Everyone loves second-hand bookshops, don’t they? The satisfaction of leafing through some dusty volume of antiquarian musings, the rich scent of aged leather bindings, redolent of the past… Add to all that the opportunity to indulge in some intellectual posing and impress the philosophy student lounging in the corner, and you’ve got yourself a full Saturday afternoon’s entertainment.
That is, of course, unless you happen to find yourself in one particular Bloomsbury establishment, presided over by a certain Bernard Black. Make no mistake: our Bernard (Dylan Moran) may have an aesthete’s tousled pallor, but there’s nothing remotely poetic about his attitude to running a shop. Only dimly familiar with the concept of customer service, he rules his domain with a rod of iron. The burden of keeping the peace falls to his gentle assistant, Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey) whose former life as an overworked accountant abruptly ended when he accidentally swallowed a copy of The Little Book Of Calm. Instead of dying as expected, Manny absorbed the tome’s beatific qualities and found himself born anew as a being of endless decency and patience. Just as well, really. The trio of bizarre characters at Black Books’ heart is completed by Fran Katzenjammer (Tamsin Greig). Never given sufficient employment by her own emporium, Nifty Gifty – which, not altogether surprisingly, ceases to be a going concern after series two – Fran spends most of her time with her soulmates in stupidity, Bernard and Manny.
Originating in an unaired pilot created by Dylan Moran in 1998, Black Books ran for three series on Channel 4 between 2000 and 2004. Co-written in its first series by Father Ted creator Graham Linehan, it shared that show’s magnificent silliness while injecting a darker note of melancholy to the otherwise hilarious proceedings. With the bantering relationship between Bernard and Fran and its protagonists’ unerring knack for making a bad situation worse, it’s surely also a distant British cousin of Seinfeld. Like its American relative, it managed not to outstay its welcome, never losing its comic momentum or diluting its distinctive atmosphere over the course of its eighteen episodes.
Bernard’s perpetual gloom and siege mentality when very occasionally confronted with customers originated in Moran’s view of the personality type required to run a second-hand bookshop, rarely the most lucrative of enterprises. His childish rants and dishevelled menace ought to terrify the audience away, too, but the fact that they don’t is testament to Moran’s skill with his all-too-plausible role. Bailey’s performance as the long-suffering Manny is also superb. His goodhearted optimism is a constant challenge to Bernard’s cantankerous worldview; somehow, though, they just about form one functioning personality. Greig’s Fran, who does suffer from something vaguely resembling a conscience, is another indispensable thorn in Bernard’s side. Fabulously antisocial as the trio are, there’s a touching side to their efforts to fit into the unfathomable world around them, from Fran’s ill-fated attempt to ‘enjoy’ a hen party to Bernard’s disastrous stint as a housesitter. Ultimately, this band of misfits belong together.
Though it’s been absent from our screens since 2004, Black Books remains one of the most memorable comedies of recent years, as much for its wonderful characters as for its endlessly quotable scripts. If you haven’t already been sucked into the strange world of Bernard, Manny and Fran, you could do far worse than spend an afternoon in the world’s most unwelcoming bookshop. Just don’t be too surprised, as you dip into these ten especially beguiling episodes, if getting out proves more difficult than you first imagined…
10. A Nice Change (2002)
When noisy building work threatens to send Bernard even further round the bend, a nice holiday in a sunny destination seems like a good idea. Needless to say, all does not go to plan. Manny’s little oversight when booking the bargain-basement flights leaves the three hapless travellers voyaging the four corners of the earth to reach St. Honoré, the only paradise island to feature its very own English bookshop and bar.
9. Cooking the Books (2000)
Every glowering hero needs his perky sidekick. Bernard Black, however, first meets his new partner-in-crime when overworked accountant Manny bursts in searching for that fateful copy of The Little Book Of Calm. The ingestion of said tome leads to a beautiful friendship…or at least a means of financial survival for Black Books’ proprietor, whose idea of managing his accounts involves crafting them into ‘a rather smart casual jacket’.
