The immensely popular — approaching cult status — BBC sitcom is very quotable, there’s no denying. Everyone’s got a few friends that rely on last night’s television to be charming. Unfortunately, I will be taking up such a role to pay homage to one of the greatest shows to ever grace the small screen. It is intelligent without asking too much of its audience; it is hilarious without relying on repetition (as so many recent comedies have done, Catherine Tate take note).
In this exploration of some of the greatest moments in Black Books — and this can be nothing but objective, unless someone has a way to measure awesome — I will explore what it is that might — I repeat, might — account for the show’s greatness. Whatever it may be, the truth is simple: it is very funny with a unique cast of characters, deserving of our attention. So listen up!
10The culinary delight of coaster biscuits
The culinary delight of coaster biscuits is often overlooked as one of the truly brilliant moments of the series. Unfortunate, given the natural logic of the humour (for, yes, coasters often do look like biscuits) which is often overlooked. Not only this, but it is a good representation of Bernard Black’s character: indifferent and obscure. In this early stage of the show, being the third episode, this is very significant and exhibits the craft of its writers to combine subtle character development with humour that is anything but subtle. And we love Bernard all the more for it! And we even consider trying a coaster or two ourselves.
9A simple pun
What a wonderful build-up to a simple pun! The entire sequence is working off a stale method of humour that has little place in serious comedy (whether or not Black Books belongs in this category is a question unto itself). This works off Bernard’s idea that Manny is manic, for which he is constantly seeking evidence. The chicken stripping incident is the final straw! He is sent to a psychiatrist, who doesn’t speak one word but ends up helping nevertheless. Later in the episode, Bernard will visit her as well where it will occur to him that he treats Manny as if he were his son. Perhaps they are a little mad, but it’s functional. At least as comedy.
Like the pun, physical humor is another overdrawn comic method that we don’t see much of these days. It’s too close to slapstick and modern audiences like to think of themselves as better than that (although the more recent BBC comedy Miranda has shown how slapstick can be used effectively). In Black Books, although rare, slapstick takes on a unique flavor of escalating disaster, at the root of which lies the burgeoning tension between the protagonists: each one’s desire to hurt the other to expel some of their frustration. The very simple dialogue works wonderfully well here, as does the expression on poor Bernard’s pained face.
7The wine lolly
The wine lolly has become a major feature of Bernard’s character, another of his odd tastes one might say. The nonchalance with which he asks for his “lolly” and breaks the bottle suggests this to be regular behavior in the shop. Not even Manny is phased by it. It is on this sort of humor, the divide between normalcy for the characters and normalcy for the audience, that much of the comedy in Black Books is derived. It is on account of this divide that people love the show; so, in a way, the divide actually brings audiences closer to the series.
6Am I dead?
“Am I dead?” A typical question given the frequent references to long haired, peaceful and sandal-wearing Manny as Jesus. He doesn’t understand, but the audience does: an essential trope to successful comedy. “Who are you?” Bernard continues. “Have I joined a cult?” This works off the other Manny strand as a heavy metal dude and a little bit dangerous (only superficially though). The scene is one of many where characters wake up dazed in a cloud of illusion, but a favorite of mine as it is a little more understated than others. Sometimes, less is more.
5Bernard and the Jehovah’s Witnesses
The paralysis of the Jehovah’s witnesses never gets tiring to watch. The scenario is quite simply genius. One must not forget that sitcom stands for situation comedy. All too often the situational aspects are replaced with dramatic ones (Black Books risked this with one or two suggestions of a romance between Bernard and Fran, but thankfully never strayed down this path). The series always retained the comic situation at the centre of every episode, and this example has to be one of the greatest. The extras clearly love it too. Sheer brilliance!
No one will deny the mess Bernard and Manny live in. It is part of their shared kingdom, and the objects with growths are merely paraphernalia. The threat on their kingdom by the cleaner incites fury and panic in our heroes. So much so that cutting remarks are constantly made, in this instance “I don’t trust him; he has no nasal hair!” It is beautiful to watch with what exuberance Bernard is willing to defend his lifestyle, partially because of his ego and partially because he has known nothing else. In the logic of Black Books, there is nothing strange about a table that lifts with a coffee cup.
3I ate all your bees!
Both hilarious and touching, this scene with the bees must be one of the most quoted in the entire series. In its most fundamental formation, all it is is bizarre. There is, essentially, nothing funny about it; the humour comes into play with the seriousness each of the characters puts onto the situation — in a way, parodying the melodrama cliché of overemphasizing and overacting absolutely everything — and the facial expressions of the talented cast, which harks back to a purer time in comedy when Charlie Chaplin was king.
Fran’s confused attraction towards Hal is so well portrayed that the power of his ridiculous voice comes across as a universal truth. This scene exhibits Tamsin Greig at her finest in my opinion, showing absurdity with honest competence and proving once again that she was perfectly cast in the role of our unambitious and (unfortunately) underachieving heroine. Shameless as ever, Fran comes up with a pathetic excuse to get out of the awkward situation without bothering to stick around for any explanation. There’s something admirable in that, isn’t there?
1All children look surprised!
Perhaps from the greatest episode of all, The Blackout, which has multiple recurrences of the phrase “What happened to you?” A really important question when you remember as little as Bernard or suddenly appear with a broken neck like Fran (another amazing moment). The cherry that sweetens the entire scene is Bernard’s accusation of the child being a smoker in an attempt to transfer blame — just another instance of his own touching childishness. This marries good acting, a great situational set-up, and very quotable one-liners: winner.