Any writer who offers a comedy where the intent is to ‘…cram as much elaborate stupidity into a half hour…’ is likely to need a very real situation and balance it with a keen eye for absurdity in modern life. Writer Dylan Moran and co-creator Graham Linehan, who had already scored big with Father Ted, did that to perfection in 2000 with the story of a people-hating bookshop owner in the hit comedy Black Books.
Meet Bernard Ludwig Black, played by Dylan Moran himself. He doesn’t like people, especially those who frequent Black Books, his own second-hand bookshop and his escape from the real world. The problem is the retail industry isn’t the ideal career path for somebody who cannot relate to the outside world or its inhabitants. We get a very early idea of his scorn for modern society when he briskly deals with a customer who is prepared to pay £200 for the complete works of Charles Dickens, but only if it is leather-bound as that is the only way the books would match his home’s décor.
Shortly after his tangle with said customer, Bernard chases all his remaining customers out of his store with a broom, so disgruntled is he at the clientele and their intentions. His bookshop is his escape, his solace, and the problem with customers are two-fold. One is that they rarely actually spend any money, and the other is that they bring the outside world in, something that he doesn’t want.
One of the stranger encounters on our first visit to Black Books is a customer in a desperate rush to find a copy of The Little Book of Calm. Desperate for some pearl of wisdom in the pages within, this customer is frantic, causing Bernard to tease him with alternatives to The Little Books of Calm, such as The History of Screaming, delaying him buying the chosen self-help book with questions about bags and receipts. After calming himself with the words, ‘Let go once in a while. You are a loose lily, floating down an amber river,’ the customer announces that he hates his job and runs from the store.
Calmness restored, we next see this customer in his own setting. He is Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey), an inept accountant. Unfortunately for him he accidentally swallows his Little Book of Calm and is subsequently given some various prognosis with differing levels of life expectancy as a result. One option his doctor didn’t present was that the book would somehow become part of him, which it seemingly does as he briefly wanders around the streets in his dressing gown dispensing calming wisdom among strangers.
Bernard and Manny cross paths again later in the first episode. Bernard has decided the best way of getting a delay on his taxes is to suffer serious injury. On seeing skinheads outside the shop accosting Manny as he offers more calming advice, Bernard steps in to antagonise them enough to take a beating. As a thank you, Manny offers to do Bernard’s taxes for him. It emerges however that as the pair shared an alcohol-fuelled evening, Bernard offered Manny a job in the shop – something he instantly regrets once Manny turns up for work next day.
Completing the trio of quirky main characters is Fran Katzenjammer (Tamsin Greig), who runs the nick-nack store Nifty Gifty next door to the book store. She is a frequent visitor to Black Books, usually armed with a bottle of wine. She quickly realises that Manny is not only good for the store, but maybe with her help could be good for getting Bernard more socially adept. After his one day trial ends, Manny is let go. He sold a lot of books and got on well with the customers, but sadly Bernard says, ‘it’s not that kind operation.’ His releasing of Manny is reversed when Fran takes violent exception to his decision.
Moran’s desire to cram stupidity into his half hour slot is fulfilled in spades, with such scenarios as Manny hiding in a piano and escaping to a life with a photographer where he enjoys a lavish lifestyle while modelling as such things as a hairy biker and Little Bo Peep for oriental magazines. When asked to accompany a Japanese businessman who wants to rub his beard for luck at a casino (among other things), Manny returns to Bernard. Bernard remains unpleasant throughout all three series, albeit we can often side with him given the people that he targets with his vitriol. However, the most innocent victim of Bernard’s unpleasantness remains Manny, who suffers badly from his boss’s bullying.
Bernard would be completely intolerable without Manny to balance the negativity and venom and Bailey is really the key to the show’s appeal. His victimisation allows us to find a place for sympathy where there otherwise would be none, and with Fran’s role as chief peacekeeper between the two, the lead characters round off nicely. Black Books won plaudits galore, as well as two BAFTAs – not bad for a show that only had three series. It is biting, sarcastic, farcical and dark in equal measure, but it works incredibly well. There is an array of quality cameos, including from Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Annette Crosbie, Rob Brydon, Johnny Vegas, David Walliams, Martin Freeman and Omid Djalili. Although Moran called time on the programme after only 18 episodes, Black Books rightly retains a loyal following and is a very entertaining way to have a good old binge watch.
Review by Brian Slade:
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.
Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on July 14th, 2021. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.