Thursday, 28 June 2012

One Foot in The Grave: some thoughts on a masterpiece




One Foot in the Grave is one of the least suburban, least traditional sitcoms ever made. It's worth stressing this, because the Daily Mail tends to print Victor Meldrew's picture whenever there's a piece warning that old-style BBC 1 sitcoms are on the way out. However often you may have heard people say "I don't belieeeeve it," there's nothing safe, cozy, conservative or reactionary about One Foot in the Grave, and nothing grumpy about Victor Meldrew.

Victor Meldrew's greatness as a character lies in his iconic rather than realistic nature: he is at once a blue-collar man of the people and a voice for middle-class frustrations of his creator. The two jobs we are told he's had in his pre-retirement days - a security guard, a milkman- and the considerable array he takes on during the series - a lollipop man, a window cleaner, a doorman, a chauffeur, a gardener - are blue-collar. He's splendidly articulate, clearly intelligent and contemptuous of bad television, but when there's nothing on the television or the radio he's clearly restless in his own house: unlike his wife Margaret he can't pick up a book, except when he's fretting over medical encylopaedias.

At other times, Victor is a champion of the people. The remarkable episode Hearts of Darkness sees this moving beyond locking locksmiths in their porches and standing up to litterbugs. Victor stumbles across a care home in which the residents are being abused by the staff. His outburst to the monstrous woman in charge of all this carries the same humour and signature style ("What language are you speaking -  oh, that's right, bollocks!") as his outbursts about anything else, rendering its dignity and moral force all the more moving. The episode closes with the image of the abusive care workers, tied up with their feet encased in cement, disguised as scarecrows, while Social Services arrive.

Something extraordinary is also achieved in the episode The Worst Horror of All, in which Victor takes a job as a hotel doorman. He's subjected to a nasty bout of snobbery by a toff who demands that he fetch his wife's fur coat from the taxi. Victor catches sight of a wheelchair-bound man getting out of his car into his chair unaided. Enough is enough. Victor rips the toupee from the toff's head and hurls it down the drain.

I'm sorry neither of you have managed to master the mechanics of a doorhandle yet, it must be very complicated for you with your limited brainpower. Oh, and do forgive me for not getting the fur coat out. Of course if you hadn't chopped all its legs off it could have climbed on its own, but there we are. You ask me whether I want to go on working here, well if it means sucking up to odious bastards like you two every day then I think I'd rather remain unemployed thank you very much.

Richard Wilson's power as an actor really sells this: we genuinely feel that Victor is standing up for the people, for workers at the mercy of those with money, connections or power, even though elsewhere he articulates the frustrations of a middle-class TV writer.

Few writers have shared David Renwick's gift for imagery, or his mastery of the setpiece.. Each episode delivers big thrills and unforgettable visual moments: Victor's head under a bucket, a car in the skip, a cat in a freezer, a machine gun massacre of garden gnomes, a tortoise buried alive, a audio tape full of abuse from rebellious car mechanics. As with Seinfeld, these are carefully built up to, and Renwick too has a flair for planting seemingly innocuous details that will take their part in the payoff. This allows the show to bring joy and genuine laughter to a wide audience, but Renwick's technique is anything but easy. He uses each setpiece in careful alignment with the script's take on life in general, in much the same way that good science fiction or fantasy uses the fantastic as metaphors as well as things that are cool in themselves. We sense that Renwick has captured the misery, cruelty, random stupidity and occasional miracles of life itself. This monologue from The Beast in the Cage is a sublime example:

Mirror image of your life really, isn't it? Car Journey on a bank holiday. First 50-odd miles, on the go, all they way, a sense of direction, bowling along. Get past sixty everything slows down to a sudden crawl...and you realised you're not going anywhere anymore. All the things you thought you were going to do that never came to anything. And you can't turn the clock back. One way traffic just gradually grinding to a complete halt.

It's extraordinary - and yet hardly noticeable - that this speech occurs after Victor has put some music on only to find the car mechanics he's been quarrelling with have stuck a piece of chewing-gum in the record protect hole and performed a song of mutiny ("Victor Meldrew, Victor Meldrew, he can stick it up his bum" to the tune of Bread of Heaven), yet Victor, Margaret and Mrs Warboys act as this is just the kind of thing life throws at you, and Renwick and the cast sell this so well that the viewers don't find it jarring: it's part of a unified worldview.

