‘Natural Selection favours the loud and aggressive, no offense, but genetically you are a cul-de-sac’.
Written by the eccentric Dylan Moran, this twisted and alcohol soaked BAFTA-winning show ‘Black Books’ (2000 – 2004) is easily one of the most successful and treasured British sitcoms of all time.
Black Books is centred around an eponymous second-hand bookshop in London, run by the misanthropic Bernard Black (Moran). His approach to customer services, or lack thereof, is one that begins with nonchalance and obliviousness that habitually descends to bedlam.
Yet there is something wildly charming about the sardonic and razor sharp wit of this bookshop owner who lives in a cathartic state of disarray.
As one might foresee, Bernard is not the biggest fan of his customers or the outside world in general. The limited sphere of people Bernard tolerate are the shop’s assistant, Manny – naive, childlike, excitable (Bill Bailey), and Fran (Tamsin Grieg), who used to run a questionable shop next door (‘Nifty Gifty’ for life!). The series sees much of Manny, the beleaguered account who has frantically entered Bernard’s life, acting as the perfect foil to him, tardily evening the tumultuous man out.
A classic Black Books episode will see Manny and Fran and their endeavours to open Bernard’s horizons and coax him out of the dismal shadow pockets of the world, only for him to ultimately haul everyone back in with him.
Wilfully surreal and filled with an encouraging contempt for humankind, this series pitches Bernard Black, and his shoddy berserk assistant, Manny (Bailey), into various bewildering affairs — a holiday in an airport, for one — and loads them up with biting one-liners and original sight gags.
While Bernard’s wine-lust is trivialised for laughs, we do get a coup d’œil of the anguish bubbling under the surface of how deranged and lonely Bernard’s life is. And yes, there are some huge cachinnates. The subtle genius Moran has never more apparent than when he’s in full rambling, ranting, ridiculous flow as Bernard, who can make even a tax return funny. “What is your mother’s maiden name?” the form asks. “What’s her first name?” he wonders. “I just knew her as ‘Ma’! That’ll have to do.”
Greig, pre-Green Wing, is a treat as the often-inebriated Fran, and Bernard’s sharp observations (“Look at that face! I bet his Cornflakes tried to climb out of the bowl!”) can stand multiple re-wat. Yet it is Bailey, overtly bullied by his boss, yet unable to cope with life outside the shop, who is the perfect foil to Bernard’s incredible ranting.
This series undoubtedly launched the career of the wonderful Bill Bailey who’s own stand up is something to behold.
These characters are distinctly in need to be cleansed or go through some sort of metamorphosis. Yes it could be argued that all of these treats are fairly custom to the genre of sitcom tv shows. The difference between other shows and this one is that few other sitcoms master all of these treats as well as Black Books. In particular, it is hard to compete with the level of madness that is established in the show and distinguishes it from American counterparts Schitts Creek or How I met your mother. It’s what makes Black Books deserve its status as a genius sitcom classic.