ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04 – Series Retrospective #4)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the fourth episode of the first series, I’ll Retire to Bedlam, which first aired on January 25, 1990…

The first season of One Foot in the Grave has been marked, thus far, on particular existential anxieties about British life for the aged and retired, and I’ll Retire to Bedlam continues Victor Meldrew’s slide into reactive frustration.

In another historical allusion to 19th century literature, David Renwick titles this episode after Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the belief from perhaps the most iconic curmudgeon of them all, Ebernezer Scrooge, that the inmates at St Mary’s of Bethlehem hospital (known colloquially as ‘Bedlam’) were more sane compatriots than everyone else in London merrily celebrating Christmas. It would be easy to liken Victor to a Scrooge figure but it’s inaccurate, aside from their grumpy disposition. Scrooge actively hated the people around him until the ghosts of multiple eras showed him the error of his ways. Victor’s ire is for the continued degradation and decay of society, and that becomes more apparent as Renwick here commits him to hospital for stress.

There is, in Mr Brocklebank, the escaped mental patient who, believing he’s a nurse preparing him for surgery, Victor allows to shave his entire private parts (in what is arguably the funniest sequence in the episode, and perhaps the funniest in One Foot so far), an allusion to the idea of ‘Bedlam’, of the lunatics running the asylum; and indeed in the inclusion of the Monster Raving Loony Party as part of the story, Renwick provides an additional layer of fringe thinking, of society’s rejects or eccentrics intruding into the Meldrew’s life, but the chief anxiety of I’ll Retire to Bedlam is more generalised than fears of death or youth culture or corporate hegemony. Everything is getting to Victor in this episode. The less he has anything to focus on, the more he sees everything.

That’s quite a profound realisation One Foot is getting to during Series 1. I’ll Retire to Bedlam may be a little unfocused and unformed, structurally, but it gets to the nub of Victor Meldrew’s existential malady very well.

It’s telling that I’ll Retire to Bedlam begins with Victor attempting to enjoy a Sunday morning where the birds are singing, the sun is shining, and his mood is uplifted in a way we haven’t yet seen in the course of the show – only to spend most of the day trapped in his shed by a swarm of bees.

You wonder if later in the show’s run, Renwick’s writing would have been more confident to devote an entire episode of Victor and Margaret trapped in that shed as a two-hander much like Timeless Time, but the show hasn’t quite reached that level of sophistication yet. The bees serve as one of several comedic vignettes that compound the anxiety that builds in Victor across the episode as opposed to the lynchpin of the story outright, including waiting at the doctor’s surgery for an eye test and ending up left behind for the cleaner to be mistaken for the doctor (which seems very contrived), Iris and her nightmare children, and the aforementioned scene at the hospital. Margaret attempts to tangentially connect them as she tells Iris that Victor is “soaking up every hideous disaster and piece of misery in the world like a giant sponge”, but they still feel a bit too disconnected at times.

Indeed, critics at the time were concerned that Victor’s growing anxieties were turning the character into too heavy a whinge-driven, negative force for audiences to continue tuning in to watch, which underscored Renwick’s conflicted relationship with the audience he wrote the show for, as he talks about in The Complete One Foot in the Grave:

I try to rationalise it all by saying “Your work is never as bad as they say, or as good as they say – it’s usually somewhere in between”. Inevitably, you’re nervous about reviews, but situation comedy is like real life relationships: you have to get to know the characters, to become familiar with them before you’re prepared to let them into your life. It’s very hard because you’re struggling with all of that, particularly during the first series, but the critics don’t always take that into account.

This is a fair comment by Renwick in terms of the pressures and difficulties inherent in any first season of a situation comedy. Is Series 1 of Only Fools and Horses the one you most fondly remember? Probably not. Blackadder arguably only really hits its stride in Series 3 and particularly Series 4. There are shows that buck this trend – Fawlty Towers is a good example of a show that is pretty much fantastic from episode one – but the majority of series take their time in, as Renwick suggests, building an audience connection to the protagonists and, often, finding their voices and rhythms, particularly when the performers elevate what’s on the page. It’s clear from these early episodes that Annette Crosbie’s intelligence and steel were elements Renwick wrote more towards in time as they’re less present in Margaret in these earlier episodes, for instance.

