"One thing you can be sure about in life: just when you think things are never, ever going to get better, they suddenly get worse."
"I'm afraid that's Victor's trouble. He's the most sensitive person I've ever met...and that's why I love him, and why I continually want to ram his head through a television screen."
Wouldn't you know it? Or as Victor might yell, "I don't believe it!" I review the last two seasons of One Foot in the Grave, one of the funniest sitcoms I've ever watched, and I go ahead and order up the first four seasons because I'm mad for the show...and then this comes in the mail. BBC Video has released One Foot in the Grave: The Complete Collection, which gathers together all six seasons of the 1990 - 2000 series, along with all the show's Christmas one-off specials, and other bonus goodies. I raved about this series written entirely by David Renwick (an unheard of practice over here on American TV) and starring the sublime Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie, and catching the preceding four seasons only confirms my opinion that One Foot in the Grave is absolutely essential viewing for anyone interesting in comedy...and tragedy, for that matter. If you already own the individual season sets, you won't have to double dip here: these are exactly the same as the individual releases, and all of the seasons are still available to order, including the bonus disc here, featuring some additional Christmas specials. But if you're new to the series, or you're looking for a socko Christmas gift for that Brit-TV junkie, One Foot in the Grave ranks among the very best sitcoms - on either side of the Pond - and this comprehensive set gives you the works.
I wrote extensively about Seasons 5 and 6 of One Foot in the Grave, and much of what I detailed in those reviews applies here, as well, so I'll lift a few paragraphs from those outings and stick them here and there, among my new thoughts and examples that came about after watching all of the additional episodes and specials.
The series' set-up is the essence of simplicity - yielding, though, a seemingly endless supply of surreal comedic moments. Forcibly retired security guard Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson) has nothing to do (he was replaced by a box with switches on it). He putters around at his comfortable suburban home, and drives his wife crazy with his constant complaining, pontificating, and his unique ability to take life's many little annoyances and turn them into huge, blown-out-of-proportion nightmares. Margaret (Annette Crosbie), Victor's seemingly patient but quick-to-anger wife, suffers quietly in an effort to keep an emotional even-keel with her exasperating husband, but eventually, Victor's insistence on being not only irritating beyond belief but also almost cosmically unlucky, gets the better of her tolerance and she blows her stack. Next door neighbors Patrick and Pippa Trench (Angus Deayton and Janine Duvitski) try mightily to keep their distance from Victor, but Patrick in particular can't seem to escape the sphere of Victor's catastrophic influence. No such acknowledgement of bad karma will ever come from eternally optimistic neighbor Nick Swainey (Owen Brenman), though, as he hopscotches over into the Trench's old house, while of course, Margaret's friend, poor Mrs. Warboys (Doreen Mantle) is oblivious to her own tactlessness and irritating manner.
MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT!
On the surface, One Foot in the Grave's premise would seem to lend itself more naturally to tragedy than comedy (a tone that simmers and surfaces throughout the episodes). After all, what's funny about an angry, disgruntled older man making life's miseries all the more intolerable for himself and the only person who can (barely) stand him - his wife? What's amusing about watching a man subjected to a cosmic slap-down for every single endeavor he undertakes, with a constant parade of indignities and humiliations heaped upon him in some kind of karmic payback for his sour disposition (or, more correctly, he develops that sour disposition as a result of what happens to him). Well...nothing is funny about it, if you look at it logically. But then again, most comedy is "cruel" by nature if taken objectively (ever see somebody slip and fall in real life? Not particularly funny, but if they do it on a banana peel in a movie - screams). Perhaps, then, it's the veritable avalanche of ridiculously piled-on degradations that Victor instigates/suffers that pushes One Foot in the Grave from heartbreaking material over into surreal comedy. The inevitable existential drubbing we know Victor is going to suffer is all out of proportion to his petty whinging-about, and that overkill is a ever-building source of pitiless delight: we know it's not happening to us, thank god, but to Victor, and the crushing sense of overwhelming doom and inexorable punishment headed his way primes us for malicious, cringing laughs.
Having already reviewed the end of the series, and having seen where it wound up at its finale (here's a hint: in a very dark, depressing, strange place), it was fascinating to start over with the series, from the beginning...to see how dark, depressing and strange it had always been. Don't misunderstand: One Foot in the Grave is first and foremost a comedy - a startling hybrid of sophisticated wit, and low-brow and Grand Guignol grotesqueries. But in unexpected moments, it's surprisingly melancholy and depressing, too, with writer David Renwick and performers Wilson and Crosbie deftly switching in an out of those opposing tones with alacrity. Renwick is particularly good at depicting a seemingly conventional, even boring suburban lifestyle that is, on closer inspection, as twisted and perverse as anything in Kafka...if you have the unfortunate luck to interact with karmic black-hole, Victor Meldrew. In Renwick's world, double and triple comedic reversals always keep the viewer off-guard as one tries to get one's bearings. Normality is an illusion with Victor; he knows not one single moment of existential peace, nor of order in the physical world. He's continually depressed and enraged with the universe and its inhabitants, and the physical world responds by refusing to work with Victor, but rather against him.