Similarly, the episode The Man Who Blew Away ends with Victor inheriting a collection of antique dentures from Mr Foskett, who, on hearing by phone that his wife had left him, committed suicide after Victor and Margaret had just suffered his company for a day, and whose last thoughts were gratitude towards them for their kindness and hospitality. Victor looks at the teeth. "You can see why they do it," he says, "Those people next door, laughing and playing music all day long. I mean, if we couldn't laugh at this, we'd be committing suicide." There's a mirthless pause, while Victor and Margaret gaze at the teeth. "Where are the sleeping tablets?", Victor asks. Like the transformation of Kafka's Gregor Samsa, each bizarre concept never strikes the viewer/reader as anything other than part of the author's world. Kafka convinces you that a man turning into an insect is a summation of the misery, fear and struggle caused by life in general, David Renwick convinces you with a cat in the freezer, a head under a bucket and a very large collection of false teeth.

The show is also genuinely moving. Amidst all the overpraise for the merely good Peep Show, we'd do well to remind ourselves of such One Foot in the Grave  masterpieces as Timeless Time and Rearranging the Dust. The former episode takes place entirely in the Meldrews' bedroom and sees Victor and Margaret unable to sleep for a variety of reasons, culminating in Victor returning from deactivating the car alarm with his foot lodged in a rotting hedgehog he mistook for a misplaced slipper. Amidst these splendid setpieces, we get this moment, after Victor has been mocking tabloid headlines and used the phrase "no British babies believed to have been killed" and promptly apologised for saying "the first thing that came into my head...I wasn't thinking":

Margaret:
"I was thinking about him just this morning, funnily enough, running into Glynis outside the post office with Michael. She had him just a few days before, if you remember: she was coming out of the hospital just as I was going in. He's still working for that insurance company. They're talking about moving him to his own branch up north somewhere. She'll miss him. She never had any others. He'd just bought his mum an ice cream and then he was going to run her up to the doctors. It doesn't seem like five minutes since it was the other way round. I always think of Stewart when I see him. God, he's enormous now. His eldest girl's just starting at the secondary. I wonder what he'd have gone into? I wonder if he'd have gone into insurance?
Victor:
Not if I'd had my way
Margaret:
You make so many plans for your life when you're young. I don't know what I imagined I'd be doing when I was 55. Seemed like so far in the future it would never happen. A year seems like an eternity when you were a child. The time between one Christmas and the next:
Victor:
Yes, it's about two months now. The'll be draping tinsel over the Easter eggs before long. Why can't they let you live your life at your own speed?



In Rearranging the Dust, Victor and Margaret are stuck in a solicitor's waiting room for the whole episode. Margaret recollects the days of their courtship, and talks about the handsomest boy at the dance, and how they finally ended up kissing, ending with the inevitable punchline: Margaret had got the wrong one. "You were always my first choice," says Victor. Margaret is stunned: "You never told me that." There's a pause. "But then you never say much, do you?" She then gazes at him with a brief look of thrilled adoration (a brilliant bit of non-verbal acting from Annette Crosbie), and then the solicitor arrives.

My main purpose in citing those scenes is to show that It's absurd to suggest Peep Show has ever been that good. Genuine emotion, rather than angst, takes centre stage here. Rather than Peep Show's increasingly artificial "hah, he didn't do anything again! That's so true to life" brand of characterisation which appeals to Guardian TV critics, the series balances an unflinching look at the darker side of life with hope, wonder and humour. I can't resist one final example of how Renwick's writing dwarfs Peep Show: in the episode Warm Champagne, Margaret seems to be on the verge of beginning an affair with the ghastly Ben, who charms her and takes her out to a swanky restaurant. He asks the waiter to ensure that the champagne is chilled: "there's nothing worse than warm champagne."

Margaret: You talk about being sensitive - I'm afraid that's Victor's trouble. He's one of the most sensitive people I've ever met, and that's why I love him, and why I constantly run to ram his head through a television screen [...] do you know what's actually worse than warm champagne.
Ben: no...?
Margaret: No, I really don't think you do.