I’ll Retire to Bedlam is perhaps the episode of One Foot so far that is most in search of itself, of what the series is going to be. You can see Renwick working to connect plot beats, connect character threads and ideas, but they don’t all stitch together. That might be part of the point in terms of this episode, in particular, given it is designed to build on Victor’s generalised anxieties about society around him. He bounces from one irritation or nightmare to the next, compounding the sense he has no control over his life or that ‘the fates’ are out to get him. Just look at how he approaches having to babysit two boisterous children. He reacts to this in a deliberately One Foot way – not with joy at playing the grandfather figure, but rather anger at how unruly they are – “the children of the damned” he calls them at one point – and ends up tying up the Indiana Jones & Batman dressed boys in the garage, passing it off as ‘a game’.

Interestingly, we never see the reaction of Iris, the mother (who interestingly was a role offered to Janine Duvitski, who would later play the far stronger role of neighbour Pippa), to Victor’s quite traumatic treatment of those children, which though played for laughs probably falls more on the side of psychological child abuse. Though she calls Victor and Margaret ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’, we never see the character or her children again (and this designation seems to be friendly and familial rather than biological, as Victor’s only brother has lived in New Zealand for decades, as we find out in Series 3’s The Broken Reflection, and Margaret appears to be an only child), and she serves as more of a recurring aspect of the Meldrew’s life together that Renwick finds different ways to explore through different characters – such as Jennifer in Series 2’s We Have Put Her Living in the Tomb, who serves a similar function. These are characters designed to bring out Margaret’s maternal side without her actually being a mother.

Victor, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to know how to be a fatherly figure. Iris mistakes his attempts to make the children behave as jocular fun, that he’s enjoying the experience of being a tormented grandad, when it’s quite the opposite. He wants those children to behave as he probably would have done as a child in the 30’s or 40’s – be respectful, quiet and compliant, yet they factor into the ‘Bedlam’ of the entire episode. They are manic (perhaps intentionally and extremely so) and impossible to bring to heel. They just add to Victor’s stress and anxiety about how he has no control over his existence anymore. His cathartic moment in expressing this comes when he is asked by a slimy campaigning Conservative by-election candidate if he will vote for him and Victor takes his head off, angrily declaring he would “sooner stick my head in a pan of boiling chip fat”.

It’s easy to forget how overtly political these early episodes are. The Valley of Fear suggested Victor was a centrist as opposed to Margaret’s left-leaning politics (she also appears to be interested in history here as she’s digesting A Short History of Britain in bed – some light reading there!), but Renwick seems to suggest he is retiring to ‘Bedlam’ by supporting the Monster Raving Loony Party going forward. Is this Victor just sarcastically giving into the anarchy prescribed by one of Britain’s most infamous political protest movements of the 80’s and 90’s? Probably. I’m sure he’d vote Labour by this point. Yet Renwick portrays the Loony Party as quite respectful and nice through their pleasant, Welsh campaigner, in contrast to the Tory MP’s haughty fakery. 

Victor ends up being avuncular in his distaste—and perhaps Renwick’s distaste—for how Thatcherism has wrecked public services, griping about having to wait hours to be seen. “The NHS is safe in our hands, don’t you worry” the Tory MP smugly tells an old lady nearby and the unconvincing slimness of their party politics shines through and strikes a chord today, in our world of neo-Thatcherite, right-wing Tory political dominance. Perhaps that how we should see and reconcile Victor in I’ll Retire to Bedlam. A man, freed from the strictures and formality of a work space and the traditional role of a bread winner, seeing the world for what it really is, and finding it incredibly hard to deal with.

Renwick sums it up in describing the generalised world view of One Foot as opposed to other successful sitcoms:

Only Fools has what I would call the Queen Mother factor; you take it to your heart and welcome it into your home like an old friend. Watching Del Boy, I think, gives you a cherry, optimistic glow, whereas there is something a bit bleak and uncomfortable about Victor’s world. It’s more David Lynch than Laurel and Hardy, which means you never really feel safe.

Perhaps Renwick is being harsh on himself here. Perhaps One Foot in the Grave doesn’t just have one foot in the grave, but one foot in the reality that Bedlam is, in fact, around us all.

Check out reviews of the rest of Series 1 here:

1×01 – Alive and Buried

1×02 – The Big Sleep

1×03 – The Valley of Fear

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