Daring, Convention-breaking, and Un-PC
Fran: Do you know nothing about modern culture, Bernard? Beckham? Posh? PokéMon?
Bernard: Pac-Man. It’s pronounced “Pac-Man”.
In Julian Hall’s 2006 book The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy, Hall describes the unusual predicament of Dylan Moran’s Black Books quite succinctly:
The Complete Black Books
(BBC; US DVD: 13 Nov 2007)
Coupling: The Complete Seasons 1-4
(BBC; US DVD: 25 Jan 2005)
The Complete Second Season
(HBO; US DVD: 10 Jul 2007)
Little Britain: The Complete Collection
(BBC; US DVD: 20 Nov 2007)
“Bernard Black’s irreverence is matched by the casual treatment of sitcom rules. There is no straight man, no sustained love interest, no resolution or reason for events ...”
All of which is absolutely true. Books was initially designed as Channel 4’s “follow-up” to Spaced, as it was edgy enough to capture that show’s same cult audience, even if it was “old-school” in both its format and setting: there was a live audience, laugh tracks during more “cinematic” sequences, and, yes, no rhyme or reason for a lot of what happened in the small bookstore that bares the show’s title.
The concept is simple: Bernard (Moran) is a wine-fed miser in his 30s who enjoys owning his own book shop but despises the customers. The shop adjacent to him is run by Fran (Tamsin Greig), a one-time fling who happens to be Bernard’s only friend in the world. One day, a distraught customer named Manny (Bill Bailey) asks for The Little Book of Calm, but accidentally swallows it. It dissolves in his stomach and, of course, this makes him a calmer, more enlightened being. His calm counterbalances Bernard’s perpetual state of misery, and he’s soon hired on, himself (and now with Fran) giving the show its simple three-character dynamic.
Yet the dynamic of Black Books is bizarre from the get-go, coming across almost as if Samuel Beckett wrote a sitcom. Yes, events happen (the massive book chain Goliath Books moves next door at the end of the second series, Fran loses her job, etc.), but nothing ever gets resolved. Yes, Manny meets a girl at the end of series three (eliminating all his bizarrely asexual whims), Bernard drinks all of the expensive wine at the place that he’s housesitting, and Fran realizes part-way through a blind date that the man she’s with is actually gay—but none of these things ever move anything forward.
Yet this is not like The Simpsons in which every new episode resets itself: the addition of Goliath Books and the like are happening, but the bookshop trio are practically unfazed by the presence of the ever-changing world around them. Though Bernard does mention his one-time fling with Fran, the possible romantic tension between them is not capitalized upon; in fact, it never even comes up. Even when we get to the final episode of the third series, there is no triumphant send-off or big event that transpires: it’s just another episode. Then the show ends. As a viewer, it’s maddening. From an absurdist standpoint, however, the lack of resolution makes perfect sense: it’s just like life itself.
Though Moran writes every episode himself, he sometimes gets an assist from Father Ted scribes Arthur Mathews and Graham Lineham. The show, therefore, is remarkably surreal at times, as during a time when Manny takes Bernard and Fran out to dinner with his parents (Moo-Ma and Moo-Pa), and, so reviled by their conversations (and Moo-Pa’s continual desire to sing “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo”), Bernard drops his fork to go under the table—which just so happens to contain a full-service bar (with bartender). Fran, at one point, is convinced her apartment is getting smaller, which – incidentally – is true, because the landlord can move the neighboring wall as much as he pleases.
There are also abundant sight gags, but really, the best comedy hinges from Bernard’s otherworldly one-liners. When Manny asks Bernard if he should wash his beard, Bernard simply replies “I think you should, yeah: you should wash your beard, then shave it off, nail it to a Frisbee, and fling it over a rainbow.” Though it appears to be a “typical” sitcom on the surface, Black Books grows stranger and more bizarre with each passing episode, each sitcom convention slowly turned on its head without batting an eye. It may lack a proper resolution, but it makes up for that in spades with its otherworldly substance.
