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A Look at the British Sitcom ‘ Black Books ‘

I decided that if I was going to go back to the British comedy well for another review, I might pick a series that was slightly less of a cult offering than Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.  With that in mind, lets take a look at the Channel 4 sitcom, Black Books.

Created by comedian Dylan Moran and comedy writer/director Graham Linehan, Black Books had three seasons of 6 episodes each, broadcast between 2000 and 2004.  Linehan is well known for creating Father Ted and The IT Crowd – both are very beloved British sitcoms and undoubtedly overshadow Black Books in terms of recognition.  Moran is a stand-up comedian by trade, though had previously starred in the sitcom How Do You Want Me?, and has since gone on to make notable appearances in films such as Shaun of the Dead.

The show features Moran as Bernard Black, owner of the bookshop that is the setting of the show.  Actress Tamsin Greig plays friend and neighbouring shop owner Franz Katzenjammer, while multi-talented comedian Bill Bailey rounds out the main cast as Bernard’s put-upon assistant, Manny Bianco.  The series as a whole features countless cameos by British and Irish comedic luminaries, such as Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Lucy Davis, Rob Brydon, David Walliams, Kevin Eldon, Olivia Colman and more.  Linehan himself even has two blink-and-you’ll miss it appearances in the first season.

Anyone familiar with Dylan Moran’s particular misanthropic style of stand-up comedy (I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him live on two occasions), can recognize that the character of Bernard Black is not a huge stretch as a role.  Copious drinking and smoking coupled with acerbic commentary on the state of the world transfers neatly from the stage to the bookshop, where disgruntled Bernard doesn’t so much serve as he does barely tolerate his customers.  In fairness, if the character is an avatar for Moran, it is an admittedly exaggerated version.  A person so anti-social, unmotivated and caustic as this could only be a comic creation and not manage to cross the line into tragedy.

Greig’s aimless and socially awkward Fran shares and indulges in many of the same vices as Bernard but longs for a more normal existence.  Her challenges seem more grounded in the real world, with dating, apartments and part-time jobs troubling her over the course of the series.  Frequently sucked into the strangeness that goes on in the bookshop, she seldom achieves the normalcy she pines for and is often to be found behaving just as strangely as her two friends.

Bailey’s character of Manny Bianco is introduced in the first episode as an accountant that, owing to an explosive bout of work-stress, finds himself looking for a new job.  During a drunken encounter with Bernard, he is hired as an assistant, and to help with the abrasive proprietor’s overwhelmingly dire tax situation.  Soon a fixture at the shop, and living in the spare room, Manny’s hope of escaping to a slower-paced, less-harried existence are somewhat dashed.  Bernard runs him ragged and vexes him with the cluttered state of the business, in addition to its bizarre rules for employees and customers alike.

Though set in 2000-2004 in London, Black Books largely manages to avoid being dated, owing in no small part to Bernard’s preference for a lo-fi existence.  Unimpressed with mobile phones and other modern conveniences, the shop is as old-fashioned as its owner.  The series premise would have worked in the era of smart-phones just as well, and the comedy isn’t tied to wider pop culture in any significant way.  When the humour isn’t focused on Bernard’s dissatisfaction with customers or Manny and Fran’s attempts to get him to reform some aspect of his existence, it tends towards absurd situations.

Some highlights include a plot to surreptitiously replace the contents of a rare bottle of wine with dregs and common household ingredients, Bernard and Manny’s madcap attempt to turn the bookshop into a four-star restaurant, and Fran discovering her already tiny one-bedroom flat is shrinking.  A particular favourite episode of mine serves as a showcase for Bill Bailey’s musical abilities, wherein Manny spontaneously learns he can play piano by ear with comedic effect.

The writing is excellent, and consistently bizarre throughout the three series.  Black Books is perhaps a bit too silly to be classified as a dark comedy, though it certainly has a cynical and pessimistic streak.  Though hardly role-models, the three central characters are all endearing in their own way and enjoyable to watch even when they hit rock-bottom.  Any fan of Linehan’s other TV creations or Moran’s comedic work won’t be disappointed if they give Black Books a try.


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