8. Travel Writer (2004)
If there’s one thing scarier than Bernard Black on his usual form, it’s Bernard Black under the spell of a gung-ho, charming travel writer. Even Black Books’ stony-hearted owner can’t resist Jason the smarmy adventurer, whose book launch coincides with a typically bizarre turn of events for Bernard and pals. The shop’s lease is now in the paws of a cat who was the sole inheritor of Bernard’s former landlord’s will.
7. He’s Leaving Home (2000)
By the end of series one, Manny’s had quite enough of his infernal boss’s antics. After a series of mishaps, the wandering stray is taken in by a seemingly kind man whose lavish treatment of his ‘guest’ turns out to be dependent on his ardent enthusiasm for the more hirsute gentleman. Can Bernard and Fran save Manny from the clutches of the beard enthusiast (a memorable cameo by Omid Djalili)?
6. The Fixer (2002)
Bernard and Manny aren’t exactly the most obvious candidates for literacy tutors, but it’s difficult to say no to an East End hardman – especially one who’s threatening them with dire consequences. Fran, meanwhile, is working for the budding writer’s uncle. The nature of the job? She’ll get back to you on that one when she finds out herself…
5. Fever (2002)
As the mercury soars in London, our favourite threesome’s plagued by torments of various kinds. Bernard becomes erotically obsessed with the kind of sweet and muslin-clad women guaranteed to run a mile from his misery, Fran can’t sleep for the heat, and Manny is terrified that his mysterious ‘Dave’s Syndrome’ will kick in. Fran’s landlord (a superb Johnny Vegas) is up to no good. As Fran’s walls quite literally begin to close in on her, the various plot threads come together to typically hilarious effect.
4. Manny Come Home (2004)
Fran gets back from holiday only to find an abandoned Bernard languishing in a badger-infested fleapit and Manny gainfully employed at Goliath Books, an all-too-perfect chain next door. Spaced fans will be delighted by Simon Pegg’s appearance as manager Evan, in an amusing reversal of his and Bailey’s roles in that show.
3. Grapes Of Wrath (2000)
An old friend of Bernard who has clearly not seen him for a very long time makes the foolish mistake of asking him to housesit. He and Manny polish off a bottle of magnificent wine intended only to pass the lips of the Pope. Can they make another one to replace it? We’ll have a lot of fun finding out. Also notable for a cameo by the great Kevin Eldon as a terrifying cleaner with the unenviable task of giving Black Books a thorough scrubbing.
2. The Blackout (2000)
After receiving an unhealthy level of exposure to The Sweeney over the course of one long night, a coffee-crazed Manny believes he is a proper ‘70s copper. The sight of a leather-jacketed Bailey racing after a thief only to keep right on going when he comes to his senses is unforgettable. Adding to this episode’s brilliance is the presence of Colin McFarlane – also familiar as the ill-fated Commissioner Loeb in the Nolan Batman films – as Bailey’s new guv’nor.
1. The Big Lock-Out (2000)
Black Books gave us many sublime comic moments, but for me, its finest hour came in series one. In The Big Lock-Out, Bernard is the victim of a burglary. Installing a state-of-the-art new security system seems like the ideal solution. Or at least, it would have been, had Manny not been distracted by a Subbuteo player mysteriously lodged in the alarm installer’s hair. (Bernard’s description of Manny in this episode as ‘a beard with an idiot hanging off it’ is, sad to say, more justifiable here than usual.) With the code forgotten, Manny is trapped inside Black Books, while Bernard is, to his chagrin, cast out into the cold and hostile outside world. A visit to a pornographic video store and a trip to the cinema provide respite of sorts, although the cost of refreshments proves a sticking point (‘Is it special popcorn? Does it produce some kind of dizzying high?’) Never was the show’s wonderfully surreal and skewed perspective on everyday life more in evidence, from Bernard’s long, dark night of the soul to Nick Frost’s cheery – and bizarrely accessorised – technician.
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