Celebrated 1990’s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly recently returned to UK Netflix, which feels like a good opportunity to explore a show which helped define its decade, series by series. Has it stood the test of time?
If the third series of Men Behaving Badly sets the show on the road to British comedy success, the fourth series is arguably the year that cements the cult following that grew up around it – the mid-1990’s cult of ‘laddism’.
The first two series of Simon Nye’s show had the concept but it lacked in terms of execution. Martin Clunes stood out immediately as Gary Strang, a hapless, middle-class thirty-something determined to prove his own sexual vitality and fight against a perfectly ordinary relationship with an ordinary woman. His pairing with Harry Enfield as Dermot Povey in Series 1 never quite worked, with Dermot’s passivity in the face of ‘lad culture’ immediately exposed an underwhelming in Series 2 by the arrival of his replacement, Neil Morrissey’s Tony Smart. Though arguably Nye doesn’t fully figure out how Tony works until well into Series 3, his dynamic with Clunes was far more natural, as was it with the shows female co-stars Caroline Quentin and Leslie Ash.
Come the third and particularly the fourth series, their natural dynamic steadily becomes edgier, naughtier, more raucous and more specifically about the growing aspects of ‘laddism’ that were being popularised in mid-90’s culture; dirty lads magazines, drunk nights in the pub, looser attitudes toward fidelity and a determination to prove the masculine sense of virility in sexual conquests with women. Men Behaving Badly, on moving from a pre-watershed ITV slot to post-watershed airing space on the BBC, steadily across both of these series embraces the promise of its title. Tony grows more desperate, Gary more lascivious, and both become more boorish and prone to embrace the physically grotesque.
What happens as a result? Men Behaving Badly becomes steadily funnier, more acute in its social and moral commentary, and arguably in Series 4 reaches its creative apex.
The show, retrospectively, never feels right on ITV. It looks constrained. While it would remain a multi-camera, laughter-track sitcom at the BBC with limited sets and purposely controlled staging, Series 3 immediately benefits from an extra six or seven minutes running time (sans adverts), while series director Martin Dennis—who helmed the entire six series plus special episodes, a far more common production factor in British as opposed to American comedy—is afforded what appears to be a slightly improved budget to be a little more inventive and varied in his direction. Lovers, Nye’s first script for the now-BBC series, opens with a discussion of sexual threesomes – a topic the pre-watershed ITV incarnation would likely never have touched. The stall is immediately set out.
We did two series for Thames TV, then ITV took over and said if any episode got 10m viewers, the show would stay on air. We got 7m, which people would kill for today – and ITV pulled the plug. I felt so cross that I went to the BBC, who took it, and it became a huge hit and definitely got more than 10 million viewers. Back then, people seemed to have allegiances to one channel – they were either an ITV viewer or a BBC viewer. A lot of people didn’t know Men Behaving Badly existed before it moved to BBC. The format didn’t change, but it was put on post-watershed. Plus they aired it after Absolutely Fabulous, so viewers stumbled across it.
There are some interesting factors to unpack here in terms of why Men Behaving Badly, across its third series, became the cult success that has lingered in the cultural memory over the last two decades.
ITV’s demands for high viewer ratings suggest they didn’t feel Men Behaving Badly was working and were looking for reasons to cancel the series in 1992. It’s interesting how the idea of the ‘new lad’ was born in 1993, the year between the transition from ITV and the BBC, via ‘lads magazines’ such as Loaded, which began propagating the idea of a rejection against the model of the ‘New Man’ in line with growing feminist attitudes. Had Nye’s series aired a year or even two later on ITV, would they have been more inclined to believe the show would be a hit? That it was tapping into a cultural zeitgeist? Would they have made the changes, such as giving the series a later time-slot and allowing Nye to explore racier material, that arguably led to the series’ eventual higher rating figures and cult status?
This is impossible to really know. ITV had a reputation for family friendly sitcoms over the preceding couple of decades which they perhaps felt keen to continue into the 1990’s. The year before Men Behaving Badly’s debut had seen the end after a decade of Never the Twain, with Donald Sinden & Windsor Davies as bickering antique dealers; Fresh Fields and later French Fields was a cosy, provincial sitcom with Julia McKenzie and Anton Rodgers as a middle-aged suburban couple; Duty Free in the mid-80’s was a romantic comedy with Gwen Taylor and Keith Barron and a Spanish setting, or The Upper Hand with Joe McGann as the working class housekeeper who falls in love with Diana Weston’s wealthy divorcee with kids.
