Thursday 16 July 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 8 - Black Books

I missed Father Ted. It was on while I was university, three years when I didn’t watch a lot of TV. I’m not sure I’ve caught up on all of them, but they are episodes of beauty, silliness and demeneted joy.

Because I was on catch-up, I don’t feel that Father Ted is one of ‘my shows’. But I’m more possessive about a show in the same vein: Black Books. When I saw trailer for it, I thought ‘Yup, I’m going to love that. Dylan Moran is funny. Bill Bailed is very funny. And that Tamsin lady looks like a find. Hoorah.’

I was not disappointed.

A Channel 4 show.
Released by BBC Video.
Of course
I think I saw almost every episode as it went out, or very soon after. An appointment to view. And those were the heady days of Videoplus. I could have punched in the four, eight or twenty digit number and gone out, but no, I stayed in with my then girlfriend, now wife, and watched this lovely show.

It was only with us for 18 episodes, running from 2000-2004, but that’s nine hours of Bernard Black shouting, drinking wine and pretending to read books with Manny and Fran running around after him.

What can we learn from this show?

Creating a World
As with all shows in which Graham Linehan has a hand, Black Books created it's own world. It wasn’t a big world. Quite the reverse. It was a tiny world, mostly a bookshop, a tiny kitchen and tinier flat. But it had it’s own logic and rules – in which a bookshop run by a shouty misanthrope that never sold books or did its accounts could stay open.

When writing a sitcom, you need to know your world, and what the rules are. You can do whatever you like, and maybe push things further than you think, if the rules of the world are clear to you - and the audience There’s no way that anyone would put up with the treatment Manny gets from Bernard, but in this world, he does. And that’s fine. On that note:

The Power of Three
Linehan and Moran created three characters were emotionally dependent on each other. You could argue Linehan does this in Father Ted and IT Crowd. But there’s something about a triumvirate that can work really well especially if there’s a natural leader to the three who calls the shots.

And those three characters are all you need. I barely remember any other characters. There was some show-off explorer. And a summer girlfriend. And Simon Pegg’s deranged cult-like rival book store manager. In fact, looking it up on wikipedia, there are quite a few other characters who pop up. But I don’t really remember them.

What I do remember is funny scenes in which Bernard, Manny and Fran talk, argue, drink wine and play off each other. Having picked two sitcoms (Bread and Allo Allo) with enormously creaking casts, it’s nice to show how things can and should be done with a much smaller cast. The plots stuck brilliantly to those three characters and their relationships with each other. It's a real masterclass on that score.

Oh, and this clip starts with one of my favourite visual jokes ever. (I couldn't embed it in the blog. Soz) And I love this scene too:

Therefore, I salute writers Dylan Moran, Graham Linehan, Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil, and declare their show, Black Books, by 8th Favourite British Sitcom, by far one of their smallest accolades.

For more sitcom analysis, and advice on getting an idea out of your head and onto a page, try Writing That Sitcom, available now for the Kindle/Kindle App.

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