Little shop of horrors

There's no hugging or learning in Black Books. As the show returns for a new series on Channel 4, James Rampton meets the stars of a decidedly ill-natured comedy
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The Independent Online

It's the start of a new series of Black Books, and its central character, the terminally curmudgeonly bookshop-owner Bernard Black (played by the show's creator and co-writer, Dylan Moran), is having a very bad-hair day indeed. After an unfortunate incident with a sandwich-toaster, he has fallen out catastrophically with Manny (Bill Bailey), the loyal assistant whose full-time job is to keep Bernard on the rails. Manny has stormed out to work for Evan (Simon Pegg), the control-freak manager of Goliath Books next door, leaving Bernard to fend for himself.

The result is not pretty. Bernard has let things go spectacularly in the shop, and visitors must negotiate a dead badger by the front door. He has taken to cleaning his teeth with the brush from the dustpan and refuses to heed the warning: "You can't survive on the mushrooms growing in your hair." Slipping into a slough of despond, he rejects the peace-making attempts of the third corner of Black Books' eternal triangle, his neighbour Fran (Tamsin Greig), and persists in blaming Manny for "robbing me of my best years and leaving me a burnt-out husk".

Clearly, Bernard is not the sort of man you would want to accompany on a long Andean walking-holiday. Even Moran, who dreamt up the fellow, says, with a clear look of distaste on his face: "I really don't like Bernard at all - he's a dreadful character. As him, my face hardens and I wear a permanent vinegar-puss look. I'm like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle." And yet - perversely - Bernard remains one of the funniest sitcom creations of the past decade. Like David Brent or Basil Fawlty, the more troubled he is, the happier we are.

The principal cast-members of Black Books are gathered in the suitably sleazy surroundings of a run-down pub in central London. It's a serious boozers' boozer. We are sitting round a stained and scuffed table, inside yellowing walls that have seen very much better days. Moran has rejected the proffered white wine on the perfectly reasonable grounds that "it tastes like they use it to clean the pipes". He seems much more content in the presence of a pint of Guinness and a packet of fags. All in all, this is the ideal milieu in which to discuss the delightfully dissolute sitcom.

So, just why does one man's misery make the rest of us laugh so heartily? Moran reckons we have to give a pat on the back to our German friend Schadenfreude. "If someone said: 'We've just come back from our holiday and we had the time of our lives - the food was incomparable; we made love every 45 minutes and got completely bronzed', you'd be bored rigid," speculates the Irish comedian, a former Perrier award- winner, who embarks on a live tour later this spring. "But if they told you that they got robbed the moment they stepped off the plane, their hotel wasn't built, and they got diarrhoea for a fortnight, you'd be happy to buy them a drink and hear the rest of their story." We derive equivalent pleasure from witnessing the convulsions of pain experienced by the three central characters in Black Books. Bernard's impotent, self-defeating fury is especially amusing.

"People get a buzz out of watching Bernard go postal," says Moran, who also starred in Simon Nye's blissful rural sitcom How Do You Want Me?. "There is a vicarious thrill in watching someone else say the things you'd like to but would never dare. It's like Bernard has Tourette syndrome - he just can't keep his conduct in check. Like Victor Meldrew, he gives vent to his spleen; he doesn't bottle it up. People admire that - especially in England."

Bernard strikes such a chord because we have all been in that situation of futilely raging against the machine. "Every day, most of us encounter a miasma of small tasks and difficulties that enrage us," Moran continues. "A bus that's late is no less annoying because it's late for the 10th time. The sheer repetitive strain of life warps people. Bernard has just been pushed too far by these strains. He wants to stop the world and hand in his complaint."

The other two characters are equally hopeless. Like the trio condemned to live together in eternal damnation in Jean-Paul Sartre's Huis Clos - the play that gave the world the deathless phrase: "Hell is other people" - there is no possibility of escape for this desperate triumvirate. "You could put those three anywhere," Moran comments, "and they'd slowly destroy each other. This sort of cruelty is very common. Couples enjoy upping the bickering. Idle badinage soon turns into an Edward Albee play that was left in the drawer. They start trying out new material over the breakfast table - 'Let me count the ways you disgust me...' That's one of the best marital lines!"

