TV, Writing

Don’t Mention the Comedy: FAWLTY TOWERS and Reactionary Cultural Politics

Whether ten years old or close to a hundred, we have all seen Fawlty Towers at some point in our lives. We have either binge watched the series, casually caught it on a satellite channel or streaming service, or even seen clips on one of the many comedy panel or discussion shows over the years with talking heads discussing the brilliance of John Cleese’s monstrous creation Basil Fawlty.

What, though, is Fawlty Towers really *about*? What are all our comedies *about*, whether in the UK with a long-standing tradition of legendary comedic creations or the US with their penchant for long-running, familiar series? Every drama is about something and comedy is no different. The jokes are born from an idea or theme or societal construct the writer is looking to explore. One Foot in the Grave, which I’m currently examining episode by episode, sees David Renwick unpicking the listlessness of the working man at the tail end of Thatcherite neoliberalism after Victor Meldrew is displaced by a heartless corporate system. Only Fools and Horses was a fantasy of working class meritocracy, of Derek, and in a different way Rodney, Trotter overcoming their background of poverty and struggle to try and prove their worth within an elitist class system where the deck is stacked against them.

Following the surge of protests across the world after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there has been a swift trickle-down effect in terms of racial politics which has proven, this week, to be on some level ‘knee-jerk’. Britbox and BBC iPlayer started by removing the 2000’s Matt Lucas & David Walliams’ series Little Britain, which was always festooned with sketches that were politically incorrect even back then, citing that “times have changed”, while Netflix subsequently pulled The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh as both display characters who engage in what would be termed ‘blackface’. Catch up service UKTV subsequently removed the well-known Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, featuring Basil’s infamous line “Don’t mention the war!”, due to the overt racism displayed by the character, and the use of racial slurs by an ageing colonial character. This has been questioned by some who feel the reactionary cultural politics of the moment has gone too far.

I’m wondering the same. I understand some of these examples. The Germans, however, is an example in which context is missing, and with comedy, context is king.
Continue reading “Don’t Mention the Comedy: FAWLTY TOWERS and Reactionary Cultural Politics”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04 – Series Retrospective #4)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the fourth episode of the first series, I’ll Retire to Bedlam, which first aired on January 25, 1990…

The first season of One Foot in the Grave has been marked, thus far, on particular existential anxieties about British life for the aged and retired, and I’ll Retire to Bedlam continues Victor Meldrew’s slide into reactive frustration.

In another historical allusion to 19th century literature, David Renwick titles this episode after Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the belief from perhaps the most iconic curmudgeon of them all, Ebernezer Scrooge, that the inmates at St Mary’s of Bethlehem hospital (known colloquially as ‘Bedlam’) were more sane compatriots than everyone else in London merrily celebrating Christmas. It would be easy to liken Victor to a Scrooge figure but it’s inaccurate, aside from their grumpy disposition. Scrooge actively hated the people around him until the ghosts of multiple eras showed him the error of his ways. Victor’s ire is for the continued degradation and decay of society, and that becomes more apparent as Renwick here commits him to hospital for stress.

There is, in Mr Brocklebank, the escaped mental patient who, believing he’s a nurse preparing him for surgery, Victor allows to shave his entire private parts (in what is arguably the funniest sequence in the episode, and perhaps the funniest in One Foot so far), an allusion to the idea of ‘Bedlam’, of the lunatics running the asylum; and indeed in the inclusion of the Monster Raving Loony Party as part of the story, Renwick provides an additional layer of fringe thinking, of society’s rejects or eccentrics intruding into the Meldrew’s life, but the chief anxiety of I’ll Retire to Bedlam is more generalised than fears of death or youth culture or corporate hegemony. Everything is getting to Victor in this episode. The less he has anything to focus on, the more he sees everything.

That’s quite a profound realisation One Foot is getting to during Series 1. I’ll Retire to Bedlam may be a little unfocused and unformed, structurally, but it gets to the nub of Victor Meldrew’s existential malady very well.

Continue reading “ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04 – Series Retrospective #4)”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04)

The first season of One Foot in the Grave has been marked, thus far, on particular existential anxieties about British life for the aged and retired, and I’ll Retire to Bedlam continues Victor Meldrew’s slide into reactive frustration.

In another historical allusion to 19th century literature, David Renwick titles this episode after Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the belief from perhaps the most iconic curmudgeon of them all, Ebernezer Scrooge, that the inmates at St Mary’s of Bethlehem hospital (known colloquially as ‘Bedlam’) were more sane compatriots than everyone else in London merrily celebrating Christmas. It would be easy to liken Victor to a Scrooge figure but it’s inaccurate, aside from their grumpy disposition. Scrooge actively hated the people around him until the ghosts of multiple eras showed him the error of his ways. Victor’s ire is for the continued degradation and decay of society, and that becomes more apparent as Renwick here commits him to hospital for stress.

