"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
The Big Sleep
The Valley of Fear
I'll Retire to Bedlam
The Eternal Triangle
The Return of the Speckled Band
In Luton Airport No-One Can Hear You Scream
We Have Put Her Living in the Tomb
Who Will Buy?
Love and Death
Monday Morning Will Be Fine
The Broken Reflection
The Beast in the Cage
Beware The Trickster On the Roof
The Worst Horror of All
The Pit and the Pendulum
Descent Into the Maelstrom
Hearts of Darkness
Secret of the Seven Sorcerers
The Man Who Blew Away
Only a Story
The Affair of The Hollow Lady
Rearranging the Dust
Hole in the Sky
The Exterminating Angel
The Executioner's Song
Tales of Terror
The Futility of the Fly
The Dawn of Man
Things Aren't Simple Anymore
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.