In One Foot in the Grave's world, neighbors who see Victor's house burning down flub dialing "9-9-9" and instead order a singing telegram, complete with three gorillas in song (the beauty of that joke is obvious: how did they screw up "9-9-9"?). Why does Victor have a headless teddy bear riding an exercise bicycle in the understairs closet...with the head hanging on a hook? We're never told. Does Victor really not see that people are getting seriously injured during a play rehearsal gone terribly wrong? Apparently not, since he applauds with glee after each smash and crash, believing he's getting a private knock-about comedy show. When Victor moans that he just knows someone is going to put a used mattress in his garbage skip, imagine his bewilderment/rage the next morning when he finds an entire junker car place in there, with the topper joke: a mattress stuffed inside it. In Mrs. Warboys' twilight world of logic and reason, she doesn't hear the thud on top of her car when she backs into a window-washer's ladder, knocking him down and onto her roof. She just speeds off and locks her car - and the poor man who's suffered a concussion - in her garage. Victor and Margaret are equally clueless when they drag the obviously confused, sick man to a BBC sitcom taping (they carry the comatose man out like a drunk). Even peripheral players operate under surreal rules in One Foot in the Grave. When Victor answers an ad from a widow selling her husband's shoes, Victor is too dumbstruck to offer much protest when he's ushered into the woman's living room, where she takes the shoes off her perfectly dressed, perfectly dead husband, who's sitting in a chair. How long has he been dead? When did she post the ad? We're not supposed to know - just laugh...and then scratch our heads.
Tightening the screws even more on Victor (and on the anxious, laughing viewer), Renwick creates several "claustrophobics," as he calls them on one of the commentary tracks included in this collection, where he confines Victor to one space, and lets him slowly boil in frustration and rising rage. Certainly the best example of this format - and one of the best episodes in the series - is The Beast in the Cage, focusing obsessively on the tiny, confined space of the Meldrews' small car as they wait out a 4 ½ hour traffic jam...with their front view being a horse's bum hanging out of a trailer. Never moving the camera away from the tight shots focused inside the car, we find Victor and Margaret already at the ends of their respective ropes, with Victor ready to explode, and Margaret absolutely dreading that inevitable explosion. Steadily building gag upon gag, from Victor pointlessly testing his seat belt (he smacks his head on the steering wheel), to a great joke showing Mrs. Warboys suddenly appearing in the back seat a full 12 minutes into the episode (we discover she was traveling with them all along, and had popped over to a pub across the freeway...oblivious to the fact that they might have left her behind), to Victor getting in the way between two flirting cars on the outside lanes. Eventually succumbing to depression after his impotent rage fails to move the grid lock, Victor sadly makes the connection: his life is the same as this traffic jam - "One-way traffic just gradually grinding to a complete halt." As Margaret sits silently, Mrs. Warboys tries to help: "And you just have to try to make the best of it," to which Victor silently nods. And the camera pulls out and over the car. Hilarious and finally, sad and touching.
Renwick often brings a funny episode like The Best in the Cage up short with a return to somber reality, and this technique is usually quite effective. In The Big Sleep, Victor finds himself taking more than a passing interest in caring for a little bird that frequents his garden, but when it's killed by the neighbor's cat, Victor sighs sadly and buries it...only to have someone throw an empty beer can over the fence and onto the grave: in One Foot in the Grave, the universe is exceedingly indifferent and frequently cruel. In Who Will Buy?, Margaret accidentally befriends a lonely blind man whom she encourages to believe has been contacted by his son and grandchildren in Australia (when in fact, he's been utterly forgotten). At the end of the episode, out of the blue, Margaret learns that he was killed when he spent the money he had saved for new locks, on toys for the little boys who never knew him or cared about him. Perhaps the key to the whole series is contained in the strangely enigmatic scene in Timeless Time, where we decipher - but are not quite sure - that the Meldrews lost their only child when he was young. Perhaps that tragic event goes a long way towards explaining their depression and anger and ultimately, their ennui. Sometimes Renwick falters and goes dramatically overboard, providing too great a contrast between the laughter and the tears. Season 4's Hearts of Darkness begins like another classic in the series, with a brilliant opening montage showing the Meldrews, Mrs. Warboys and Nick having one horrible thing after another happen to Victor as they take a drive in the country, but it squanders its equally funny river outing by taking a serious left turn, involving Victor in a home for the aged where the pensioners are shown being viciously kicked and slapped (a really tough sell to get shots like that to fit with comedy scenes). But on the whole, Renwick's ability to jump back and forth between comedy and pathos is invigorating.
