Looking Back At ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony doesn’t believe it!
One Foot In the Grave did two things exceptionally well.

Firstly, its timing was perfect – it first arrived in 1990, the same year as BBC stable mate, Wating For God, and they both tapped in to a spirit of elderly revolution against a world that was changing dramatically. Their spirit wasn’t necessarily cranky just for the sake of being cranky at the changing of the world, though. Both shows managed to embody the urge to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ – especially because they both featured older people who had no intention of letting their light go out any time soon, thank you very much, but who found themselves prematurely consigned to a societal scrapheap of condescension.

In the case of Waiting For God, created by Michael Aitkens and starring Graham Crowden and Stephanie Cole as a pair of ‘bad old buggers’ in a nursing home, the notion was that simply being older was no guarantee that you couldn’t still be cantankerous, mischievous, or even downright unpleasant, battling against the twee notion that becoming an ‘older person’ necessarily meant you had to be lovely, well-behaved, sexless, and fascinating.

While there will always be a place in the comedy pantheon for Waiting For God though, it trod a much more ‘traditional sit-com’ path than One Foot In The Grave.

In One Foot, created and written by David Renwick, the situation is technically the more traditional of the two – Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson) is a security guard, living in suburbia with his wife Margaret (Annette Crosbie). When he is prematurely released from his job aged 60, the social convention is that Victor will become an ordinary pensioner, finding things to do, accepting his ageing and his freedom from work with good grace, but ceasing to really ‘matter’ in a societal setting – the essence of the sentence to which our work-orientated culture condemns people once they finish what is likely to be their last paying job.

Victor, in fairness to him, tries. He really, truly, tries to be good. To be helpful. To be what people expect him to be.

But, free of the distraction of work, his mind simply won’t let him rest for too long – and more importantly to the future of the series, it won’t let him swallow the things he feels need saying.

That right there is what elevates Victor Meldrew in the annals of sit-com - especially British sit-com – to the status of a legend. It’s the second thing One Foot in The Grave does exceptionally well. It gives us a central character with whom we can absolutely, bone-deep, identify.

Because Britain in particular is a nation that runs on the suppression of emotion and expression. It is a nation of tutters in the face of political chicanery, of eye-rollers in the face of bureaucratic idiocy, of huffers in the wake of appalling casual rudeness.

Victor Meldrew, set free from his everyday job, becomes a kind of avenging angel for everyone who’s ever done the tutting, huffing, eye-rolling thing and felt their life get just that little bit worse because they didn’t speak their mind.

Victor spoke it for us.

Add to that the regular appearance in his life of the absurd, the surreal, and the downright bizarre and it’s not surprising that his catchphrase was “I don’t believe it!” – or that that catchphrase caught on all around the country as a response to the petty absurdities that dog the lives of many a Briton.

It’s true that few of us will have accidentally frozen a cat in our deep freeze, picked up a wandering dog instead of a phone and barked our number into its ear, been buried up to the neck and had a plant pot placed over our head, or in fact experienced any of the particular vicissitudes that beset Victor Meldrew.

But the genius of David Renwick’s writing was that while he introduced many a surreal element with which to plague Victor Meldrew, he always, always, always gave you a logical path back to HOW the absurd or surreal element came to be there. Entirely unexpected rabbits out of hats are one thing, but Renwick’s writing was always better than that. He would always at least properly introduce the hat, and mention that there was a local plague of rabbits around, setting you delicately up for the punch of the gag.

For instance, when Victor is getting a sapling delivered in a pot, he’s on the phone when it arrives, and so is less attentive than he might otherwise have been. When he instructs the delivery man to “put it in the toilet,” the oncoming misunderstanding is believable and understandable – but it still involves Victor in a further irate call to explain that the delivery man has actually PLANTED the sapling in the BOWL of the toilet.

Rule #1 – Never underestimate the comedy construction skills of David Renwick. You’re in the presence of a master with One Foot In The Grave. Renwick’s creation can absolutely share table space in Comedy Valhalla with the likes of John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers, or Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ Porridge. And like Cleese and Booth’s intensely foolishness-averse Basil Fawlty and Clement and La Frenais’ worldly-wise Fletcher, Renwick’s Victor Meldrew gives us a central character who can, at various times in our lives, speak for us and embody us.

