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, across its final two series, sees the misadventures of Gary Strang and Tony Smart slide out of the laddism culture they propagated and into the earliest vestiges of comfortable middle age. You can feel the show doing the same along with them.
In the year 1996, Men Behaving Badly was at its cultural peak as Series 5 began to dawn, but this coincided with a significant cultural challenger to the New Lad thanks to, just two weeks after the series premiered, the arrival of the Spice Girls. Their debut single ‘Wannabe’ hit the charts in July of that year and launched the single biggest musical sensation in Britain since The Beatles over three decades earlier. Where in the swinging Sixties, Beatlemania sent legions of young people into paroxysms of excitement, the Cool Britannia of the 90’s saw the impact of ‘Girl Power’ and Geri Halliwell dressed in a Union Jack mini-skirt, the impending dawn of New Labour, the most liberal government in decades, and the Austin Powers franchise which threw everything back to a halcyon age of British ‘coolness’, injected this time with a call to female empowerment in a Britain filled with a renewed sense of optimism as it sailed toward a new century and a new millennium.
In retrospect, two men deep into their thirties swigging lager, frequently chanting “wa-hey!”, displaying disrespectful and sexist attitudes to women, indulging in infidelity and becoming almost disturbingly obsessed with sex, feels starkly retrograde in the face of the changing face of British popular culture in the late-1990’s. Men Behaving Badly was still popular, and Series 5 remains enjoyable, but it is clear that the show has passed its Series 4 peak at the true apex of lad culture, and in some respects had said everything it had to say. Writer Simon Nye spends the last few seasons continuing to mellow both Gary and Tony, not to mention their relationships with endlessly patient women in their lives Dorothy and Deborah, beginning the process of moving the show to being about not just two mates ‘and their birds’, but two couples who grow ever closer as friends and, to a degree, a dysfunctional, surrogate family. By the end of Series 6 and Last Orders, the final three concluding specials, Dorothy and Deborah feel as integral to the storytelling as Gary and Tony. Their importance grows as these two men, in their own way, slowly and surely begin to grow up.
By the final episode, Delivery, there is an argument that you could start calling this show People Behaving Responsibly.
There is a sense that laddism or lad culture overlapped and fused with the Cool Britannia renaissance which lasted certainly up to the global societal shock of 9/11 in 2001, and the subsequent popular collapse of Tony Blair’s New Labour project with Britain’s part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the weapons of mass destruction scandal.
Cool Britannia was pure, distilled nostalgia for an age, a country and a generation on the cusp of significant change. The 90’s was the period between Francis Fukuyama’s so-called ‘End of History’, with the cessation of the Cold War and five decades of open hostility between the United States and the defunct Soviet Union, and the post-9/11 ‘Shock and Awe’ of fundamentalist terrorism which cast a dark pallor over the first decade of the 21st century. Cool Britannia, for a while, was Britain’s hope that it could retain the level of boom, optimism and sexiness inherent in the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960’s. All of the teenagers who went crazy over the Beatles and the Stones, who drove Mini’s in the wake of The Italian Job, or partied in Swinging London, were all now middle-aged themselves, parents, part of the systems and institutions they themselves had sought to counteract. The Establishment days were over but the youth of the 60’s felt a certain glow for an age of zest for what the future may hold, before Thatcherism, neoliberal advances, globalisation and years of strikes, unemployment and austerity scarred the British psyche.
The British economy is booming: the pound is up, and unemployment is down. Peace and prosperity. Who could ask for anything more? But just in case someone does, there’s Britain’s current boom in the arts. Whether it’s movies like the The Full Monty, bands like Oasis and the Spice Girls, or designers like Stella McCartney, the hottest thing going these days seems to come from what is cloyingly known as “Cool Britannia.” And while Blair admits that this artistic blossoming was under way before he took office, he and his coterie of young advisers have relentlessly, even shamelessly, courted and promoted the hip as a way of announcing to the world that Britain is changing.
Britain was not just changing, it was reminsicing. It was rejoicing in calling back to an age before optimism had been eroded by the clinical reality of how post-war capitalism and trickle-down economics could reinforce a social and financial divide many in the 60’s hoped had been cast into the pages of history with the death of Empire.