But let's not get too bogged down in One Foot in the Grave's occasional brushes with life's harsher realities. Throughout the series, Victor's humiliations come in never-ending waves, never ceasing in their apathetic, mechanical relentlessness...and it's paralyzingly funny to watch. Whether he's getting shaved in the hospital (not his face, if that helps) by a lunatic with a straight razor, or picking up the endless slingings of crap thrown on his yard, or having an intimate body search at the airport after joking about the "crack in his bottom," or getting beaten up by three tough little people (Victor thought the Ukrainian girls were saying "midges" were in the bathroom), or having his neighbors kindly help the burglars who ransacked his house by giving them tea and a battery jump, or having a monkey sexually molest him in front of an admiring crowd (the politely clap), or having those same burglars call and ask for advice on how to work his VCR, Victor goes to bed every night knowing he's lost a little bit more of his dignity - but every morning, he's ready to rage again against the bastards. Renwick likes to keep the jokes askew (many times we have no idea who Victor's tormentors are, such as the person who paints, "The man who lives here is a turd," on Victor's house), and importantly, he's not afraid to go for the jugular when bashing out a crude or grotesque joke. In one of the series' most notorious moments (a scene that caused many viewers to complain when it first aired in the U.K.), a cat somehow manages to curl up and go to sleep in the Meldrews' freezer (Victor brings the frozen-solid kitty out on a platter, and Margaret, horrified, asks, "How long has it been in there?" to which Victor snaps, "I'll check its sell-by date!"). In Secret of the Seven Sorcerers, Victor's magician friend needs CPR, so Mrs. Warboys accommodates...and crushes the pigeon he had tucked away in his vest. And in my personal favorite moment from the series - a gag so vile it's inspirationally beautiful - in Timeless Time, Victor hurries down in the middle of the night to the dark garden to turn off his hair-trigger car alarm, padding back up the stairs in his slippers until Margaret almost retches in disgust - Victor has put his foot into a rotting hedgehog...and the camera goes in nice and close as he picks it off his foot with a stick. Any show ballsy enough to go that low with a joke, while still maintaining some of the most sophisticated comedy/drama scripts I've encountered, goes right past "classic" into "transcendent."
Here are the 36 episodes included in the twelve-disc set One Foot in the Grave: The Complete Collection, as described on the back of their hardshell case:
Alive and Buried
At least Victor will be free to sort out the car, do the shopping, compile The Observer's Book of Crap on Your Front Lawn....
The Big Sleep
Noisy neighbors, an outbreak of Jehovah's Witnesses in the area...Victor needs to do something positive. Like exercise classes for the elderly?
The Valley of Fear
Victor calls a residents' meeting after an encounter with soccer hooligans. He arms himself with a starting pistol and Mrs. Warboys follow suit - with a hand grenade.
I'll Retire to Bedlam
Victor's been trapped in his garden shed by "killer" bees, stuck in the optician's all day with his eyes shut...now for the greatest horror: babysitting Iris' children.
The Eternal Triangle
Margaret's suspicions that Victor is having an affair with the nude model from his art class seem to be confirmed when she fins an "empty packet" in his coat pocket.
The Return of the Speckled Band
Victor's already dreading the holiday flight to Athens, but first he must deal with Mrs. Warboys' food poisoning, the electric meter reading debacle...and an escaped snake.
In Luton Airport No-One Can Hear You Scream
Victor and Margaret return from holiday to find that though their house has been demolished, someone has still managed to post a sample of HP spicy sauce through the letter box.
We Have Put Her Living in the Tomb
The Meldrews are entrusted with the responsibility of tortoise sitting and Victor helpfully informs the Secretary General of the United Nations that he's been using TCP.
Margaret is joining an amateur dramatics society. Meanwhile, Victor is writing a situation comedy - when he isn't continuing a feud against a litterbug.
Who Will Buy?
Victor fends off a toy dinosaur salesman and resurrects Cuthbert the ventriloquist dummy....Meanwhile, Pippa thinks he is responsible for the murder of an elderly blind man....
Love and Death
A weekend with April and Vince - who run a boarding house at a seaside resort - finds Victor getting an unusual present, assaulting some midgets with insect repellent and making seagull noises in a public lavatory.