Greig, whose voice is familiar to millions as Debbie Aldridge in the world's longest-running radio soap, The Archers, remarks that Bernard, Manny and Fran are "stuck in a painful loop - but they can't get out of it because that would be even more painful. They're like Eric and Ernie, for ever stuck in bed together. They can't live with each other and they can't live without each other. The comedy lies in the fact that things will always be the same. The only thing that changes is that we're constantly thinking up new ways to hurt Manny!"

Bailey, a Never Mind the Buzzcocks team captain, who is also doing a live tour this spring, eagerly takes up the theme. Comparing the trio in Black Books to Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry or Steptoe and Son, he asserts: "They're terrified of being alone. They put up with a lot because the alternative is too horrific. That's true of a lot of relationships, isn't it?"

Off screen, the trio exhibit the same relish of language and off-the-wall imagery as their on-screen characters. An interview with these three is a two-hour verbal fireworks display. Launching into a typical flight of fantasy, Moran likens the characters' mutually parasitic relationship to "this fish I read about. The male, who is 10 times smaller than the female, bites the underside of his mate and remains there for the rest of his life, feeding off her nutrients. I think that's a useful analogy for the people in Black Books. We're the same as those useless male fish."

Swift to extend the joke, Bailey chimes in: "I always like the female praying mantis, which will bite the head off its male partner in mid-copulation. Apparently, after that has happened, he just keeps going. I must admit that when I read that, I felt a twinge of male pride. Blokes are great!"

"Yes," Moran agrees. "It's like he's saying: 'I took all night to pull - I'm not going to let a little thing like losing my head get in the way now.' "

Black Books abides by Seinfeld's famous mantra: no hugging; no learning. "You certainly can't do hugging or learning on Black Books," Greig says, clearly horrified by the very thought of it. "If you hugged Bernard or Manny, you'd get a disease!"

Moran chips in: "God forbid that anyone should learn anything in Black Books. The series makes no social point whatsoever. It's an exercise in accelerated time-wasting. I couldn't cobble together a message even if I were given an eternity and any amount of paint and banners."

Furthermore, Moran continues, Black Books is a corrective to the forced jollity of American shiny-happy-people comedies such as Friends. "It's an antidote to the cleanliness and brightness of those American sitcoms that are constantly shown on a loop. You don't have to wear sunglasses when you're watching Black Books. You know that Bernard is the sort of person whose fridge contains just one cup of lard. We're not going to be bringing out any Black Books kitchenware."

Many fans will be mortified to find out that this will probably be the last series. According to Moran, "We wouldn't want to feel we were tickling up a horse that just wants to die. You don't want to get the feeling that you're pumped up on steroids while supported by very thin legs that are going to collapse at any minute." There's that trademark linguistic relish again.

"We don't want to stretch it beyond its natural life," interjects Bailey, a man who boasts what can only be described as a Catweazle hairstyle, "like they did when they took Only Fools and Horses to Miami."

Barely pausing for breath, Moran carries on: "I don't subscribe to the idea of providing more of the same. You have to keep constantly trying to push things and keep the material alive. It's death to an artist to think: 'That went well - now I'll try and do the same thing again.' "

But the hordes of Black Books aficionados out there may well be relieved to hear that Moran is not writing off the show completely. "We have talked about a stage version of Black Books," he reveals. "We might do it if one of us needs an organ transplant. I don't know whether it'll be the lungs or the liver first."

"We could call it the Save Dylan's Kidneys Tour," Bailey adds, helpfully.

"Or we might be like Steptoe and Son when they did a live show," says Moran, unable to resist one last gag. "Hilariously, when they toured Australia, they weren't even speaking and had no show at all. Harry H Corbett would cover by going on stage and juggling while Wilfred Brambell was standing at the bar, getting drunk out of his mind.

"Bill and I could be like that. He could be getting pissed at the bar while I'd be out there doing the dance of the seven veils with a pineapple balanced on my head."

I, for one, would certainly buy a ticket to see that.

'Black Books' starts on Channel 4 on Thursday at 10pm