Black Books

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Of all the words one could use to describe this blog, current isn’t one that springs straight to mind. Certainly, Black Books isn’t new, it isn’t even new to me; I saw the show when if first aired back in 2000, but after having re-watched the entire series recently I felt the need to write about how bloody good it is.

Black Books offers slices from the life of Bookshop owner Bernard Black, his unwanted work colleague Manny Bianco and his best friend Fran Katzenjammer; both of whom are pretty much his only source of communication with the world outside his grimy abode.

On the surface Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan’s Black Books has a classic formula thatcan be seen again and again in sitcom land; two blokes of opposing viewpoints are forced together in a confined space. This may be a well worn formula, but it’s a formula that works; Hancock’s Half Hour, Porridge, Steptoe and Son, The Odd Couple, Red Dwarf – the list goes on. Black Books is different though, it isn’t really about the relationship between Bernard and Manny, nor Fran and Bernard, not even Manny and Fran. Instead it is about the dysfunctional relationship one man, Bernard Black, has with the rest of the world. In having Manny forced upon him Bernard is forced to reintegrate himself into society. His relationship with the world is a little like that of a bitter ex lover forced to try and get on with a woman that, in some unfathomable way, betrayed him; turning him into the shambling, alcoholic pile of skin and grime that lurks in the bookshop like a vicious troll.

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Bernard, despite being so dislikable in so many ways is likable precisely because of his irritability. Everyone has bad days, times when a dark cloud seems to hover over their head and threaten to taint their view of the whole of humanity. There are mornings when we all wish that the world would just go away and leave us alone. We’re happy to scuttle around in our homes sealed off from the cause of all our woe – everyone else. Bernard Black’s only problem is that he sunk into this state a long time ago and failed to reemerge from the doldrums. There was no way he could have cut himself off entirely from the outside world for any sustained period of time and as a result he is now plagued with constant intrusions and attacks upon his ideal state of being; to sit in the middle of an empty bookshop with a cigarette in one hand and a voluminous glass of wine in the other. Bernard has no filter, this has been worn away many years ago. He screeches at his friends, mocks passers by and only shows the vaguest signs of common courtesy when faced with the need for food, drink, sex or shelter. All this conspires to make him very, very funny.

I have heard it said that series two and three of Black Books are markedly inferior to the first. In fact I have often said it myself. But upon re-watching the series as a whole I’d like to issue a public retraction; at least once a series Black Books produced an episode that I think could be called a classic – and the remaining fifteen installments weren’t too shabby either. Of these I would personally single out the following:


Series 1 – Episode 5 The Big Lock-Out

An inadvertently locked door sees Bernard forced to venture out into the real world seeking, in this order: shelter, hardcore pornography, food and employment.


Series 2 – Episode 4 Blood

The title of this episode stems from Fran’s quest to research her family tree but the really excellent parts of this installment involve Bernard and Manny trying to re-invent the shop, firstly as a library come cafe and then as a fully blown restaurant. It’s satirical, hectic and brilliant


Series 3 – Episode 2 Elephants and Hens

Bernard attempts to write a children’s book. I can’t think of anything that I can add to that sentance could possibly make it sound more appealing.


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When Black Books came along in 2001 the classic studio audience based sitcom format was on its very last legs, soon to be trampled into the ground by a new wave of low key half hour comedy dramas typified by the likes of The Royal Family, The Office and Marion and Goeff. The multi camera sitcom is far from dead, as demonstrated by the relative success of Linehan’s The IT Crowd, the long running family comedy My Family and a multitude of American imports that wash up on our fair shore. I can say however, having re-watched the entire Black Books oeuvre, that this is the programme for me that can be described as the last great traditional British sitcom. I look forward to the day when that is no longer the case.

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3 Responses to “Black Books”

  1. “Nightingales” is another Channel 4 series to mention here; also ramshackle and surreal, set in an unusual workplace, with Robert Lindsay’s character perhaps an equivalent of Bernard.

    Interesting piece – makes me want to check it out again. BB is definitely much funnier than The IT Crowd for me, and features better actors…

    • illegibleme Says:

      I agree with you there. It’s good, very good at times, but it isn’t quite up there with Lineham’s other work. I can’t quite put my finger on why; perhaps it veers just a little too far into the bizarre to be a successful example of the ‘traditional’ sitcom it purports to be.

  2. This show had so much potential. Series 1 was fantastic, but by series 3 it was dreadful. It really needed Linehan’s touch, it seems. Such a shame they couldn’t reconcile their differences… it could have easily become the new Father Ted, I think.

    Still, there’s definitely some fantastic moments across all three series, like you said.

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