Black Books: The Complete 1st Series

Black Books: The Complete 1st Series


Reviewed by: Nick Jones

Written by successful stand-up Dylan Moran and Father Ted writer Graham Lineham, Black Books is one of the finest British sitcoms of recent years. In fact it was so good in its first series it won a BAFTA and, although the following two series still had their moments, it never managed to achieve the quality of one-liners, or the consistency of belly laughs, that can be found here.

Set in a filthy, moth-ridden bookshop, run by the incompetent, selfish wino Bernard Black (Moran), the first episode shows us the surreal sequence of events that lead to his unlikely pairing with the bearded, childlike Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey), who, stressed in his office job, rushes into Black Books one morning to purchase the Little Book of Calm. He later manages to swallow the book by accident and develops godlike soothing powers, which allow him to stop dogs barking and turn off car alarms. Without giving anything away, the plot, bizarre as it is, comes together brilliantly at the end of the opening episode and...Black Books is born.

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Moran clearly revels in the role of Black. In much the same style as his stand-up routines, he drunkenly mumbles through each scene and, needless to say, the best moments are usually those in which he verbally abuses the unassuming Manny. Black is a classic comic character in the tradition of Albert Steptoe - a rogue so wanton you can't help but love him - whose living conditions are so foul, it's funny. In one of the lowest moments of their constantly taut relationship, Manny slams Bernard for living in such squalor, delivering the immortal line, "I'm currently eating scrambled egg out of shoe...with a comb!"

Caught between the two booksellers is the neurotic, man-obsessed (yet painfully single) Fran, played by Tamsin Grieg, who never gets any of the best lines, although does provide a necessary feminine side to proceedings and, as with her lead role in the recent C4 hit Green Wing, is often the sensible voice in an otherwise topsy-turvy world. She keeps Bernard from killing Manny, too, which is always useful for the second series.

Manny is another wonderful comic creation and Bailey takes to his first acting role like a demented duck to water. He is great as the nervous, good-natured soul who, unfortunately for him, happens to work for the nastiest and most incompetent bookshop owner in England. But he does have something in common with both Bernard and Fran, which makes the trio's relationship believable: they are outcasts; they don't fit into society on any level; they are single and miserable in their jobs and they ultimately need each other, though they'd never care to admit it.

Black Books' ace card, however, is its structure. It succeeds largely through its ability to devise crackpot stories for each individual character at the start of an episode and then somehow interweave the various strands by the finale. Its trademark is to end very suddenly with an expected comedic uppercut, leaving the viewer laughing and crying out for more.

Bernard may have put a sign on the shop door, which reads "closed" on both sides, but this is a classic British sitcom that you will always want to revisit.

Reviewed on: 22 May 2005
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Black Books: The Complete 1st Series packshot
Classic British sitcom about three misfits who run the worst bookshop in Britain.
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Director: Nick Wood, Graham Lineham

Writer: Graham Lineham, Dylan Moran

Starring: Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey, Tamsin Greig

Year: 2000

Runtime: 142 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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