As Victor is unable to sleep, he kindly ensures that Margaret also gets no peace. Things get so desperate that he even contemplates opening Ronnie and Mildred's Christmas present from last year....
Monday Morning Will Be Fine
Victor is reduced to sitting in a garden chair, staring at his new doors that don't fit properly. Perhaps a trip to the pub will lift his spirits....
Victor's getting dressed to impress at the village fete, but Margaret is having sinister nightmares - about murdering an old, balding man....
The Broken Reflection
Alfred, Victor's accident-prone brother, has come to visit from New Zealand. And to make matters worse, someone has just thrown their rubbish onto his garden.
The Beast in the Cage
When Bank Holiday traffic comes to a standstill on the motorway, who gets trapped in the car staring at a horse's back end for four hours?
Beware The Trickster On the Roof
Mr. Swainey returns from holiday with a present for Victor - an unlucky charm. Victor is not convinced until the roof starts leaking and a cow turns up in his garden....
The Worst Horror of All
Victor's had a shed fall on him, been rushed to Casualty and caught fleas but retains his good humor - he's got a new job!
The Pit and the Pendulum
Victor decides that Patrick's cherry tree is the cause of his garden being dry, and enlists a Neanderthal gardener to cultivate the stray roots
Descent Into the Maelstrom
Margaret collapses from nervous exhaustion, but after a few days of Victor's loving care decides to go back to work to get some peace and quiet....
Hearts of Darkness
On a trip into the countryside, Victor stumbles upon a home for the elderly where the residents are being abused by the staff, and hatches a plan for their liberation.
Margare has arranged to meet up with Ben, an acquaintance she made on holiday. She is surprised to find another woman in her bed when she returns. And so is Victor!
Victor spends a day at home while on-call for jury duty. He contemplates his various ailments, gets a letter from a disgruntled Jehovah's Witness and struggles to save himself from a blow-by-blow account of Mrs. Warboys' holiday.
Secret of the Seven Sorcerers
The Meldrews invite Patrick and Pippa around for a friendly meal, but Patrick is distinctly worried about what horrors might befall them.
The Man Who Blew Away
The Meldrews play host to a suicidal stranger from the past, who they met on holiday 17 years ago. Someone has been tampering with Victor's Christmas Crackers, and the Meldrews are decidedly unhappy when their stolen car is finally returned.
Only a Story
Mrs. Warboys comes to stay with the Meldrews while her flat dries out after a flood. She tries Margaret's patience - but Victor is entirely unperturbed. Just who and what is responsible for his new outlook on life?
The Affair of The Hollow Lady
Everyone is stunned when Mrs. Warboys has a wax model of herself made as the prize for a competition. Millicent the local greengrocer takes a fancy to Victor and attempts to claim him from Margaret.
Rearranging the Dust
The Meldrews suffer a long wait in their solicitor's waiting room. Victor observes the strange habits of the other visitors, fidgets impatiently, and finally attacks a dog with a cake. Margaret remembers the first time they kissed.
Hole in the Sky
Margaret and Pippa once more attempt to get Victor and Patrick to bury the hatchet but the result is no less of a disaster than usual. Victor restores a Dutch girl marionette and experiments with some deadly seafood cookery.
The Exterminating Angel
Romance is in the air for Mr. Swainey when he finally invites Tania the nurse out for a date. Victor takes a job as a chauffer but rapidly wipes out his employer's beloved fleet.
The Executioner's Song
Victor's window cleaning performance is reviewed (poorly) in the parish magazine, but he does manage to find the perfect holiday present for modern art lover Patrick.
Tales of Terror
Victor's got the lead role in the amateur dramatic production of Nosferatu the Vampire - but real life is scarier....
The Futility of the Fly
A deep-fried finger in his chips, an unsolicited giant plastic fly and inadvertently getting his wife's best friend tattooed...who would believe it?
A power cut on the hottest day of the year is a trial for Victor - as if coping with feet that have been featured in "The Lancet" and teenagers having sex on the back seat of his car isn't bad enough.
The Dawn of Man
Nick's identical "twin," Patrick's gay brother and video shop popcorn...all contrive to create maximum havoc.
Things Aren't Simple Anymore
Nothing out of the ordinary in Victor's last days on earth: their home becomes a sacred shrine; Victor syringes a car mooner's behind , and he's the only one to turn up to a work reunion.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfers for One Foot in the Grave: The Complete Collection are about what you'd expect for this kind of series from this time period. Shot on videotape for the interiors, and film for the exteriors, the sometimes washed out, muddy colors are par for the course for English TV exports from this time period. Image overall, is relatively clean, although a slight fuzziness can crop up. Overall, a decent but unremarkable transfer.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo track is entirely suitable for this dialogue-driven comedy; all words are cleanly delineated, while English subtitles help out if the accents get in the way.