To lots of people, he embodies us at our ‘worst’ – because there is hardly any social crime bigger than speaking the truth, out loud and at the time at which a situation annoys us.

So to his relatively ‘normal’ but younger neighbours, Patrick and Pippa (Straight man to the stars, Angus Deayton, and Jane Duvitski, who has a CV bristling with well-meaning characters – including one in Waiting For God), he’s a prickly customer at best, and absolutely senile at worst, though his actions often drive them to the very edge of sanity themselves (Patrick for instance at one point machine guns an unfeasible number of garden gnomes that have accidentally been midselivered to the Meldrews. As you do).

To his other neighbour, the appallingly positive, cheery and childlike Nick Swainey (Owen Brenman), he is the lovely old person who occasionally gets grumpy – a stereotype to which Victor objects more than somewhat, but is unable ever to shake in Nick’s head.

To the Meldrews’ family friend, Mrs Warboys (Doreen Mantle), he is ‘the husband’ – the implication being that ‘we all know what husbands can be like, dear.’ He usually suffers her witterings in relatively good humour, and on the occasions when he doesn’t, and snaps at her, his response is as immediate as her reaction – he doesn’t MEAN to be unkind to those who mean well, it’s just that sometimes those who mean well accidentally drill holes through your skull with their well-meaning…ness.

And to Margaret, who is most frequently described as his ‘long-suffering’ wife, he is a source of support, but also a water-torture grinding drip of complaint about all the madness of the world. It’s telling though that his complaints rarely if ever focus on her, and at various points he shows his true nature where she’s concerned – when they reminisce about how they met and got together, she openly admits he wasn’t her first choice, or her first offer. It’s not overdone or overly sentimental, but he is able to simply tell her that she was always his first choice.

That’s something that’s echoed when David Renwick decided to tackle the often-asked question of why Margaret stays with someone as cantankerous as Victor. When a suave man enters her life, sweeps her off her feet, and offers her a real alternative to what he sees as the “insensitive” Victor, she smiles. He’s got him wrong, she says, like lots of people do. Victor, in his heart, is the most sensitive man she’s ever known.

And that’s the key. Yes, One Foot In The Grave is gloriously written, bringing in absurdist and surreal elements, and having Victor whinge about everything from Bank Holiday motorway traffic to customer service incompetence, to, it sometimes seems, the very nature of the universe – but he’s us. He’s us when there’s a needless delay, or an officious official, or when machine algorithms determine human fates. But he’s also us at the potential of our very best. The determination that some things shall not be borne extends in Victor Meldrew, both to ranting and to extraordinary kindness on some occasions, and to bravery on others.

The most obvious example of that bravery comes in the Hearts Of Darkness episode, where Victor, having visited a nursing home where he gets a distinctly bad feeling, liberates its inmates – who we see being abused – and trusses up the abusers until the police arrive to take them away.

So while Victor Meldrew may be a nightmare for some of the people around him, in his own mind he’s internally consistent, and to viewers everywhere – especially British viewers – he’s often the voice of our own unspoken fury, and he can even be the voice, and the avatar, of our often unspoken bravery.

The fact that Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie work so well together to convince us of the reality of their marriage is no accident – while Wilson had starred in sit-com before (notably in Only When I Laugh, alongside other strong performers James Bolam and Peter Bowles), both the leads were strong dramatic actors, and played both each comic disaster and the underlying truth of their ongoing relationship for real, never for laughs.

If that seems like something you could viably take for granted, it’s worth bearing in mind that Wilson originally turned down the role for which he is now most widely known, and that in his absence there was talk of the part going to Les Dawson.

Now, Les Dawson was a genius in his own way, but to get the truth and the pathos out of Victor Meldrew, and elevate One Foot In the Grave to the level the writing demanded, you needed experienced dramatic actors to anchor the reality of the lives of Margaret and Victor Meldrew in place against all the surrealistic elements that occasionally came their way.

One Foot In The Grave is one of the most binge-worthy sit-coms the UK has produced in the last 50 years. Unplug the phone for a week – you have six series and seven Christmas specials to cruise through. But settle in and commit to allowing your Inner Victor Meldrew out for a while.

You’ll feel very much better for it.

Watch One Foot In The Grave today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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