ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Eternal Quadrangle’ (1×05 – Series Retrospective #5)

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 fifth episode of the first series, The Eternal Quadrangle, which first aired on February 1st, 1990…

Sex, and particularly sexual frustration, have always been key factors to One Foot in the Grave, and they get their first airing in The Eternal Quadrangle.

Thus far in the series, David Renwick has downplayed the side of Victor and Margaret that serves as a romantic pairing. We know they have been married for decades and are middle-aged and content in their domesticity. We don’t yet know they lost a child when young but we have assumed they are childless, given there is no mention, let alone visibility, of any offspring. What we don’t really know is how they engage with one another on a sexual or romantic level, and The Eternal Quadrangle poses a question that numerous future series of One Foot will regularly grapple with – do Victor and Margaret still engage with each other in a sexual manner? The answer, in short, is no. Or if they do, it is very seldom.

What becomes clear in The Eternal Quadrangle, too, is that Margaret has a much bigger issue where this is concerned than Victor himself does. Renwick doesn’t yet quite position her as deeply sexually frustrated, which becomes apparent in later series, but there is a disquiet where Margaret is concerned about how Victor deals with any woman she considers a threat, sexually, to her position as his wife. She never meets Doreen, the stately, middle-aged but slightly voluptuous nude model Victor paints at an art class, but especially early on in the episode she is especially jealous of her. “Did you have to draw her breasts in quite this much detail?” she asks, Annette Crosbie chewing the word ‘breasts’ around her mouth before spitting it out with a bitter distaste.

In the end, however, Renwick is keen with The Eternal Quadrangle to suggest, in their own different ways, Victor and Margaret have become as sexually anaemic, and as sexually oblivious, as each other.

It has long been supposed by society that the longer a couple are married, the less they have sex, or feel a sense of desire, based on their levels of comfort, familiarity, and in many cases the onset of childbirth and offspring who need greater levels of attention than couples give themselves. Yet there are studies which suggest this desire and need is disproportionate, as Sarah Hunter Murray discusses in Psychology Today:

Research suggests that men may have a difficult time admitting that they feel a decrease in sexual desire as this goes against the grain of what men are “supposed” to experience based on limited, yet pervasive, social norms. In that sense, it may be that men do experience lower or decreased desire but simply aren’t comfortable reporting it. Second, Dr. Wednesday Martin, an anthropologist and author of the book Untrue, posits that long-term relationships may be particularly hard on women’s desire. She suggests that women (perhaps even more than men) require variation in their sexual experiences to maintain their sexual interest in the context of long-term partnerships.

One wonders if this is something Victor experiences. Throughout the entire series, he shows little or no interest in sex, except when drugged or intoxicated (such as toward the end of Love and Death where he, possibly, sleeps with April Bluett thinking she’s Margaret). Victor has opportunities. He flirts a little with the Portuguese shop owner Isabella in One Foot in the Algarve without realising it. He is pursued quite heavily by Barbara Windsor’s memorably man-eating Millicent in The Affair of the Hollow Lady. And there are genuine question marks left open about whether he *does* cheat on Margaret with the latter, but generally Victor seems a faithful husband who has either completely shut down his sexual side, or has always been somewhat oblivious to it.

Margaret intuits across this episode that Victor is keen to paint Doreen, and later go and clean at her house, because of some kind of sexual attraction he feels for the woman. In this, she’s quite wrong, and again Renwick’s writing paints Margaret as being quite irrational for no logical reason in how she reacts to Victor’s contact with the woman, despite him being open and honest about it at all times. He even demures at looking at Doreen’s naked body in the opening scene as much as he can, chronically embarrassed as opposed to sexually attracted. Even given Victor is constantly picking up litter people have thoughtlessly dumped on or near their property in frustration, Margaret assumes a used packet of contraceptives in Victor’s bag are proof he is having an affair. These are assumptions that say far more about her state of mind than Victor’s, and once again fail to play to the stronger nuances we later see in the character, which Renwick concedes in The Complete One Foot in the Grave:

Her (Annette Crosbie) portrayal of the character was bigger in those early episodes than it needed to be. She said she found it difficult playing in front of an audience with all the cameramen around. I replied: “This is sitcom – you mustn’t play to the audience. You’re playing to people at home. Yes, you’re aware of the audience, and a part of your brain should be picking up their reaction because it can be helpful to your timing”.