All of these shows were hits, and many of them were actually perfectly good at what they did—indeed a personal favourite of mine was After Henry, with Prunella Scales as a widow dealing with her viperish old mother played by the great Jean Sanderson—but they couldn’t be more tonally distant from Men Behaving Badly if they tried – the biggest hit around the time of the series was Rowan Atkinson prat-falling as the weird (possibly alien) Mr Bean. ITV just wasn’t ready for what Nye was trying to deconstruct at this point, even if it would later attempt to capitalise on Men Behaving Badly’s subsequent success in shows such as short-lived late 90’s Samantha Janus vehicle Babes in the Wood, or early 00’s Davina McCall starring Sam’s Game (which lasted only six episodes and has faded from memory) and later in the late 2000’s the still-successful Benidorm. None would have the cultural impact or cult reach, or indeed the edge, of Men Behaving Badly.
Though it sounds strange, the BBC seemed to by this point have a better handle on utilising comedy to explore the pre-supposed decaying moral and social standards which allowed Men Behaving Badly to be embraced.
As Vertue explains above, the BBC aired the show in the tail wake of Absolutely Fabulous, written by and starring Jennifer Saunders who, alongside Joanna Lumley, were already playing middle to upper class, sex-mad alcoholics whose show could easily have been named ‘Women Behaving Badly’. Saunders’ husband at the same time was co-writing and co-starring in Bottom, with Rik Mayall, which takes the laddish, boorish, sex-mad content to a level of hyper-real, comic-book proportions of desperation and ultra-violence. As members of the anarchic, alternative comedy Comic Strip scene of the early 1980’s, these comic voices among numerous on the BBC—including the panellists of sports-focused comedy game show They Think It’s All Over—very much indulged in ‘new lad’ culture before and during Men Behaving Badly’s tenure as one of British TV’s most popular comedy series.
The key to this proliferation of ‘lads’ culture on the BBC, on TV, in books and cinema through the work of writers indeed such as Nick Hornby or Irvine Welsh (Fever Pitch would arrive in 1992, with Trainspotting in 1996), plus the lexicon of ‘lads mags’ such as the aforementioned Loaded or Maxim or FHM, often featuring topics about football, booze, cars, video games, men’s clothes or fragrances, and of course a surfeit of models in a state of undress, is that it was all supposed to be ‘ironic’; an intentional inversion of the ‘New Man’ progressive model with more consideration and respect for women, feminist attitudes and women’s rights. Gary and Tony, or Richie and Eddie on Bottom (as indeed Eddie & Patsy on Ab Fab, despite being women), were all either hapless, losers in life and/or sex, or rampaging, self-destructive alcoholics.
The worst crime of lad culture as a whole was that it took old-fashioned sexism (chauvinism), served it up in exactly the same format – endless pictures of scantily clad women, for instance, beside captions about how “up for it” they were – and slapped the label “irony” on it. Once it had been established that this culture was ironic, if a woman dared to use the word “sexist” it simply proved that she had no sense of humour, that she was out of touch. Any young woman who felt that there might be something a bit offensive about blokes talking loudly about ogling women’s “tits”, who might have wondered why the men around her – often middle-class men – were acting out some sort of tired cartoon of male dominance, was simply derided as po-faced. Lad culture was, as one journalist put it, a “blokelash”, a reaction to the gains of feminism which, although it was based on the idea of having big cojones, didn’t even have the balls to be open and honest about what it was doing. This was the old-style sexism dressed up as the new-style irony.
Men Behaving Badly arguably was just as responsible for playing up to these stereotypes for comic effect. In one episode, Gary even starts taking life tips from a magazine simply called ‘Bloke’ – a streamlined approximation of that culture in one form.