On Season 4's bonus disc, another commentary with Renwick and Wilson discusses the controversial episode, Hearts of Darkness. They didn't convince me it worked. The 1993 Christmas special, One Foot in Algarve, shot on location in Portugal, is included here. Peter Cook has a supporting role, while Victor gets a donkey to piss in someone's bathtub. Oh, and Mrs. Warboys is sold to a man for sexual favors by a mispronouncing Victor. For Season 5's bonus disc, a commentary for The Man Who Blew Away, with Renwick and Wilson, is included (they seem to be in good spirits, here, with plenty of production info), while the 1995 Christmas special episode, The Wisdom of the Witch is included here on the second disc, and it's just as funny as the previous offerings. We learn that Victor's Aunt Ursula died as a result of a lightning bolt as she was going to the refrigerator (the police found her with an egg fried on her forehead), while Victor lands another humiliating part-time job: picking through a farm field, looking for a lost watch (he later learns the farmer really was using Victor as a walking scarecrow). And for Season 6's bonus disc, there's a commentary track (same players) for The Executioner's Song (very funny), is included, while the TV documentary, I Don't Believe It: The One Foot in the Grave Story, running 44:04 and produced in 2000, gives an in-depth look at the series and its production, with all cast members on-board for interviews.
The bonus disc for the set, One Foot in the Grave: The Christmas Specials, includes the final two holiday one-offs the series produced. Starbound, from 1996, has a classic reoccurring gag where a children's art class keeps drawing the most rude things that happen to Victor and Mrs. Warboys, while the drug dealer that's squatting in Victor's backgarden shed, is already getting addressed mail to "The Man in the Shed" after only three days. And check out what nationalized health service looks like in that one doctor scene (Victor wonders if he'll get a bed under National Health Service before the cockroaches take over the Earth). And 1997's Endgame, the least successful of the Christmas specials, introduces Victor's new neighbors...to little effect. Margaret having a heart attack and "dying" is priceless...she didn't have one at all - it was the wonky National Health Service heart monitor that needed a good whack.
All of the extras included here are the same ones you'll find in the solo releases. For Season 1, there's a snippet of a TV special entitled Britain's Best Sitcom, with no credits or date, that looks back at the series. Interviews with the entire cast are included, along with Eric Idle, Roy Hudd, Richard Ingrams, Helen Lederer, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Pauline McLynn, and David Renwick. It runs a brief 13:30, and it just...cuts off. Odd. Season 2 through Season 6 all have their bonuses on second discs. Season 2 includes the Christmas special from 1990, Who's Listening, where we learn Victor has broken his leg...buying a shirt (and subsequently develops an ant's nest down in the cast), before misording 263 garden gnomes...but Patrick takes care of them. Has the requisite Renwick between comedy and pathos, but it's Christmas, so the little kid gets his father back. For Season 3's bonus disc, we have our first commentary with David Renwick and star Richard Wilson, for The Beast in the Cage episode. Both are relaxed and fun as they discuss the complicated production for this classic episode. As well, the 1991 Christmas special, The Man in The Long Black Coat, is included. The feud with next-door neighbor Patrick continues, with Victor trying to teach the neighborhood cat how to stick its paw down its throat so as to throw up on Patrick's rockery. Victor gets taken with a load of radioactive horseshit, and he finds out he wasn't "planned," he was an accident (Margaret tells him his mother was expected a new gas cooker). The serious subplot of Pippa losing her baby due to her drunk driving seems right out of line for a Christmas special...even if it is One Foot in the Grave.
As I wrote before: brilliantly funny and surreal, as well as touching and thoughtful at times, too. One Foot in the Grave: The Complete Collection more than fulfills the basic requirement of any sitcom - it's paralyzingly funny - while offering quite a bit more with some surprisingly effective moments of drama and real tragedy. Written by talented David Renwick, and brought to life by hysterically funny Richard Wilson, Annette Crosbie and the rest of the cast, One Foot in the Grave: The Complete Collection is hands-down one of the finest television sitcoms I've ever encountered. Name your favorite, and it ranks right up there. On content alone, One Foot in the Grave: The Complete Collection deserves our highest rating here at DVDTalk - the DVD Talk Collectors Series - with all the bonus commentary tracks and extra Christmas special episodes making this collection irresistible. I can't praise One Foot in the Grave: The Complete Collection highly enough.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.