While arguably Richard Wilson grasps Victor as a character from day one and only subtly tweaks the performance in time (he becomes more of the domestic foil, as opposed to Margaret), blaming Crosbie for this seems unfair, because Margaret isn’t quite there yet on the page either. She is still, as she has been throughout this season, reactive and dim-witted at points for the needs of the comedy, particularly the need to give Victor an angry put down or snappy line. Renwick finds ways to do this, in later series, while making Margaret a far stronger-willed, intelligent and complicated woman. Seeds of that exist here but those nuances haven’t quite been sharpened at this point.

Though the word ‘quadrangle’ was for a long time associated with the mathematical quadrilateral, the two have since diverted from each other as quadrangle becomes more closely associated with the description for college or university courtyards, but the essence of Renwick’s title is the description of a ‘quad’ – a four sided shape, and while we’ve discussed the three sides in this episode in Victor, Margaret and Doreen, we have yet to discuss the fourth: Harold Wharton. Played with delightful, childlike innocence by John Barrard, he is a fascinating one-off character, a suitor for Margaret in a way which speaks a lot to the psychology of sexual attraction in One Foot.

There is no attraction between Victor and Doreen, partly because she exists in a different social strata to Victor. In some ways, she reminded me of a milder, kinder version of the Fenella Fortune character we will later see sexually torment Victor’s neighbour Patrick in Starbound. She seems quite professional, artistically in this case, and employs Victor as a cleaner in her nonetheless modest abode, while caring for her eccentric father Leonard (played wonderfully with barmy, sprightly impishness by Peter Copley). There, indeed, is certainly a level of classism running through the entire artistic sub-plot – Victor is talking down to horrendously by Angus MacKay’s plummy art teacher, kind of like a night school Brian Sewell, who rather than encouraging Victor takes him to task on his lack of painting talent. “If I had wanted a pencil sketch of some Heraldic beast suffering from various congenital deformities, I would have brought one in”.

Doreen, therefore, is on a class level unobtainable to Victor, even if there were any attraction. She seems as eccentric as her father when she asks Victor to pose upside down with his shirt off. While we know Victor has an artistic, theatrical bent he suffused due to the realities of life and work and marriage, and it’s logical they begin to re-emerge through art classes in his retirement, Victor is nonetheless a meat & potatoes man. He is not pompous or pretentious and, to some degree, the world of fine art just doesn’t fit his lower middle-class, socio-economic level. Renwick enjoys taking pot shots at such classism by having the working class carpet fitter (another funny role, well played by David Battley) mistake Victor’s painting of his lamp and fruit bowl as a flamingo – this was the funniest scene of the episode for me. 

The character of Harold, however, is different. He is just as working-middle class, if not more working class in fact, but he is also in many respects the complete opposite of Victor in every respect. Harold is intentionally written to be innocent and like a grown child, very awkward and mild-mannered, and innately comical as a balding, little man who stumbles over his words, and has a sweet crush on Margaret like a schoolboy in love with his teacher. Margaret brings Victor to task on how oblivious he is to the sexuality underpinning the nude art class, but she has no idea that Harold doesn’t just have a crush, he is more than willing to sleep with her with no regard for the infidelity she would be committing. “Harold and I have been having an affair! And he never even told me” Margaret later declares to Victor after a farcical, admittedly contrived, Harold naked in bed scene which brings everything to a head. This is after a brief but hilarious moment of visual foreshadowing by director Susan Belbin of Harold pulling up the handbrake on his car. It’s intentionally… evocative…

The Eternal Quadrangle isn’t a perfect episode because Renwick does have to some heavy plot and dialogue gymnastics to contrive the set of misunderstandings that play into the sexual farce of the episode, and the ending with Harold isn’t as funny as it should be. You just end up feeling sorry for poor Harold, who physically and personality wise you can never really take seriously as a rival for Margaret’s affections. We’re not meant to, admittedly, because the comedy is all aimed at Harold’s reactions, but the guy is obviously just quite lonely and sad. Victor laughs off the incident, aware the man is no sexual threat, and that just makes it all the sadder. This all works much better when similar ideas are revisited in Warm Champagne, where Renwick presents a suitor you could genuinely believe Margaret could leave Victor for.

Though only intermittently funny, what The Eternal Quadrangle *does* do, however, is nicely establish class threads that will recur in One Foot in the Grave, and the position of the Meldrew’s sexual obliviousness and frustration, in relation to one another, that Renwick will do much more with as time passes. They love each other, but what *is* that love after decades of marriage? It’s a question the show will continue to explore.

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

1×04 – I’ll Retire to Bedlam

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