There is, in Mr Brocklebank, the escaped mental patient who, believing he’s a nurse preparing him for surgery, Victor allows to shave his entire private parts (in what is arguably the funniest sequence in the episode, and perhaps the funniest in One Foot so far), an allusion to the idea of ‘Bedlam’, of the lunatics running the asylum; and indeed in the inclusion of the Monster Raving Loony Party as part of the story, Renwick provides an additional layer of fringe thinking, of society’s rejects or eccentrics intruding into the Meldrew’s life, but the chief anxiety of I’ll Retire to Bedlam is more generalised than fears of death or youth culture or corporate hegemony. Everything is getting to Victor in this episode. The less he has anything to focus on, the more he sees everything.

That’s quite a profound realisation One Foot is getting to during Series 1. I’ll Retire to Bedlam may be a little unfocused and unformed, structurally, but it gets to the nub of Victor Meldrew’s existential malady very well.

Continue reading “TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04)”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Big Sleep’ (1×02 – Series Retrospective #2)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue with the second episode of Series 1, The Big Sleep, which first aired on January 11, 1990…

The second episode of any new series is designed to build on the foundations of the pilot, to flesh out and contextualise the concept of the show beyond the initial set up, and The Big Sleep does just that for One Foot in the Grave.

Death stalks David Renwick’s show across the entire run. It’s inherent in the very title, let’s face it. Victor’s retirement is considered to be the beginning of a slow death, one foot literally in his own grave, waiting for the inevitable release. The great thing about Renwick’s show, in the end, is that there is no life-affirming message. Victor doesn’t find some cheesy reason to go on living and find a new lease of life. He adapts to his new circumstances but goes on grumbling about the state of the world until that car mows him down unceremoniously in the final ever episode, never reconciling his position in an uncaring, fast-paced, greedy, selfish world that is developing around him. Victor’s lot in life is to be perennially disappointed in it.

The Big Sleep has the freedom, relieved of having to establish the characters and set-up, to dive a little more into Victor’s existential position in relation to death. Alive and Buried, as a title, alluded to the same thing but that episode focused more heavily on Victor’s sense of loss, and of his position suddenly as a pensioner ‘on the scrap heap’. The Big Sleep introduces some key elements that Renwick will play with a great deal over the next six series – Victor’s hypochondria, his abject fear of death, and to contrast this his innate, under-recognised sensitivity and heart. Renwick uses, as a spine underpinning this episode, Victor’s relationship with nature, reflected in a robin in his garden which he cares for and has much more time for than any human he encounters in the story.

That’s why The Big Sleep is a stronger script, for me, than the pilot. It’s still not figured out the classic One Foot structure, but it is beginning to figure out that duality within Victor’s character.

Continue reading “ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Big Sleep’ (1×02 – Series Retrospective #2)”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Big Sleep’ (1×02)

The second episode of any new series is designed to build on the foundations of the pilot, to flesh out and contextualise the concept of the show beyond the initial set up, and The Big Sleep does just that for One Foot in the Grave.

Death stalks David Renwick’s show across the entire run. It’s inherent in the very title, let’s face it. Victor’s retirement is considered to be the beginning of a slow death, one foot literally in his own grave, waiting for the inevitable release. The great thing about Renwick’s show, in the end, is that there is no life-affirming message. Victor doesn’t find some cheesy reason to go on living and find a new lease of life. He adapts to his new circumstances but goes on grumbling about the state of the world until that car mows him down unceremoniously in the final ever episode, never reconciling his position in an uncaring, fast-paced, greedy, selfish world that is developing around him. Victor’s lot in life is to be perennially disappointed in it.

The Big Sleep has the freedom, relieved of having to establish the characters and set-up, to dive a little more into Victor’s existential position in relation to death. Alive and Buried, as a title, alluded to the same thing but that episode focused more heavily on Victor’s sense of loss, and of his position suddenly as a pensioner ‘on the scrap heap’. The Big Sleep introduces some key elements that Renwick will play with a great deal over the next six series – Victor’s hypochondria, his abject fear of death, and to contrast this his innate, under-recognised sensitivity and heart. Renwick uses, as a spine underpinning this episode, Victor’s relationship with nature, reflected in a robin in his garden which he cares for and has much more time for than any human he encounters in the story.

That’s why The Big Sleep is a stronger script, for me, than the pilot. It’s still not figured out the classic One Foot structure, but it is beginning to figure out that duality within Victor’s character.

