At the center of lauded British sitcom One Foot in the Grave is Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson), a surly sexagenarian forced into early retirement. He is not a genial man, yet he doubtlessly resembles someone with whom most viewers can identify. Many of our fathers and grandfathers, for example, share with Victor an endearingly incorrigible disposition of frustration with the modern world.
Additionally, the freedom with which he expresses that frustration often plays out like a fulfillment of the things we all wish we could do or say in the face of society’s confounding rituals and fate’s cruel humour. Victor’s long-suffering wife Margaret (Annette Crosbie) tries her best to buffer his outrage, but the show is at its best when Victor is most at odds with the world around him.
The series is not without conventional situation comedy elements—a domestic setting, plots involving the mundane misadventures of a married couple, nosy neighbours, the laugh track of a studio audience, and a recurring catch phrase (Victor’s “I don’t believe it!”). But an overriding tone of dark comedy distinguishes One Foot in the Grave from more traditional fare, and in this context even the familiar sitcom aspects are made fresh. Nearly a decade since the original 1990-2000 run concluded, still surprising is the way in which the series confronts death and dying.
Since Victor is made vocationally obsolete in the first episode, literally replaced at work by an electronic box, his symbolic death informs everything that follows. He has been discarded, and the activities that now fill his days play out as time-killing gestures rather than conscious attempts to stay relevant to society. It’s not that Victor actively welcomes death, but the disasters that constantly befall him, as well as his inability to enjoy retired leisure, are reminders that mortality is much more a part of life’s daily fabric than most would like to admit.
Thus, no one that encounters the Meldrews within the show is safe. Many animals die over the course of the series, including a frozen cat, a burned tortoise, and 127 mistreated fish in Victor’s fish tank. Humans fare no better. The script is full of references to characters dropping dead. Some of these happen on-screen, and as macabre as the deaths are in theory, in execution they are frequently uproarious.
For example, a doomed Yoga session and Victor’s trip to purchase a dead man’s shoes are two scenes that inspire laughter against all odds. Later in the series, a friend called Mildred meets a completely unexpected fate, and the darkness of her final scene would push the limits of any mainstream televised comedy.
The show is poignant at times, but normally not long enough to completely disrupt or transform the comic tone. At the beginning of season two, a reminiscent Victor stands in front of the charred remains of the Meldrew home. This tender moment concludes with a punch line about his apple tree that failed to produce fruit. In season four’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”, there is a touching subplot about Margaret’s mother that results in the Meldrews inheriting her grandfather clock and answering machine. Both objects are solemn reminders of old age and impending death, but the script explores their darkly comic qualities: The answering machine greeting plays as a message from the afterlife and Victor assails the portentous clock to keep its pendulum swinging.
This development of props as key plot generators is one of the hallmarks of David Renwick’s sophisticated writing. Small objects including a videotape, a cork, a dead scorpion, a small dog, a marionette, and many others create memorable twists and gain meaning throughout their respective episodes. Another outstanding recurring element of the scripts is miscommunication. Many of Victor and Margaret’s woes involve a piece of information being misread, miswritten, or otherwise misunderstood.
Routine activities such as hanging wallpaper, reserving a cab or placing a for-sale advertisement of a Virgin Mary painting, snowball into debacles that become the ordinary stuff of the Meldrews’ lives. These breakdowns lead to exaggerated, though mostly plausible worst-case outcomes, only occasionally flouting credibility (such as episode “In Luton Airport, No One Can Hear You Scream”, in which every single guest invited to a housewarming party arrives at the wrong house… twice).
In addition to the consistently sharp and intelligent writing, One Foot in the Grave is a show that gives its actors room to fully inhabit these complicated characters. As they are the program’s two leads, Wilson and Crosbie deserve the highest praise for making the central concept work. Both find the necessary humanity within the prevailing stubbornness and indignation, and without those touches of grace, the show would be too grating.
Wilson in particular is fearless as he unselfconsciously endures any number of humiliations for the sake of the character, and his commitment to physical comedy is unexpected for an actor/character his age. The supporting players, especially Owen Brenman as friendly neighbour Nick Swainey and Angus Deayton as hostile neighbour Patrick Trench, inject additional dynamism and adventure into the plots.
One Foot in the Grave: The Complete Collection offers basically everything the show produced in its ten-year run: six full seasons and several Christmas specials. Also included are bonus commentaries and featurettes. A definitive collection of this sort is an essential item for any DVD collector interested in British television or sitcoms in general. In fact, the only drawback to this otherwise reliably great DVD set is one single gaping flaw within the series itself.
Although the show allows a wider a range of plot and tone possibilities than any other sitcom of its time, the finale is ruinous.This is an unforeseen sideswipe, especially since even completely far out episodes like season four’s horror-show “Hearts of Darkness” still fit within the same story world (albeit in its far reaches). But the final episode, “Things Aren’t Simple Anymore”, reconfigures the traditional structure of the show and, more devastatingly, transforms the character of Margaret into someone/something unrecognizable. So broadly does the episode dispense with the manner and “rules” of the series as a whole, that it retroactively sullies the memory of both Margaret and Victor.
Without spoiling the resolution of the series, I will advise that it is probably best to skip the finale altogether. Apart from that last episode, One Foot in the Grave is a true classic.