Reviews

One Foot in the Grave: The Complete Collection

A definitive collection of this sort is an essential item for any DVD collector interested in British television or sitcoms in general.


One Foot in the Grave

Distributor: BBC Video
Cast: Richard Wilson, Annette Crosbie, Owen Brenman
Network: BBC One
UK release date: 2006-10-16
US release date: 2009-09-08
Amazon

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.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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