Lad culture overlaps with some of these Cool Britannia aspects. The Gallagher brothers of the aforementioned Oasis, one of the stalwarts at the heart of ‘Britpop’, displayed behaviour which went far beyond any pale shown on Men Behaving Badly; they may have fashioned themselves on John and Paul but their antics were often more Keith Moon-era The Who. What is lad culture beyond a rejection of sexual equality and a progressive future for women in society and the workplace? It is nostalgic for the 60’s and 70’s where Carry On films, saucy pictures and working men’s clubs reinforced women as either sexual objects to be ogled or matriarchal old battle-axes to be feared or, ideally, avoided. Promiscuity and even infidelity in these examples are cheeky, cheerful and what make a man a true bloke. Laddism struggles to eke out a place alongside ‘Girl Power’. The Spice Girls may have been designed aesthetically to appeal to young boys but their core agenda was appealing to a female audience with a message of empowerment.
‘Girl Power’ was not something founded by the Spice Girls, rather appropriated and adapted for the time from Bikini Kill, an American punk band who in the early 90’s instigated the term through a feminist zine called Girl Power. It was a variant on the ‘Black Power’ slogan which through the 60’s and 70’s called for racial equality and the creation of black cultural institutions, in this case working to build on the work of feminists to advance ideas of female identity, inclusion and discussing issues. It was appropriate that Girl Power started in the punk feminist arena (the Riot Grrrrl movement, leading some to mispronounce the term ‘grrrl power’) because even though the Spice Girls popularised and mainstreamed the term, there remained a level of anti-establishmentarian rhetoric to the term, specifically aimed at the patriarchy. If New Men wanted to co-exist with the exponents of Girl Power then lad culture would continue to reject it. The Spice Girls and the feminist following would promote the individual success and agency of the modern woman in liberal Britain of the late 1990’s, while laddism still uncomfortably indulged in their pure objectification and sexualisation.
This is part of the reason Men Behaving Badly begins to evolve past the original brief across its last couple of seasons, as the shadow of the Cool Britannia cultural movement begins to envelop the original idea it was meant to satirise.
In purest terms, Series 5 is the last series in which Men Behaving Badly truly engages in the laddism on which it built its comic reputation. It is more self-assured than the first three series yet never reaches the comedic heights of Series 4, at which Nye’s show firmly targeted the pillars of lad culture that propped it up – The Good Pub Guide attempts to recreate Drunk to some degree but lacks the punch. Series 5 begins the transition away from the show being about two single guys living together, drinking and fantasising about women to a show about two increasingly middle aged men accepting their relationships and growing old a touch disgracefully.
This is made apparent in the choice made right at the beginning of Series 5, in which Gary (Martin Clunes) and Dorothy (Caroline Quentin) respond to her infidelity with Tony by her moving into the flat and them attempting, in Hair, to consolidate their permanently flimsy relationship; the fact Tony is away for months busking in Europe helps them realise they *can* live together and enjoy it (and was probably a move by Tony to give his slightly damaged relationship with his best friend some breathing room, though this is never stated). Your Mate vs Your Bird hits the choice Gary has to face head on – truly commit to living with Dorothy or retain the youthful laddish impulses he still has by just living with Tony, and the episodes proves (partly through some surprisingly graphic, horror dream sequences) that Gary is not yet ready to abandon his youth. It is a process which takes all the way up to the final episode, Delivery.
Series 5 is very much about the continued transition and acceptance, for Gary and Tony (though primarily Gary) that they are becoming a little too old to convincingly still live the beer swilling, ‘bird-pulling’ life they have tried (and often failed) to make work over the last few years.
Gary is consistently reminded across the series of his impending middle age; Cowardice sees him trying to prove his machismo in the face of shying away from an aggressive driver, Cardigan has him dressing like his fuddy-duddy co-worker George (Ian Lindsay), singing 1960’s pop songs and such, and once pointed out to him he attempts to re-assert his youth by joining a night out with students to a rave with, predictably, poor results; and finally Home Made Sauna, the final episode of the series, sees Gary attempt to re-assert his youthful masculinity by sleeping with visiting girl from next door, Carol (Elizabeth Carling) while Dorothy and Deborah are away on a sailing weekend. It’s a move which negates any lingering sympathy you may have felt for Gary after being cheated on by his lover and best friend, yet once again Nye doesn’t work too hard to vilify the man for it. It’s all just brushed aside by Stag Night, the first episode of Series 6, as part of a catalyst to begin the next stage of the transition.
