Celebrated 1990’s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly recently returned to UK Netflix, which feels like a good opportunity to explore a show which helped define its decade, series by series. Has it stood the test of time?
Men Behaving Badly, one of the most popular and well-loved British comedy series of the 1990’s, you suspect is a show that a lot of people have not rewatched in a long time.
Running for six series, a Christmas special, and three special concluding episodes between 1992 and 1998, Simon Nye’s ITV and later BBC series (based on a book of the same name by the writer), Men Behaving Badly was a show that struck a clear chord in the 90’s as a response to the phenomenon of the ‘New Man’, a pro-feminist, almost new age male figure who eschewed boorish masculinity at the tail end of the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, but we must be careful to mark out Nye’s series as a rejection of such a movement. Men Behaving Badly is sometimes mischaracterised as a major influence on the birth of ‘laddism’, or a ‘new lad’ subculture which rejected the progressive, gender equal feminist movement in favour of a return to masculine, and often misogynistic ideals.
In truth, Nye’s series is a clear and approximate satire on the rejection of the ‘New Man’, revolving around two (or as it ends up being, three) men who both epitomise aspects of ‘laddism’ while proving, uncategorically, how pathetic such positions are. While Men Behaving Badly gets off to a slow and in places rocky start with its first series, the template by the end of the first six episodes is clearly defined. Martin Clunes’ Gary and Harry Enfield’s Dermot are flatmates and a fairly useless pair of men at the tail end of their youth, still trying to define themselves by fake masculinity, sexual promiscuity, and personal success. In the time honoured tradition of British comedy, they are endlessly doomed to failure in all of these aspects, held back by their own selfishness, lack of self-awareness and frequent childish behaviour.
Even more acutely, especially with the benefit of hindsight, neither Gary or Dermot in the first series are men who don’t actually behave particularly *badly*.
Men Behaving Badly premiered on ITV in February 1992, a studio-based sitcom which aired before what is known as the ‘watershed’, based on the rather dry allegory of drainage basins designed to separate water into different areas; in TV terminology, the ‘watershed’ applies to programmes with content designated at adult audiences, which broadcasters have strict Ofcom rules to abide by in terms of what is shown before 9pm, specifically for the protection of children. With broadcast television now on the wane, the watershed concept is transforming via cable pay per view and streaming services into parental locking systems and the like, but the watershed was particularly applicable to a show like Men Behaving Badly – except at first.
Airing in a pre-9pm slot on ITV, the first and indeed second series of Men Behaving Badly are decidedly much more milquetoast than later series, once the show moved to airing on the BBC for the rest of its run in a post-watershed slot. The first series is frequently naughty, filled with double entendre and frank discussion about sexual intercourse—indeed sex is the main topic on Gary and Dermot’s brains—but aside from some angry outbursts, they don’t indulge too heavily in the kind of overtly ‘laddish’ behaviour that would become associated with the show at its peak around the fourth and fifth series. Series 1 is often described as the show at its weakest, and while they may be true given the comedic heights it scales, the scripts are much funnier than you might remember.
Famously of course, Enfield—who at the time was undeniably the star of the show thanks to his BBC sketch series Harry Enfield’s Television Programme, later known as Harry Enfield & Chums (one of the best sketch series of the 90’s)—did not enjoy his experience on the show and Dermot was only a fixture for these first six episodes.
Men Behaving Badly didn’t start with a script coming through the door. It got going simply because Harry Enfield signed up to star in it. His original vision was for it not to be like a usual sitcom. Then we made the pilot and it shocked him. It was bad. It didn’t faze me since I was nobody from nowhere, but you could see Harry wanted out. He was under contract, though, so had to do one series. I’ve not watched the pilot since. Actually, no one has. It’s never been aired. It was everything Harry railed against: coarse, with the director saying you’ve got to be chalk and cheese – abrasive like The Likely Lads.
Clunes is referring to the fact that Series 1, due to Enfield’s presence and thanks to a contractual issue with ITV, has never been repeated on broadcast television (Series 2 has been, perhaps due to the fact Enfield was not a feature), and his words make Series 1 sound a little more remote and inaccessible than it always has been – widely available of course on VHS (I wore out my copies in the 90’s and 00’s), and later on DVD – but it speaks to the fact most of the cast believe Series 1 is best forgotten; an inferior take on, as Clunes suggests, hit 1960’s sitcom The Likely Lads.