The result is that Men Behaving Badly finally begins to sink into a rhythm with many of its characters across Series 3 and 4, and understands the gallery it is playing to. Nye’s content becomes increasingly rude and pushes the boundaries of what television comedy had previously aired. Series 3 admittedly operates in a strange space between the old and new incarnations of the show, flitting between fairly tame episodes which could have ended up more raucous – Bed, for example, set in the middle of a stormy night where the characters all end up awake for various reasons – and episodes which tap into some of the spikier rudeness Series 4 would exhibit. Marriage ends with an ultra-scabrous Gary calling Dorothy a ‘mingebag’ as he attempts to put her off agreeing to marry him. That would never have aired during the ITV days.
Yet this becomes par for the course in Series 4, which stands as without a doubt the filthiest series of Men Behaving Badly and, at the same time, the funniest.
Across Series 3, several character aspects changed as Nye’s writing evolved and his depictions of the main ensemble shifted slightly. Gary became less obviously a rival with Tony for the affections of Deborah and concentrated more on trying to find some equilibrium in his relationship with Dorothy (Weekend has them going on what he plans as a ‘dirty weekend’ to indulge in sexual fantasies that doesn’t quite work out as he hoped) – though episodes such as Cleaning Lady prove Gary hasn’t yet quite given up on the idea he might somehow be able to charm a sexier, younger woman into bed. At the same time, Tony becomes increasingly obsessed with Deborah and Nye allows his innate weirdness, perviness and eccentricity to steadily emerge; plus he begins to morph increasingly from small time record stall owner to full blown, jobless layabout.
The obsession with Deborah feels less organic across Series 3, mainly because Deborah continues to be more of a plot cypher than a believable character in her own right. She begins the series listless, considering a new life travelling around Asia, to which Tony’s reply is “You can’t. We haven’t slept together yet!”. It becomes more of a mechanism to give Deborah by the end of Casualties a new boyfriend, slimy estate agent Ray (again, Deborah only seems to go for sleazy or smarmy men who don’t quite fit the ‘New Man’ template in the way they don’t fit the ‘New Lad’ – they exist in some kind of nether space). Ultimately, there is a constant sense of inevitability about the Tony and Deborah relationships, and this slowly begins to appear at points more in Series 4 – such as Drunk, in which Deborah admits she probably will one day “just drop everything and sleep with him”. It’s less a question of *if* Debs will sleep with Tony by the end of Series 4 and rather simply *when*.
It’s why Men Behaving Badly eventually keeps the Tony and Deborah obsession going *slightly* too long, because it moves past the point either logically Tony would move on and find someone else, or Deborah would admit she has always been attracted to him and while he acts like an idiot most of time, what she ultimately wants is the same thing Dorothy wants, and why she still ends up with Gary – a hybrid version of the New Man and New Lad. Dorothy too, edging into Series 4, has her head turned in Infidelity by Jamie, a hospital radiographer (prompting Gary’s response: “Well I’ve never heard of him, what radio station’s he on?”), but much like Ray he fits that milquetoast model of man who only seems to function as a counterpoint to Gary and Tony’s pointed laddism. Even though Jamie dumps her, Dorothy seems to realise she never should have abandoned Gary in the first place and both she and Deborah, despite their near constant exasperation, clearly find Gary and Tony more fun to be around than the dull men they date.
In real terms this is a problem that simplifies Men Behaving Badly, perhaps necessarily in order to facilitate the plot. Nye never really seems to bring characters into the orbit of our main foursome who truly feel *real*; you have recurring regulars who serve a function – Gary’s work colleague George is a depiction of the doddering specimen many become at the end of years of domesticity, while Anthea is so comically chaste she is even more of a caricature (Ian Lindsay gets far more opportunities to flesh George out a bit than Valerie Minifie does for Anthea); pub landlord Les is purely an incarnation of sloth – a man so fat and stupid it’s almost impossible to believe he could run a business even as old-fashioned and provincial as The Crown (maybe this is partly why Nye dumps the character in Series 5, we being told he was sacked because he forgot to open at lunchtimes!).
Guest characters rarely fare any better. Three Girlfriends introduces, well… three girlfriends of Tony’s who are so bland and inoffensive its a wonder they even register (one is a squeaking good time girl, the other a serious tomboy, the third a smiley animal rights activist), while Portuguese cleaner Elena in Cleaning Lady is so stereotypically ‘foreign’ it’s almost painful. Oddly enough, Tony gets a girlfriend in Pornography, Jill, who feels to some extent the best representation of a real woman the show introduces that isn’t one of the main duo of leads; a girl who takes moral offense at Tony refusing to throw away his lads mags due to a weird, single man connection to the content. Equally, Gary’s Dad (played by the charmingly doddery Richard Pearson) may be a plot device but he’s so delightfully affable in Three Girlfriends that he’s hard not to enjoy. “I’m just buffing up your silverware” he says at one point while humming Swan Lake.