What a brilliantly subtle bit of writing those last two lines are, and how much insight into snobbery and insularity are compressed into them. If there's one thing that Victor Meldrew stands for, it's that there are indeed much worse things than warm champagne.

From the last episode of series one to the fifth Christmas Special, almost every episode is flawless. It's a shame, though, that the magnificent fourth Christmas special, The Wicked Witch of the West, was not allowed to remain the final episode, as it was clearly intended to be. In series 6, the magic's faded a little. For the first 5 episodes at least, it's still funny, but now Mrs Warboys's tall tales and the bizarre stories Victor reads out from newspapers sound like gags for the first time, just as the plot about a critic giving stinking reviews to everything from Victor's window-cleaning to someone's suicide comes across a writer's in-joke rather than the invigorating metaphors for the unfairness of life itself that Renwick's vintage set-pieces gave us. There's also a worrying sense of awareness of its own success: the episode in which Victor and Margaret's life is turned into a play - with a punchline in which someone else criticises the play with "I don't beleeeive it" - brings to mind a rare miss-step made by Seinfeld in its fourth season with its similar "show-within-a-show" plot.

The final episode, Things Aren't Simple Any More,  is an artistic disaster I haven't been able to watch since its first broadcast. The problem is that it comes with a built-in smug response to criticism: "ah, but people die," "Ah, but all good things have to come to an end" "ah, of course you didn't want Victor to die: but we don't mollycuddle the viewer". The flaw with this argument is that fiction has a tremendous advantage over life: it can end in ways other than death, and the ending shouldn't just be a way of ensuing the writer isn't tempted or badgered into writing any more, it should be in keeping with the tone of the overall work, and it should do justice to the characters. To let a character live doesn't change the fact that they will die, it just allows us to keep them alive in our minds: who they are, what they mean to us and what they represent. Frustratingly, the ending that would had achieved this was filmed and broadcast: it's the ending of The Wicked Witch of the West, which teases us with Victor's death, before revealing him in front of the tv with his arm in a sling, angry as ever. That said, killing off a character in a comedy series can work - as Blackadder Goes Forth and series 7 of Seinfeld testify - but instead of a thematically appropriate death, Renwick cobbles together something of a Midsummer Murders storyline, with Hannah Gordon playing it straight as the hit-and-run driver responsible for Victor's death, and Annette Crosbie forced to ignore the fine work she's put into Margaret and play the role of a vengeful widow who may or may not have have killed Gordon in retaliation by the end, and who will presumably be alone for the rest of her life. What this has to do with One Foot in the Grave is anyone's guess.

The real blasphemy in this episode -  far more than the decision to kill off Victor - is that Mrs Warboys (Doreen Mantle) Mr Swainey (Owen Brenman) and Patrick and Pippa (Angus Deayton and Janine Duvitski) don't appear and aren't even mentioned. Appreciating the work this fine troupe of actors do (Deayton is a revelation here) is yet another reason to buy the DVD boxset and watch from the start rather than catch the odd repeat.

Stumbling upon a showing of the episode The Pit and the Pendulum while channel-surfing, for example, one might laugh at Patrick removing a bucket and finding the head of a buried Victor underneath it, but then wonder why Renwick has to put the laughs on hold when Margaret comes and tells him she's just had a phone call telling him of her mother's death. Watched properly, one appreciates the juxtaposition of Margaret's news with Victor's predicament. It's often a mistake when sitcoms with studio audiences have "no laughter" moments, but here it works due to Renwick's delicate interplay of imagery, his control of each episode's themes and the tremendously strong performances of Wilson and Crosbie. The DVD set reveals a show that stand alongside The Singing Detective and I Claudius as one of British television's finest moments. It used the sitcom form to explore depression, death, cruelty, wonder, hope, misery, love, friendship and morality, all through the imagination of a writer with a gift for surreal imagery and performed by outstanding actors, and yet for more casual viewers delivering slapstick and setpieces of such unsurpassed quality that they often become
iconic in their own right. Was there really a time when something like this was allowed to go out on BBC1? I don't believe it.

2 comments:

  1. I would have always thought of One Foot in the Grave was a fairly inconsequential, old fashioned sitcom, but now I really want to get my hands on it and give it another go.

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    1. Wonderful! That's why I write these pieces.

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