Looking Back At BLACK BOOKS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At BLACK BOOKS

Tony’s just browsing, thanks.
“A good bookshop is just a genteel black hole that knows how to read.”
Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett.

If that feels like an odd and misplaced quote to begin with when remembering a highly cult-popular sitcom, it really shouldn’t, because Black Books – the bookshop around which the sitcom of the same name was based - was more or less the TV epitome of a black hole. There were enormous pressures at work behind its doors, and none of the three central characters could ever truly escape its pull.

Black Books was almost like the bookshop you’d find on the outskirts of oblivion – rarely visited, and then by weirdos, where acceptable ideas of reality went to die. It was a sitcom that frequently behaved like it was a surrealist philosophical stage play, inviting us into absurdist situations and loose plotlines that revealed the toxic, but deeply funny, co-dependency of three characters.

Shop owner Bernard Black was played by Dylan Moran like a sadistic, Irish Lord Byron; one-time accountant and masochistic shop assistant Manny Bianco was embodied by Bill Bailey like a benevolent alien dropped into Hell; and as owner of the shop-next-door, Fran Katzenjammer, Tamsin Grieg played an uptight pragmatist on a wild ride into the dark and drunken reality of the bookshop’s power dynamic.
It was a set-up that could have gone either way – in different hands, it could have been a ridiculously standard Channel 4 sitcom about people working in a bookshop.

Black Books was never really standard about anything.

The very first episode set the tone.

Actually, the unreleased pilot set the tone, with Bernard and Manny both deciding to kill themselves, but let’s not judge a work in progress. The first episode involves Bernard being so depressed and existentially beaten down by the thought of doing his own takes he’ll do anything to avoid them, including talking to door-to-door evangelists and contemplating doing himself a serious injury. When Manny, the accountant who looks like he belongs backstage at a Hawkwind concert and hates his job, arrives in desperate search for the Little Book of Calm to soothe his cavitating nerves, he’s like hairy-faced manna from Heaven to Bernard.

When he accidentally swallows the book, Manny at least briefly becomes a Messianic shimmering figure, spouting calming aphorisms every chance he gets, and is hired, partly to lift the burden of taxes off Bernard’s desperate head, and partly because it’s easier to have him around than to get him to leave. Meanwhile, Fran is introduced to us as a woman who mouths a serious commitment to her friends, but then fails one who’s chosen her as her birthing partner…by becoming endlessly fascinated with a trivial object, eventually revealed to be a novelty lighter.

This was never going to be a straightforward sitcom.
It’s probably claiming too much to say that the style ever really settled down. There was regularly an angle that became the focus of a half-hour, but while the angles themselves could start off relatively ordinary – Fran decides to learn the piano, Bernard wants a girlfriend for the Summer, the bookshop is filthy and needs a deep clean – they never stayed ordinary for long. Manny discovering he’s a piano virtuoso, Bernard finding a Summer girl, but then making it appallingly weird until she leaves him, and Bernard and Manny trying to make Frankenstein wine in the course of one evening being respectively the end results of those three set-ups.

To make such off-the-wall scenarios even vaguely believable within their own surreality, you needed a core group of deeply weird but oddly intelligent characters, and Black Books delivered them. Bernard would frequently lead the three in their ultimately nihilistic pursuits, with either Fran or Manny putting up a token resistance of attempted moral ‘normality’ before going along with him.

Yet for all the swirling dark and (if translated into reality, rather than comedy) deeply unhealthy energy between the three, the absurdity both of the situations in which they found themselves and their reactions to those situations had an internal consistency that drew you in. When Bernard and Manny were left in charge of a wine cellar, with cheap, eminently drinkable plonk on one end and intensely expensive wine, set to be presented to the Pope, on the other, it was comedically inevitable that a classic sitcom mix-up would see them drink the Papal wine. But probably only Black Books would turn that premise into a quest to make vintage wine overnight from ingredients foraged from the house and garden – only a few of which were fit for human consumption. But what that leads to is an escalation of both premise and personality, with Moran’s Bernard slipping easily into the role of an obsessive Frankenstein, with Bailey’s Manny as Igor, visibly degenerating through a sequence of accidents and injuries.
Similarly, when faced with a hot summer, Manny freaks out about the potential for the temperature to hit a particular mark because, like a temperature-trigged Hulk, bad things happen to him at that mark. Rather than help cool his friendly factotum down, Bernard follows his curiosity to the point of torture, heaping Manny in hot water bottles to find out exactly what is the nature of the ‘Dave’s Syndrome,’ which allegedly kicks in whenever Manny hits 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius). Stick with that episode, it eventually delivers one of the most arresting sights your eyeballs will ever have seen.

There’s a definite streak of sado-masochistic co-dependency among the three main characters, but in a sense, that’s what gives Black Books its timelessness. If you wanted to get philosophical about the whole thing, you could posit that the characters are not really in a London bookshop at all, but are in Hell, experiencing the torture that is not only other people but also the true natures of their fundamental souls; Bernard the over-intellectual snob, marinading in solitude and ever-increasing filth; Manny paying penance for his life as an accountant by becoming the social slave of the comically cruel Black; and Fran, unable to commit to anything of any depth or seriousness, doomed to drift along with the two of them, because only with them can she find a niche that demands nothing of her.

But, as Bernard might say, that sounds incredibly boring, so let’s not do that at all.
Let’s instead remember Black Books as a treacle-dark comedy of squalor, doomed ambition, surrealist antics and gorgeous performances. While in the cases of Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey, there’s a certain bleed over from their stand-up personae into their Black Books characters, their on-screen relationships is joyously odd, spiky and weird. Moran’s Bernard Black feels like the self-revolving would-be writer who discovers his Inner Masochist only when he finds the perfect victim.

Bailey gives us a Manny who, we suspect, away from the influence of Bernard, would be free to use his many skills in a positive direction. But there’s something about Black, and about Black Books itself, that won’t let him leave for good. Even when he does break away, it’s only as far as a new hyper-trendy bookstore-cum-coffee-bar, and even then, he yearns to return to the existential bleakness that is Black Books.

Meanwhile, Fran has many opportunities to leave, to re-invent herself, and break away from the bookshop and its odd couple. But she knows that to do that will take real energy and commitment, and it’s altogether easier and more familiar to stay right there, in a world where, after an all-night coffee and Sweeney binge, Manny can be mistaken for a real policeman and crack a suspect. A world in which two grown men try to write a bestselling children’s book overnight when catastrophically drunk. And where even a brush with a world-famous naturalist sees her dumped back in the aisles in the dark, sweet, mad, surreal aisles of the Bookshop of the Damned.

The aisles of Black Books.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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