During the last decade or so, Channel 4 has been the home of bright, new, original comedy. Allways willing to take a gamble of a couple of stand-ups looking to do a half hour comedy, they’ve systematically pumped out hit after hit.
Another to emerge from Channel 4’s comedy circus, Black Books was a wonderfully witty, sensationally surreal sit-com that bungs more laughs per episode than should be humanly possible.
Focussing on what might just be the world’s worst book shop, Black Books delves into the dingy little life of Bernard, the shop’s owner and generally awful and decrepit human being. Content to simply sneer at others, smoke and drink and only one friend in the whole wide world (Fran, the dysfunctional owner of the nick-knack shop next door) Bernard is one of the most pitiful lead characters of any comedy ever. And that’s what makes him great.
His life is changed forever though when he hire Manny, a shop assistant and general housekeeper who may just be the key to Bernard’s salvation. Or could just be a beardy idiot for him to abuse, depends what side of the bed Bernard wakes up on.
The creative brainchild of Irish pair Graham Linehan and Dylan Moran, the original show was much darker. Thankfully, the pair made the one slightly lighter than the pitch black starting point and the little book shop of horrors was born.
Quite often the show was simply a showcase for the central three comedic powers and with Moran, bill bailey and Tamsin Greig at your disposal, why wouldn’t you use them.
It’s those three actors who make Black Books the absolute gem that it is. Moran is picture perfect as the drunken, slurring toe rag that is Bernard Black, all mangled hair, sunken eyes and flailing limbs. bill bailey is brilliant, as always, with Manny suiting his bouncy, fizzy style perfectly. Tamsin Greig as the cackling, broken Fran is fantastic as well, but despite her and Bailey’s best efforts, it’s Moran’s show.
Bernard and Manny’s travails with a complex security system, Fran trying out yoga and Bernard and Manny creating a children’s book and the two hiring a cleaner are just some of the potentially banal things enlivened by the show’s deranged comedic streak.
It’s the physical comedy that really sparkles though. The use of props may sound easy and cheap, but the implementation is second to none. From the show’s consistently fantastic use of glue and the simply amazing ‘wine lollipop’ gag are standouts, but Black Books always manages to make the simplest gags work in the most unexpected and hilarious ways.
That’s not to say that when Black Books puts away the props it’s not funny. Far from it. Bernard’s fierce barbs of venom, Manny’s exuberant observations and Fran’s passive aggression are the trademarks of Moran and Linehan’s scripts, with the whole show sharing more than just a passing resemblance to Linehan’s classical comedy Father Ted.
Linehan has been for years one of the UK’s foremost comedic writers, with Black Books being bookended (forgive the entirely intentional pun) by Father Ted and The IT Crowd.
Despite it's esteemed company bretheren, Black Books can stand proud as one of the UK’s brightest comedies of the early 2000s, garnering both critical acclaim and awards (it got the BAFTA for best sit-com in both 2001 and 2005) along the way to three brilliant series.
Bernard, Manny and Fran might all be losers, but in comedic terms, Black Books is an absolute winner.
FemaleFirst Cameron Smith
You can get your hands on all three series of Black Books on DVD from Zavvi right here.