This isn’t quite fair to Series 1. You can see the DNA of Men Behaving Badly in something like The Likely Lads (which featured James Bolam & Rodney Bewes as two working class friends in 60’s Newcastle – later revived as 70’s sequel series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?), but if that show reflects a cynical, northern viewpoint on modern life during a period of significant social and political change, then Simon Nye’s show is happening, certainly in terms of British society, at the birth of gender identity. If women’s roles in the 50’s and 60’s were changing to move out of the home and into the workplace, women of the 90’s were becoming ever more empowered in terms of their sexual agency and dominant femininity. Series 1 may not find all of the comedy in that but the seeds are there.
Of the two leads, Gary is immediately the stronger character, with Clunes instantly getting a handle on his middle-class, little Englander, laddish yet ultimately quite emotionally pathetic character. Gary owns his own flat, holds down a decent job as head of a small, provincial security firm, has a perfectly nice, equally middle-class girlfriend in nurse Dorothy (played with redoubtable wit and comic timing by Caroline Quentin) and absolutely believes life has handed him a duff card. Clunes, the son of respected Shakespearian character actor Alec Clunes, understands Gary comes as much from the Basil Fawlty school of perennial underachievers as he does Bewes’ aspiration Bob Ferris. You get the feeling Fawlty Towers is a major influence on Nye’s work here, and Clunes brings out all of Gary’s repressed fury when he gets the opportunity.
Gary is one of those great British comedy archetypes – the trapped Englander forced to live with his lot. If Fawlty has his quaint hotel stuck eternally in some kind of colonial British loop, Gary has the security firm job in a tiny office where he rarely seems to do any actual work. If Basil is surrounded by doddering old guests who feel trapped in a time warp, Gary has ageing workers George (Ian Lindsay) and Anthea (Valerie Minifie); both dithery and strange, both at the whim of Gary’s neuroses and questions (he often treats them like therapists to work through issues with those he lives with). And if Fawlty has his shrewish wife Sybil and their loveless marriage, Gary has Dorothy – a woman who knows full well she can do better, knows Gary is a boorish sexist with little respect for women, but loves him for it anyway (though they are among the most viperish and on/off in the first series than they’ll ever be).
“You really are a yob, aren’t you Gary?” Dorothy asks in The Bet as he mocks her slideshow of classical Italian architecture, but there’s a sense that Gary only rejects her middle-class aspirations and strong feminist attitudes because he believes a real man should be that way.
When Dorothy starts dallying with Graham, a very middle-class (but also intentionally quite boring man), Gary is incensed. He consistently believes he can do better than Dorothy, and wants to sleep with more women than Dorothy, but after two years has come to rely on her more than he would like to admit. Gary is a great comic creation from the off not just because he ticks many of these archetypal sitcom boxes as a bitter, raging Englishman, but because he’s essentially at war with himself – between the middle-class, relatively affluent boyfriend he could be, and the lager-swilling, womanising working class boor he thinks he should be. “It’s not easy being a guy in the 1990’s you know?” he rails at one point. It’s an existential line that could define the series.
It’s why the concept begins to click a little more from Series 2 when Neil Morrissey arrives as new flatmate Tony, because it allows Nye to tug a little more on the often-unspoken class divide between the two central male characters, and accentuate Gary’s entitled southern middle-class snobbery and arrogance even more. Nye can’t quite pull that off with Gary and Dermot because, to a degree, they’re from similar worlds. They’re old friends from university who come from similar backgrounds you sense, though it’s much less clear with Dermot as he’s far less defined as a character. Enfield plays him so still and deadpan he almost neuters Clunes’ repressed fury. Their dynamic feels like Mark and Jeremy from Peep Show with the edges filed off.
Enfield, in truth, is not nearly as bad in the role as people might remember – he just doesn’t fit. Dermot feels like an aberration and you suspect had Enfield continued in the role, Men Behaving Badly would not have lasted as long, or become the success it was. This isn’t to say Morrissey was the key to the formula, as Clunes is probably the primary reason the show works so well (he’s probably the only character you could really remove from the series and the show wouldn’t work anymore), but the show only really comes into its own once the Gary/Tony dynamic is figured out—in tandem with the aforementioned post-watershed slot. Dermot just isn’t that much of a lad; he’s arrogant, vain, a liar and he enjoys all of the aspects you would expect a ‘lad’ to enjoy, but he’s so passive about the experience of living with Gary and life in general, he never comes alive as a character.
