with an abusive drunk for insanely low pay and near-constant abuse. He's the kind of man who has enough business acumen to turn the store's fortunes around in the first episode. Not only does he fix the accounting situation but when Black leaves on an errand Manny sells out significant amounts of inventory and makes the shop a nice block of revenue. So it makes literally no sense that he would simply move from being a corporate butt monkey with benefits and a good salary to being the unbenefited, almost homeless butt monkey to a simply hideous human being, just because Black was kind enough to distract the skinheads' fists with his face.

There's a lot that could have been pulled from this with even the slightest explanation of this motivation. Manny seeing the sheer joy of applying his talents to making a small bookshop work, as opposed to crunching numbers for a faceless corporation. Conflict between Black's desire to use the books as a shield against the world and Manny using them to bring it in. Feeling a holy duty to minister to a lost soul, as evidenced by the Messianic imagery of the first episode. Wanting to become a Bohemian who cares for nothing like Bernard, but that would have led to two similar characters being in competition. Even being shyly unrequitedly sexually attracted to Fran and there being that tension would have made some internal sense. But Manny is just there for Dylan Moran to be abusive, drunk, misanthropic and Irish to. In fact, you could have played his ability to Crocodile Dundee away aggression by having a passive-aggressive "war" between Black's near-constant anger and vitriol to the rest of the world, and Manny quietly raising his arms and calming the waters, which would work but also infuriate Black the more in a kind of downward/upward spiral.

It's not like there's any motivation for any of them to be around each other at all on a physical level which would handwave things away. If Fran had been a smokeshow it would have made sense that either man would put up with her self-absorption, but she's got a strange, equine-like angular face and a short, unfeminine haircut. If Dylan Moran hadn't had the kind of incipient alcohoilic puffy faced no hygiene "anti-style" that certain men think is cool or any personal charisma it would have explained either of them hanging around. Bill Bailey is of course much younger and thinner, but he looks like an aging roadie for Hawkwind, and there's nothing ultimately interesting or attractive about someone who sticks around and soaks up abuse.

Much of this makes sense when you watch Moran's standup, which is a cross between Eddie Izzard-style stream of consciousness with strange digressions (Australia is a place where it's so hot you put food on a grill just to watch it naturally spontaneously combust, and the ocean is full of things trying to kill you, like sharks, octopi, and "swimming kinves") and drunken misanthropy. Moran would frequently do stand-up drunk and his face these days shows the ravages of excessive drinking, leading to the horrid feeling that you're listening to a raving tramp on the Tube - so the idea of transferring that comedy persona to the television screen only makes sense when you realize they're trying to hang some kind of story around what is in essence a completely contrived character. The Irish drunk who can't get his life together.

This show ambled on for three seasons. It's funny in places, to be sure. Moran's character dealing with a bill collector by cutting the cord to his own telephone in the middle of a conversation or coming back angered when the shop has made significant money because it means he has to go call a book supplier and order more inventory is of course nonsensical but character-based situational comedy. You have a strong cast in two very funny stand-up comedians and the woman to tie everything together.

But it's the kind of show, and yes, this is a spoiler, where they come back from a party drunk and nihilistic, and Black finally reveals that his misanthropy and downward spiral started when a young woman he deeply loved died. This could have ended the show on a very poignant note, except they (which is typical of that show) threw it immediately away by having Fran find evidence that the woman is very much alive, and that Black has been mistaken this many years. I say that because if he believed she was dead enough (having been close to her it would have involved a funeral, the loss being felt by shared family and friends, etc) to go into that bad a spiral, it wasn't just that he missed a couple of her phone calls and threw a wobbly - then the only logical explanation is that she faked her death with the complicity of her family and friends to escape this man. Which then makes the "I was normal and happy and we were very much in love, then this happened" completely nonsensical. If it turned out that the woman had faked her death in some way to get way the hell away from Black, Fran's natural female reaction would be to cover for her "sister" and extricate her own self the hell away from this man because her natural self-defense mechanism would tell her that he's the sort who is either another bottle away from beating her down the stairs, or she's going to find a collection of human skin hanging on coat hangers in the basement.

I get that Moran's schtick needs to be watered down for television, but Linehan made so many uncharacteristic errors in the framing of this show it looks like he was making it up as he went along. Nevertheless it did well, has some laughs in it, and is an engaging enough half hour or so of television. What a shame that there's so much - from the horrible opening theme involving Tom Waits style xylophone and badly played and EQ'd electric guitar to watching this illogical mess unravel its own internal logic - to have to sift through.

Better still to watch Bailey or Moran in their natural element - on a stage telling jokes.

 

 

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