This again works to the detriment of the characters in Men Behaving Badly when it comes to them feeling like real people. Tony (Neil Morrissey) edges further and further into absurdity and eccentricity across Series 5 as his obsession with Deborah deepens. Even if you put aside quite how the impoverished Tony could have afforded to inter-rail across Europe between Series 4 & 5 (an adventure which would have been logistically expensive, even as a busker, in 1996), Series 5 sees Tony move further and further away from being an affable if slightly sleazy flatmate toward an oddball played for farcical comic effect; Your Mate vs Your Bird has him try and tattoo Debs’ name on his leg, Rich and Fat has him adopt a less than convincing chubby prosthetic belly as Tony gains weight, and across the series he forms a new double act with Ken (John Thomson), the just plain weird new landlord of The Crown, when he gets a job behind the bar (this lasts longer than when he worked at The Crown under Les). Ken’s strangeness ameliorates Tony’s, slightly, but as a character Tony is positioned by the end of Series 5 as the real loser of the pair – he’s poor, whereas Gary has tens of thousands of pounds in the bank as we learn in Rich and Fat, he doesn’t own his own property, he’s not in a relationship and in Home Made Sauna, it’s Gary off having sex while Tony is saddled with the married mate, when in previous series it would have been the inverse.
Tony strays too far into the realm of caricature, especially into Series 6 when he becomes an FOF (Figure of Fun) frequently for several of the characters—such as Watching TV, which that acronym is in reference to—or the excuse for a piece of physical comedy. You can feel Nye becoming more reliant on Tony for that in episodes such as Jealousy or Ten (where he adopts a Kevin Keegan-style perm to try and impress Debs’ Mum) or Sofa, which has the quite bizarre sub-plot of Tony having to dispose of a snake he bought while drunk. This becomes even more of a problem when Nye finally pulls the trigger and puts Tony and Deborah into a relationship, a development that organically had been coming for a while, and should maybe have happened a season or two earlier. The result is that Series 6 parts the core central dynamic of Gary and Tony in order to make way for Dorothy and Deborah becoming more integral to their lives. While Series 6 is an uneven collection of episodes, this evolution of the show manages to refresh the formula enough to work toward a satisfying conclusion.
What’s really interesting about Series 6 is how much it intentionally strives to pull apart the established formula.
Only Stag Night or Ten really feel like they could have been tagged onto the end of Series 5, with the conventional scenes in the office with George and Anthea (Valerie Minifie). Wedding tells a good proportion of the episode via the skewed camcorder perspective of Gary’s ever present but unseen mate Clive (though we do briefly see him, Hitchcock cameo style, during this episode, played indeed by Simon Nye). Jealousy takes place largely on location, indeed it’s the most on-location episode of the series probably to date, set on a Norfolk farm. Sofa revolves around key flashbacks to points in Gary and Tony’s lives, some of which we’ve anecdotally heard about before. Even though Watching TV is solely set in the flat, it entirely is based around the characters all sitting and watching the telly (Star Trek’s City on the Edge of Forever, which Gary & Tony discuss) in real time – indeed it’s a forerunner of the Caroline Aherne/Craig Cash sitcom The Royle Family in this regard, plus maybe a hint of the reality series Gogglebox (which itself was no doubt inspired by The Royle Family).
The crowning moment came when Gary and Tony went to Dorset to set their sofa free. There was a closeup of us on it, then the camera pulled back and you could see we were sitting on the penis of the Cerne Abbas giant. The crew had to shoot from a helicopter. We just sat and drank beer in this beautiful valley at dusk. The scene was for the end credits, so our instructions were just: “Act stupid as the helicopter pulls away.” I rolled the whole way down the giant’s penis. I had such a good time I moved to Dorset right after. What a way to make a living.
There is a sense that Nye understands he cannot retain the same key dynamics in Series 6. Too much has changed. Though Gary and Dorothy don’t elect to get married in the end, with both realising thanks to recent infidelity (Gary again cheats on her, this time unknowingly and drunk with a hooker, while Dorothy sleeps with a random on her hen night) that they are not ready, it nevertheless seems to strengthen their relationship. Only Gary strays again, slightly, in the final series Gary In Love, and by that point it feels much more like an awkward means to generate tension before Dorothy gives birth and provide Gary with one last confrontation with his lot in life and his obsession with proving his sexual promiscuity and masculinity; almost too much has happened by that point to make his brief conference dalliance with Wendy feel logical. Nye frequently tests the limits of their relationship—again in Ten, where they both flirt outrageously with the counsellors they go to mend their relationship—but he always seems to end up in the same space with the two characters. Despite their differences and aspirations, they do ultimately love each other.
