As I had already mentioned in my last TV Rambles post, in the past few months I veered towards British television and I am keen to discover many hilarious comedy shows. It cannot be denied: British humour differs so much from American humour. I appreciate both of them but British humour has that something that makes it outstanding in my opinion. Perhaps it’s the lack of censorship.
Anyway, the first ‘new’ British sitcom that I have watched, after all the American shows I had seen since summer (namely Seinfeld and Louie), is Black Books. Of course, it’s only new to me because I have never seen it before. I discovered it when reading an article about tv shows set in bookshops. Matt had seen it years ago but was happy to watch it again with me. I instantly loved it and it is now one of my absolute favourite and one of the most quotable!
The main action of the show takes place inside a London bookshop, named Black Books, owned by Bernard Black (Dylan Moran). Bernard appears to be the stereotypical Irish drunkard, but his abuse of alcohol and cigarettes seems very dangerous. He’s not a happy guy either. He looks depressed and he’s aggressive towards everyone, especially his customers.Then, in comes Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey). As the surname denotes (which is Italian for ‘white’), he’s the complete opposite of Bernard: positive, helpful, a people’s person, although naive and a bit slow too. In the first episode, he’s a stressed accountant tired of his job. By ‘accident’ (read: Bernard’s drunkenness), he gets a job at Black Books. Bernard, the misanthrope, regrets it and tries all he can to kick him out. His only friend and neighbouring shop owner, Fran Katzenjammer (Tamsin Greig), defends Manny and thus a weird trio is formed.
It can be said that part of the main focus is on Bernard’s interactions with Manny, which tend to be very particular and ambiguous. Bernard abuses him, calling him names and making him slave around the shop and the adjacent apartment – which means hard work, as Bernard seems to be the messiest and most unhygienic man on Earth. Often, Manny arrives at a breaking point and leaves the shop, only to return back after some time, like a beaten dog. And despite his cruel treatment, Bernard often feels jealous and possessive of him. Fran just drifts between them – she has as many moments as the other two but I don’t think she’s a strong female character such as Jen from The I.T. Crowd or Elaine from Seinfeld, for example.
Since it’s a show inside a bookshop, I was expecting to see much love for books. However, with Bernard, this love doesn’t appear so clearly. Yes, he is often seen with a book in his hands, reading and trying to ignore the world around him, yet he detests all the process of ordering and selling books. So Black Books seems to be an attack on the commercialisation of books and in fact, Dylan Moran (who is also the original creator of the show) thought that such small, second-hand bookshops are doomed to fail. The comparison of Black Books to other bigger bookshops is seen more than once. For instance, in the episode entitled “Blood”, an attempt to turn the shop into a book-cafe and later into a restaurant goes wrong, while in “Manny Come Home” (my favourite episode), Manny leaves Black Books to work at Goliath Books, the adjacent large-scale bookshop which epitomises the soulless modernity of book-selling. The latter episode also highlights the duality of Bernard’s and Manny’s relationship as well as the surreal humour that characterises the whole show.
Apart from Moran, one of the co-writers is Graham Linehan. His name may be familiar if you’re into British comedy – he also co-wrote Father Ted and The I.T. Crowd (I will eventually review both of them). He also guest-starred in a couple of episodes from the first season. Other notable guest stars, amongst others, are Martin Freeman (The Office UK, The Hobbit), David Walliams (before he became famous with Little Britain), Jessica Stevenson (now Hynes, from Spaced), Nick Frost (Spaced) and an amazing Simon Pegg (Spaced) who interprets Manny’s cruel boss at Goliath Books. The appearance of Frost and Pegg is of particular note because Dylan Moran would collaborate with both of them again in the horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead and with Pegg in Run Fatboy Run. I love this interconnection between actors, movies and tv shows!
Therefore if you think you like the crazy kind of British humour, then I suggest giving Black Books a try. If you’re a book lover, who knows… it might inspire you to open your own second-hand bookshop!