Coupling, Extras, and Little Britain
“Now you’re blushing and you have an erection—no one’s got that much blood!”—Steve (Jack Davenport), Coupling
In the UK, you can mutter the names Susan, Steve, Jeff, Patrick, Sally, and Jane in a row and everybody will know what you’re talking about: Coupling, the show that is eternally cast as the British equivalent of Friends, when, in fact, people mean that it’s the far-raunchier version of the long-running US favorite. Created by future Doctor Who writing superstar Steven Moffat, Coupling started out as a quirky mingling of six 30-somethings trying to figure out their own complex relationships with each other, but over the course of time (and especially by the third series), it had become a bona fide British phenomenon and one of the juiciest US comedy imports.
No, it didn’t break any ground, but it didn’t need to: Moffat was frank with the show’s sexual politics, and the humor, though sometimes crude, was still character-based, and—despite the overriding prominence of Steve Taylor (Jack Davenport)—it was still an ensemble show through and through. Yet what made Coupling so special was simply the fact that it could speak so frankly about sex without the hands of censors descending on each and every episode (though you can imagine that a few things get left out during the US rebroadcasts). The show isn’t revolutionary by itself, but its up-beat attitude towards such a frequently-taboo subject is what ultimately elevated it above other sitcoms.
Yet in the wake of The Office, there was an unspoken pressure on British TV to be new and daring and innovative, a pressure which was felt most by the men who created the show to begin with. Gervais and Merchant followed their landmark show with Extras, a wry look at celebrity culture that expands on themes previously hinted at by The Office Christmas special (wherein Brent becomes a local celebrity and releases a god-awful single). As Andy Millman, Gervais plays a struggling actor looking for his break, his only friends being fellow film extra Maggie (newcomer Ashley Jensen) and his maddeningly clueless agent Darren Lamb (Merchant, stealing every scene he’s in).
Though the show is noted for its numerous high-profile guest stars (Ben Stiller, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McKellen, Kate Winslet, etc.), the actual core of Extras was always much more sincere: it was Gervais’ love-letter to classic British television. Long lost icons like Keith Chegwin and Ronnie Corbett wound up getting key scenes playing twisted versions of themselves, and top-notch talent like Stephen Fry and David Tennant were more than willing to skewer their public images just for the sake of the show. And, yes, Bowie’s “Pug Nose” song is hilarious and Chris Martin is delightfully condescending while filming a starving children PSA (“can they be holding copies of the album?”), but the show’s best bits weren’t from the big-name guest stars.
The best moments were the remarkably human bits of stupidity shared by Andy, Darren, and Maggie in every episode, like when Andy is torn between what amount of change to give a homeless begger, who then promptly returns it to him because he gave it to him so begrudgingly. Though actor’s egos and director’s pet projects are always given a nice riffing, Extras is still the logical extension of the awkward humor that made The Office so endearing to begin with.
Yet not even Gervais & Merchant could fill that gaping comedy hole left by The Office. Shortly following that show’s demise, Matt Lucas and David Williams stepped in with Little Britain, a menacingly twisted sketch comedy show wherein Lucas and Williams—through the aide of an incredible costume and makeup crew—managed to create dozens upon dozens of bizarre, strange, and profoundly memorable characters in each and every episode, ranging from the motormouthed teenage trainwreck Vicky Pollard (Lucas) to Eddie “Emily” Howard (Williams), the least convincing transvestite in the world. The show was appropriately madcap, with most sketches barely even touch the three-minute mark, yet each creation was so fundamentally British and outright demented that it was hard not to notice.
The sudden rise of Little Britain‘s in-your-face sketch comedy was remarkably unexpected and awfully quick, enough to inspire a critical backlash that hit upon the airing of the show’s third series. Furthermore, in a somewhat surprising innovation, Little Britain openly and readily trotted out characters that were gay (Daffyd Thomas, closeted PM-aide Sebastian Love) or transsexual (the aforementioned “Emily” Howard), and—most critically—these characters were not marginalized. Yes, they were taken for a few cheap laughs (like almost all of Williams & Lucas’ creations are), but there was still a strangely sad element to watching “Emily” walk around, convinced he was pulling off his gender deception. As side-splitting as the show was, there was an underlying sense of tragedy to the characters that only emerged in retrospect, making for a surprisingly compelling sketch comedy show.
