Wanted: a comic with the write stuff

Stand-up comedians are great at spinning a yarn, creating a character, thrilling an audience. One thing they can't do is pen a sitcom. Until Dylan Moran
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The Independent Online

The London bookshop-owner Bernard Black has one small problem: he hates his customers. At 2.45 in the afternoon, when he just can't stand the sight of them any longer, he simply whips out a megaphone and bawls them out. "Right, the shop is closed," he bellows. "Get out, all you time-wasting bastards. Back on the street."

The London bookshop-owner Bernard Black has one small problem: he hates his customers. At 2.45 in the afternoon, when he just can't stand the sight of them any longer, he simply whips out a megaphone and bawls them out. "Right, the shop is closed," he bellows. "Get out, all you time-wasting bastards. Back on the street."

Bernard Black, the principal character in C4's new sitcom, Black Books, is the latest in a long line of comedy curmudgeons. Following in the distinguished tradition of Tony Hancock, Alf Garnett, Basil Fawlty and Victor Meldrew, he is a man constantly at two with the world.

Bernard is played by Dylan Moran, the Irish stand-up who also co-wrote the series with Graham Linehan, one of the creators of Father Ted. But the switch from stage to screen was not without risks for Moran. There is a long and not always honourable history of stand-ups transferring to sitcoms; Rhona Cameron, Tommy Tiernan and Ardal O'Hanlon's recent efforts, for instance, met with far from universal acclaim. However, there is rather more to Black Books than a hastily cobbled-together dramatisation of fragments from Moran's stand-up act. It is not a fast-buck cash-in on the Perrier Award-winner's substantial live following. For a start, Moran can actually act; as Bernard, he exhibits a magnificent stroppiness.

Also, the series has well fleshed-out characters, and there's the surprise of a proper structure. Like Seinfeld, each episode interweaves three different plotlines which come together at the end. The impression is that Linehan has brought some discipline to Moran's wilder flights of fancy.

"When I saw the pilot that Dylan had written on his own, it was very nearly brilliant," Linehan remembers. "But it was surreal and structureless. When it's too surreal, you don't believe in it and it breaks the reality. So when I came in, we worked on the way it was constructed and made it more believable. Rather than relying on Dylan's stand-up, we wanted the series to stand on its own two feet."

When Moran and Linehan conceived Bernard, they imagined him as the sort of man who would carry a pair of scissors with him at all times, in readiness to snip the wires of speakers blasting out musak in pubs. In the first episode of Black Books, he rails against the sheer incomprehensibilty of tax returns. "What does that mean?" he fumes at the document in front of him. "'If you live in a council flat by a river but are not blind'?"

Bernard becomes so desperate for displacement activities that he turns his accounts into "a rather smart casual jacket" and even resorts to inviting in the Jehovah's Witnesses who call on him. "Great, come in," he enthuses. "I'd love to hear about Jesus. What's he up to now?" The evangelists are flummoxed because they have never actually been admitted to a house before.

But just why is misanthropy such a good subject for comedy? Moran thinks it is simply an accurate reflection of life. "Anybody who's erect is in a state of disquiet most of the time," he muses. "Maybe there is a whole secret society of people walking around perfectly untroubled. Maybe there are people who behave like the ads on the telly and can get their rocks off with a single cup of coffee. Maybe they do exist, but I've never met them."

Bernard is reacting against the "white noise" of the modern world that assails us all. "Misanthropy is the touchstone of this series," continues Moran, a card-carrying member of the miserablist tendency. "Bernard can't deal with the pell-mell pace of London. He is someone who can't cope and is not even prepared to try. He has secured himself in a fortress of denial. His bookshop is a huge sandbag against the autobahn of modern life."

The more alienated Bernard is, the funnier he becomes. He reaches such a pitch of frustration with his accounts, for example, that he realises only serious injury will exempt him from them and tries goading a trio of Millwall skinheads into hospitalising him.

"The funniest thing in the world is an angry man," says Moran. "It's something to do with the accelerated disintegration of the nervous system. Seeing a terribly angry bloke always makes me laugh because he's pushing away the very thing that could solve his problem. People like that are fighting for they what want, but they'll never get it because they are trapped by their own inadequacies and blindness. A properly funny sitcom character never displays the self-awareness that could get him out of a hole."

Such characters also provoke a delicious sense of schadenfreude. When we watch, for example, Basil Fawlty flogging his broken-down car with a branch, or Victor Meldrew buried up to his neck in his own back garden by a disgruntled workman, we take illicit pleasure in their pain. The same sensation applies to Black Books. We just can't help but relish it as the Millwall skinheads' boots rain down on Bernard's head.

"When people tell you stories in pubs, you don't want to hear anecdotes about lovely holidays, but tales of disasters," says Moran. "Everybody loves spectating on disaster - that's where Channel 5 gets all its ratings. We love to watch people suffer and think 'it's great, it's not us'. Other people's pain is a salve to our own. It's much easier to laugh at other people than ourselves. It requires no self-knowledge whatsoever to laugh at granny falling downstairs."

Featuring such a difficult, dishevelled and downright dislikable central character, Black Books is a very healthy antidote to the irrepressible cheeriness of more mainstream three-piece-suite-coms. "It's a reaction against the perfectness of things like Friends," Moran confirms. "I have a very low tolerance for enthusiasm generally. Television should reflect how we live. I get depressed by how good-looking everyone is on television. You never get the sense that they smell or are at all crusty. We wanted to avoid the airbrushed slickness of most things. I want viewers to feel that these characters find clumps of pubic hair in the most unexpected places around the house."

With the relatively complex plot of Black Books, Moran was also keen to get away from the schematic simplicity of most TV comedy. "Usually, everything is over-explained, and the audience is encouraged to be like a duck that's going to be made into paté and not do any work. It's not even patronising - it's cretinising. A lot of the time you're supposed to care about a character who is late. I'd care more if he was late - and had a lot of blood dripping from his neck."

The dark and dingy Black Books may well be the brightest sitcom prospect to hit our screens since Linehan's most famous offering, Father Ted. Moran has certainly relished performing it. "Acting is a tremendously pointless activity - and I'd love to do more of it. It's such a ridiculous non-job. You just waft around and get paid for it. You don't have to think at all. You turn up, people give you bits of paper and you have to say what's on the paper."

He can foresee a second series, but no more than that. "I always admire people who get in and get out while they're ahead of the game. My ideal would be to see Bernard die at the end of series two," he says cheerily.

For the moment, however, Moran is returning to his stand-up roots with a national live tour. "The purpose of it is to verify that all the English place-names that make me laugh actually exist," he explains. "Crawley, Morecambe, Tring."

But in one crucial respect the tour will be no different from Black Books. "Misery will be the watchword for the tour," Moran concludes. "I was thinking of calling it 'The Non-Stop Death Roadshow', but there is a slight tang of uncommerciality about that, isn't there?"

The first episode of 'Black Books' is on Channel 4 at 9.30pm on Friday