So, you’ve finished The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Killing but you’re still hungry for more boxsets. Fear not, Standard Issue writers are on the case with some hidden gems you might not yet have seen. This week, Hannah Dolan dusts off Black Books.
It was as if I’d woken up one day sat in front of the TV, already hooked on Black Books. I’d not seen the first series when it was first broadcast and I have no idea who introduced me to it. All I know is that somebody had made a TV show just for me and I loved, and will forever love, every bone in its body.
Those somebodies were Graham Linehan, writer and director of Father Ted, and ridiculously wonderful standup comedian Dylan Moran. Black Books consists of three series mostly taking place in a dusty, cluttered and infested book shop. Every episode is a self-contained story revolving around the three characters: Bernard Black (Moran), Fran Katzenjammer (Tamsin Greig) and Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey).
Bernard is the owner of Black Books book shop, a 30-something-year-old semi-functioning alcoholic, a chronic smoker with hygiene issues who loathes most people, particularly his customers. Fran is Bernard’s long-time friend who, for a short time runs a gift shop next door. When she becomes unemployed , she is constantly on the hunt for a new job – but is often too picky. She shares his love of heavy smoking and drinking and has an unlucky love life. Manny is introduced in the first episode as an accountant who hates his job and is hospitalised after accidentally swallowing The Little Book of Calm. Soon after releasing himself from hospital, he winds up working and living with Bernard. He’s kind, optimistic and hardworking and Bernard hates him.
From the outside Black Books might appear to be a straight-forward sitcom, yet surreal elements and absurd storylines are woven together with conventional situations to create a beautifully multi-layered world of ridiculousness.
My childhood was very much influenced by my Dad’s silly sense of humour; he introduced me to Monty Python, Eddie Izzard, Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’s radio series and Red Dwarf, things that most of the kids in my class hadn’t yet heard of. I loved Red Dwarf so much that on Mondays in primary school when my schoolmates had no clue what I was talking about, I just assumed Red Dwarf only came to my parents’ house. ONLY CAME TO MY PARENTS’ HOUSE… Let that piece of information sink in a bit… I remember how sad I was when I moved to a boarding school and I wouldn’t be able to watch my favourite programme ever again. That was, until one Friday when another boarder invited me to the TV room to watch it. The look on her face when I happy-squealed “IT COMES HERE TOO?!” was amazing. My husband hates when I tell that story; he says it makes him sad. What I’m trying to say is that when I find something I like I get a properly unhealthy connection to it.
It was the language of Black Books that grabbed me. It’s silly, poetic and intelligent, but not in a wanky way. And the timing is just impeccable. That and the slightly surreal story twists make it so watchable, and re-watchable. I could watch it on a loop until I die and it would always seem fresh. It most certainly has Dylan Moran’s silly/surreal stamp on it, for example, the episode where Fran buys a mini-grand piano and gets lessons from an elderly blind Russian man. She has no patience when she doesn’t instantly pick it up and soon discovers that Manny is some kind of musical genius that can instantly mimic anything he hears on the radio. Fran decides to lie to the tutor when he returns the next day, she forces Manny to play an assortment of classical music from inside the piano using spoons while she’s sat in front of the keys.
I wasn’t alone in my Black Books obsession, my best friend Jen was happily stuck right in there with me. We’d not think twice about spending our university days watching the series over and over and over again, only pausing to make more tea and fetch more biscuits. We knew every word to all the outtakes and would quote lines to each other, no matter where we were. At the time Jen and I helped out at our university’s weekly comedy night so we were already being introduced to and educated in the world of standup, but the series also subconsciously taught us about the likes of Kevin Eldon, Nina Conti, Jonny Vegas, Peter Serafinowicz, Olivia Colman, Lucy Davis, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jessica Stephenson, Rob Brydon, Martin Freeman and Omid Djalili.
If Bernard, Fran and Manny were real people I’d most certainly be a creepy customer trying to worm my way into their friendship bubble, and I’d be sneered at and shooed out of the shop with an old broom. But that’s fine, because once I’ve finished one of my regular Black Books boxset binges and turned the TV off, I can look around me and know that at least my front room is tidier than that shop.
Hannah Dolan is getting better at making eye contact but only just. She likes biscuits and knitwear, even in summer, and quietly sings to herself if she forgets where she is.