Less convincing is the Tony and Deborah relationship. The manner of how they come together in Wedding makes sense, and we’ve been steadily building toward that point for some time, and it does feel right that Tony would become a lovesick puppy hanging off Debs’ every word and movement in the wake of their congress, but like the consummation of any long-term relationship on TV (here’s looking at you, Agents Mulder & Scully…), getting Tony and Deborah together sucks some of the comedic tension out of the show. If Dorothy stays with Gary because they’re both actually quite mercurial in nature and a good match, it is harder to see what Tony and Deborah really have beyond the sexual attraction. Tony becomes increasingly soppy, sentimental and childlike as Series 6 goes on and into Last Orders; in Gary in Love this is writ large in his attempts to deal with a giant ceremonial fish sculpture he and Gary drunkenly smuggle into their Worthing hotel room. The Christmas special does at least have Deborah become exhausted by his attachment issues and consider ending it, but ultimately she seems to embrace these aspects.
Deborah (Leslie Ash) works better as a character in the final couple of seasons because, as Tony’s girlfriend, she is integrated a little more into the central dynamic, but she remains consistently the most under developed and at the whim of necessity to service Tony in these final series. In Series 5, she is again depressed and listless in Hair, almost clinically so (as she was in Series 3), and the show pokes fun in The Good Pub Guide at her attempts to fill that void through an interest in astrology. Later she tries to reinvent herself as a full-time student in Cardigan, and possibly flirts with a same-sex relationship (you can imagine how a lesbian tryst in 1996 is approached with this series’ laddish humour). If Dorothy has a mainstream career as a nurse and seems fairly resolute in her professional domain, Deborah throughout the series (despite coming from a clearly middle-class background) veers from career to career, man to man, interest to interest, and only seems to settle down when she is coupled with Tony.
It doesn’t entirely make sense. If you put aside how much Tony wore down her defences over the years, normalised perhaps his eccentric and boorish behaviour to the point she could appreciate the fact he showers her with attention, it’s hard to imagine how Tony and Deborah actually work as a partnership. The Good Pub Guide does a good job of bringing to light the boorish realities of a long-term relationship between Gary and Dorothy (culminating in the latter farting loudly in The Crown), and you are able to see how these two characters might function in a realistic marriage, but Tony and Deborah never really have those kind of scenes. Theirs is a bizarre fantasy relationship come true, which often relies comedy-wise on Tony’s quirkiness, eccentricity or gaffes, whereas Gary and Dorothy’s dynamic is entirely observational. Consider how different their journeys are in Performance – while Gary is suffering from sexual performance anxiety as they try for a baby, Tony is wondering whether he wants to date Deborah if she loses a leg. They may be in different places but observationally they are frequently worlds apart.
The final episode, Delivery, does rectify this to an extent, but it provides a mixed message. Gary has reached a point of acceptance about becoming a father, and his life with Dorothy, and the episode focuses more on him having to let go of George and Anthea (his strange fusion of surrogate parental figures and therapists) given his office is closing down, leaving Gary to face an uncertain career future. It’s a similar journey to the one he experienced in Sofa, having to process and let go of aspects of his youth, and finally grow up – which has really been Nye’s message in parts of Series 5 and particularly Series 6 as the show has embraced the realities of middle age. Tony does try and take this to heart in Delivery, getting a steady job as a postman, up early, sensible clothes and a (admittedly awful) moustache, but Deborah no longer finds him sexually attractive. Tony has to revert partially to the ‘lad’ he was in order to make Deborah happy. It’s perhaps a comment on not losing who you are to age and change but has this not been what Dorothy and Deborah have always wanted? For these boys to become men.
Men Behaving Badly suggests maybe not. The final series came out in 1998. New Labour was firmly established. Cool Britannia was happening. Girl Power and the Spice Girls were everywhere. Laddism was part of the culture but so, equally, were ‘ladettes’. Some women took on the characteristics of these men, playing them at their own game, and to a degree this is what Dorothy and Deborah do. They join them on the sofa more often. Watching TV sees them complicit in the practical jokes played on Tony. Sofa, inverting the central duo, even has them feet up on their new, ‘girly’ sofa, cans in hand, doing exactly what Gary and Tony do, while Tony even attempts to coach Deborah in Performance in the ways of laddism, once he has fully moved into her flat. Simon Nye’s series ends with the boys having slightly grown up while the girls have, slightly, become a bit more like the both of them. Like many couples, at the end of the day, they meet in the middle.
Maybe the credit sequence of the final series is telling. It’s no longer just Gary and Tony on the sofa crushing a can they throw behind them. Now its Gary, Tony, Dorothy and Debs all there doing the same.
Maybe that says it all.