America & Britain’s Future (TV) Community
Agent: Do you want to be on top of the B-list?
Andy: Yes, but not the hepatitis-B list. (Extras)
At the time of this writing, many things have happened with the aforementioned shows: there are numerous Office spin-offs around the world, there was already a disastrous attempt to bring Coupling over to America (only four episodes were ever broadcast), HBO is in the midst of launching the inexplicably-titled Little Britain USA, and an American version of Spaced is in the works, which, as Simon Pegg pointed out, completely defeats the purpose of the show.
Needless to say, this small-scale comedy revolution is making its presence known in America, and networks are doing what they know best: adapting or out-right licensing these shows without reservation. With BBC America running stronger than ever, more people are turning to the UK for comedic inspiration, which, really, is somewhat ironic given that the States are bandying about fantastically original shows like 30 Rock and Pushing Daisies. Currently, the networks are doing cost-saving yet talent-preserving moves by importing stars like Coupling‘s Jack Davenport for the controversial CBS show Swingtown and—after his uproarious Emmy appearance—possibly tapping Ricky Gervais to host this year’s Oscars largely due to the fact that he’ll be, ya know, actually funny. [Ed. Note: This year, Hugh Jackman will be hosting the event]
America can import as many shows and actors as it wants, but there’s one thing that it will never be able to fully capture about this New Golden Age of British television comedy, and that’s the sense of community and camaraderie that surrounds it. So many of the actors that appeared in these shows happily appeared in the shows of their friends, as if each team of writers/performers were ready to help out their friends just for the hell of it. Simon Pegg appears as Goliath Books manager Evan in Black Books, which also features appearances from the rest of the Spaced clan and even Tim and Dawn from The Office. Of course, Ricky Gervais appears in Spaced‘s penultimate episode, a series which also features a delightfully over-the-top performance by Little Britain‘s David Williams.
Most (if not all) of these regulars got bit parts in Edgar Wright’s dual Pegg features Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, including Peter Serafinowicz (best known as Pegg’s electro-hating roommate in Shaun), who went on to form his own viral-sensation program Look Around You, which, again, featured cameos from Pegg, Wright, and Stevenson. And, of course, you can find just about every actor in Britain cycled through Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who reboot at least once, though sometimes in surprising contexts (like when Jessica Stevenson appears in the two-part “Family of Blood” episode in Series Three, giving a remarkably powerful, understated performance that leaves her virtually unrecognizable from Spaced‘s Daisy Steiner).
Is there any actual purpose to this cross-promotional role swapping? Absolutely not, but the point is that there is no point: these performers are doing it just for the fun of it (unlike, say, when Cosmo Kramer made an appearance in Mad About You, which was as blatant a ratings pull as NBC had ever done). Yes, there are a few mouth-agape moments upon the realization that this person in this show appeared in that show (like Nick Frost as an unrecognizable caveman in the “Music” episode of Look Around You), but it’s more of a clever in-joke than anything else, a treat for the hardcore fans that had followed all of these shows from the beginning.
Yet these cameos have more meaning than just appearances: they are an acknowledgement amidst these rising new television performers they were all in the same boat, all heading for the same goal. This is why Simon Pegg has Dylan Moran playing his best friend in Run, Fatboy, Run and why Bill Bailey takes dual roles in Hot Fuzz: they’re all a part of the same team. This New Golden Age of British Television—as daring, convention-breaking, and un-PC as it is—is in remarkable high spirits, and as each career takes off for these young stars, they will never forget where they came from. This is something that you rarely, rarely see in American television, making this New Golden Age all the more unique and all the more genuinely British in nature.
Perhaps, indeed, Britain will rule America, again.