As a result of this, Men Behaving Badly often feels quite hermetically sealed as a comic structure, designed in order to heighten certain laddish aspects for effect. There is a naturalism to the comedy which was slightly more there in the earlier seasons which by Series 4 is completely gone. Nye, by that point, is exploring themes many comedies—particularly on the BBC—wouldn’t be touching even past the watershed. Gary’s intense fear of fatherhood in Babies (the series begins with a surrealist dream featuring all of the main and guest characters); open conversations about porn and masturbation; plenty regarding infidelity and casual sexual encounters; and an entire episode, Drunk, built around alcoholic lad culture.
Drunk is probably the funniest episode of Men Behaving Badly, precisely because it distills the concept into a singular story. Gary, now back with Dorothy, staying in the pub talking nonsense with Tony while Dorothy, having cooked him a meal, sits at home with Deborah questioning why they’re together, and why women like the two of them – cultured, intelligent and sophisticated women in many ways – end up at the mercy of a pair of drunken louts. Drunk cycles through all of the elements we had seen across the series previously and condenses them – conversations about nothing, about beer, about girls, drunken singing and behaviour, and lustful confirmations of affection. You could show Drunk to anyone who wants to know what Men Behaving Badly and they would never have to watch another episode again.
Vertue suggests that the show wasn’t directly attempting to square the focus on this sub-culture:
People called it the birth of laddism, which Simon and I hadn’t envisaged or even thought of. The two leads were hugely chauvinistic and the women never got upset. Yet lots of people responded to that, saying I know people like that, or my boyfriend’s like that. But the audiences were split 50/50 between men and women. I don’t think I ever considered profound things like whether it turned sexism on its head.
If as many women were watching Men Behaving Badly as men, perhaps enjoying how the two female leads would rebuke and psychologically chastise the two males (such as Deborah in Drunk making Tony wait naked for her in the shed, with no intention of coming to him), not to mention physically neuter them (there is a surprising amount of slaps around the head and knees in the groin), then you wonder what they might have made of Dorothy across Series 4, and particularly in the finale Playing Away.
As much as Caroline Quentin rises to the challenge, Series 4 is not kind to Dorothy. Even with Gary at his most boorish, she makes him an increasing figure of sympathy when he probably should be growing more and more reprehensible. She decides she doesn’t want to have children with him, cheats on him with a work colleague, and then later cheats on him with Tony, his best friend. You wonder quite what Nye was thinking with this twist, because it makes no sense if you’re looking at the show extending beyond four series, and Playing Away would not remotely have been devised as a *series* finale given the show was at its apogee. In the real world, Gary would never have forgiven Dorothy, or Tony for that matter, for a betrayal like this, but Men Behaving Badly by the start of Series 5 has largely reset the board (though Gary does at least throw it back in his face a few times here and there, and it does factor into Gary’s choices at the end of Series 5).
By the end of Series 4, however, you begin to realise the biggest change already happening to Men Behaving Badly, which we will see steadily across Series 5 and especially Series 6, is the audiences’ innate fondness for these two ‘lads’ and their situation outweighing their behaviour, and the moral questions such behaviour poses. Simon Nye perhaps comes to *like* them too much, in a way Jennifer Saunders never did with Eddie Monsoon, nor Adrian Edmondson or Rik Mayall with Eddie Hitler & Richard Richard. Slowly and surely, even in the show, Gary and Tony are forgiven for their selfish, hurtful and at times reprehensible behaviour, and it doesn’t fully ring true. Audiences have now been brought into the ‘cult’ of laddism and are consistently reassured that if women like Dorothy or Deborah will forgive them, then they can’t be *all* that bad, right?
Men Behaving Badly never bests Series 4 and, perhaps appropriately as with the onset of age, it’s all steadily downhill over its final couple of season. The bad boys are about to become incorrigible middle-aged men…
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