Continue reading “TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Big Sleep’ (1×02)”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘Alive and Buried’ (1×01 – Series Retrospective #1)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

To begin, we look at the pilot episode of Series 1 where it all began, Alive and Buried, which first aired on January 4th, 1990…

There have been hundreds of successful situation comedies on British television in the last sixty years, but few of them have the nuance, grace and intelligence of One Foot in the Grave.

Devised by writer David Renwick, the series revolved around Victor Meldrew, a cantankerous Scot living somewhere in England’s Home Counties with his, as oft-quoted, ‘long-suffering’ wife Margaret. As played expertly by Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie, the Meldrew’s frequently found themselves in an array of unusual, eccentric and downright bizarre comic situations in otherwise dull 90’s British suburbia, as Renwick’s tightly constructed scripts saw Victor, thrown unceremoniously on the scrap heap after losing his job in opening episode Alive and Buried, face enforced retirement and his own mortality with growing frustration at society around him, which would frequently manifest in irascible rants that would include what became his catchphrase, and one of the signature comic lines in British comedy history: “I don’t *believe* it!”.

Alive and Buried establishes the concept in clear and concise fashion. Victor is retired by the company he has worked at for 26 years, finds himself listlessly wandering around the house while Margaret goes to work, facing constant reminders of his pensionable age everywhere he turns, and being irritated by the cruel happenstances of fate which conspire against him in everything from broken down cars to magic acts. Yet, as with most pilot episodes, particularly with comedies, the mixture isn’t yet refined. There is a broadness about Alive and Buried that later One Foot episodes swop for naturalistic eccentricity, playing on Wilson’s talent for silent or physical comedy. The essential formula is present and correct but the rhythm and cadence that makes Renwick’s series stand out hasn’t quite clicked yet.

That said, Alive and Buried is among the better first episodes of British comedy series. One Foot in the Grave already knows what it wants to be, even if it isn’t quite there yet.

Continue reading “ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘Alive and Buried’ (1×01 – Series Retrospective #1)”

One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘Alive and Buried’ (1×01)

There have been hundreds of successful situation comedies on British television in the last sixty years, but few of them have the nuance, grace and intelligence of One Foot in the Grave.

Devised by writer David Renwick, the series revolved around Victor Meldrew, a cantankerous Scot living somewhere in England’s Home Counties with his, as oft-quoted, ‘long-suffering’ wife Margaret. As played expertly by Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie, the Meldrew’s frequently found themselves in an array of unusual, eccentric and downright bizarre comic situations in otherwise dull 90’s British suburbia, as Renwick’s tightly constructed scripts saw Victor, thrown unceremoniously on the scrap heap after losing his job in opening episode Alive and Buried, face enforced retirement and his own mortality with growing frustration at society around him, which would frequently manifest in irascible rants that would include what became his catchphrase, and one of the signature comic lines in British comedy history: “I don’t *believe* it!”.

Alive and Buried establishes the concept in clear and concise fashion. Victor is retired by the company he has worked at for 26 years, finds himself listlessly wandering around the house while Margaret goes to work, facing constant reminders of his pensionable age everywhere he turns, and being irritated by the cruel happenstances of fate which conspire against him in everything from broken down cars to magic acts. Yet, as with most pilot episodes, particularly with comedies, the mixture isn’t yet refined. There is a broadness about Alive and Buried that later One Foot episodes swop for naturalistic eccentricity, playing on Wilson’s talent for silent or physical comedy. The essential formula is present and correct but the rhythm and cadence that makes Renwick’s series stand out hasn’t quite clicked yet.

That said, Alive and Buried is among the better first episodes of British comedy series. One Foot in the Grave already knows what it wants to be, even if it isn’t quite there yet.

Continue reading “TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘Alive and Buried’ (1×01)”

Essays, TV

BritBox: Local Telly for Local People

One of the first questions raised by the announcement of BritBox, a new, jointly-created streaming service by the BBC and ITV, was whether this is television for post-Brexit Britain. It’s a question as polarising as it is potentially unfair.

BritBox is not a new creation, something the majority of common or garden readers probably do not know. BritBox is technically being imported after successfully launching as a service in the United States; it offers a selection of British shows from the modern day and yesteryear which are available separately from services such as BBC America, allowing American audiences the chance to dip their toe in the arcanum of staid British drama and quirky, offbeat British comedy. It is, to them, jolly old England neatly encapsulated.

You can see why commentators might suspect BritBox is the service the divided, post-EU Britain deserves. It doesn’t exactly sound the most cosmopolitan, stridently Euro-centric television proposal. It’s basically suggesting we kick off the 2020’s with access to bucket loads of Rising Damp and Dalziel & Pascoe.

Continue reading “BritBox: Local Telly for Local People”