That’s not to say Dermot isn’t a funny character, it just feels as if he’s been airlifted out of a different kind of comedy script and ported into Men Behaving Badly, which is a little unfair to Enfield, despite his visibly disinterested performance.
It’s just hard to really buy across Series 1 what Nye wants to accomplish with Dermot – his obsession with the literal ‘girl next door’ in Deborah (played by Leslie Ash, best known by the early 90’s for her co-starring role in cult late 70’s music film Quadropheniaand 80’s detective series C.A.T.S. Eyes), the beautiful new neighbour who moves in upstairs in Intruders and serves as a catalyst for much of Dermot’s character arc; be it turning down the now glamorous sister of an old flame in Animals because he can’t get Deborah out of his head, or working for Deborah in My Brilliant Career as a waiter in order to be close to her and impress her all in one step.
It’s a character arc that works much better with Tony Smart, Dermot’s replacement in Series 2 when Enfield walked away from the series, played by Neil Morrissey.
It would be unfair to suggest that Men Behaving Badly starts truly working when Tony enters the picture because, in truth, parts of Series 2 simply don’t work as well as Series 1. It takes Nye a while to figure out the dynamic between Gary and Tony, and indeed figure out quite what he wants Tony to be as character. Morrissey brings much more of a relaxed naturalism to Tony than Enfield allowed himself with Dermot, but at first Tony is presented as a shaggy-haired, bohemian musician perhaps to provide a counterpoint to Gary’s dull, middle-class repression. Tony is from the north and could have time warped out of The Likely Lads era in Series 2; in People Behaving Irritatingly, we see Tony’s annoying brother who is much broader in his accent and much more directly reflects Tony’s working class origins, very much unlike Gary’s relatively privileged upbringing.
Rent Boy, an episode which very much shows how Men Behaving Badly has in some ways not dated very well, plays with Gary’s homophobia in a way that you suspect Nye though was an ironic take on the kind of ‘gay panic’ visible in 1970’s sitcom world (Dorothy and Deborah are both on hand to tell Gary he’s an idiot for worrying Tony might be gay), but ends up playing into many of the same narrative stereotypes (the fact Tony immediately fancies Deborah on his introduction in Gary & Tony proves he’s probably not gay anyway, invalidating the entire episode). It’s only by the end of Series 2 does Nye begin creeping in the elements that will define Tony going forward; scaling back the musician aspect and ramping up his growing obsession with Deborah and his layabout weirdness.
Crucially alongside this, Morrissey and Ash have demonstrable on-screen chemistry together; you can believe Deborah would fancy Tony, whereas you never really bought into that with Dermot – he was too dorky, in his own way. Tony is a bit cooler, a bit sexier, and Deborah—though probably the weakest overall character in the ensemble—always looks for two things in her prospective boyfriends: charisma and success (even though Mike, the boyfriend she has in Series 1, is pure 1980’s cheesy, slick soap-opera sleazebag). Tony has one of the two, and Nye nicely puts in place the building blocks for Tony and Deborah’s eventual relationship toward the end of the series (not that he ever should have pulled the trigger on that, but we’ll talk about that down the line…). Once this key foursome are established, Men Behaving Badly edges closer toward the point it *really* begins to work by Series 3.
It also, with Gary and Tony, has two actors and characters nicely placed to explore the lad culture phenomenon on the verge of burgeoning by the end of 1992. The term ‘new lad’ would be popularised in 1993 by Sean O’Hagen in Loaded, during the year Men Behaving Badly was off air before it would return, newly on the BBC and in time slot where it could fully capitalise on the show’s name and potential. Clunes doesn’t agree, however, that Men Behaving Badly was responsible for the birth of so-called ‘laddism’ as the series began moving toward becoming a cult hit:
We didn’t set out to do a zeitgeisty thing. Although it aired in the early 1990s, it was never meant to sum up that particular time. It was just funny to laugh at people like Gary and Tony. Loaded magazine didn’t come along till later, but the show still got lumped in with lads mag culture, despite Neil and I being a good 10 years older than their readership. The series was an exhalation after a finger-pointy period about men making life terrible for women, but it was also a bit: “We’re just like this sometimes, so shut up.” The men always lost, too: Dorothy and Deborah had the upper hand. We did The Late Late Show once and they tried to drag us into a war of the sexes. We just said: “Look at the programme – it’s not about anything!”
True or not on reflection, the time would soon come that these men could start behaving very badly on television indeed.
Check out the rest of this series on Men Behaving Badly here: