One Foot in the Grave

One Foot in the Grave aired on BBC1 from 1990 to 2000 and starred Richard Wilson as long-suffering pensioner Victor Meldrew struggling through enforced retirement…

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Return of the Speckled Band’ (1×06)

As befits the traditional sitcom format, particularly the British sitcom format, the final Series 1 episode of One Foot in the Grave comes with no great moment of cathartic realisation for Victor Meldrew. Life goes on.

Whether the series would go on at this point was an open question. Critics remained divided, as they had been all series, about whether One Foot would become a classic or be consigned to the far more cluttered wrecking yard of failed British sitcoms. This being the era before online discourse, it was down to the print newspaper and their in-house critics to gauge the pulse of comedy, and while papers such as the Daily Mirror, the now-defunct Today or the Daily Express were favourable come the end of Series 1, others such as the Independent or the Daily Telegraph were quite the opposite. Christopher Tookey in the latter remarked that he felt the series offered “in general, a distorted and depressingly old-fashioned view of old age”.

The irony is that The Return of the Speckled Band might actually be the funniest half hour of the series so far. While by no means vintage One Foot, it certainly feels like David Renwick manages to latch here onto several strong comedic threads and take them to some satisfying conclusions, in a manner the previous five scripts never quite managed to do. Two that stand out in particular are the recurring problem of the hat palmed off on Victor that he tries to rid himself of but keeps coming back to him, and Mrs Warboys with her chronic sickness which intertwines with what otherwise would have been an enormously random narrative of an escaped python quite brilliantly. We haven’t quite seen Renwick weave his plots this skilfully yet in One Foot, and it displays what the series is capable of.

The Return of the Speckled Band also, in a relatively quiet fashion, dovetails with the opening episode of the series in suggesting Victor is trapped in an existential spiral he can never quite escape.

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Eternal Quadrangle’ (1×05)

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.

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘I’ll Retire to Bedlam’ (1×04)

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.

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03)

Thus far, One Foot in the Grave has portrayed a dim view of British society at large through the prism of Victor Meldrew, and The Valley of Fear continues that trend.

Alive and Buried saw Victor the victim of a heartless corporate machine, replacing human capital with technological without so much as a second thought for what it might do to the self-esteem of a long-term, loyal employee. The Big Sleep sees Victor frustrated by boorish neighbours who think nothing of playing loud music and throwing garbage over the fence into his garden. The Valley of Fear compounds these societal problems that Victor faces by having him, off-screen before the episode begins, mugged by a gang of youths who steal his jacket and daub rude graffiti on the side of his house. David Renwick expressly tackles very present anxieties for the elderly when it comes to youth culture or youth subculture, but ends up inverting them for comic effect, and perhaps to make a wider sociological point.

Outside of this, The Valley of Fear sees Renwick starting to construct elements of the more labyrinthian plotting we will see refined in later seasons, particularly with the central gag involving sweet, kindly old Mrs Birkitt being unintentionally locked away in the Meldrew’s loft overnight as Renwick stitches together a confluence of plotlines including a radiator making a recurring tapping noise and community attempts to assemble a neighbourhood watch group, all of which climax in Victor’s realisation he has become the one-man gang he has been so afraid of. One Foot’s comedy is almost entirely built on misunderstanding inflected with hints of horror and moments that are just plain uncanny – the sideboard everyone can smell but Victor until the end, when the gag is reversed, is one of those unexplained One Foot mysteries designed for another purpose.

The result of this is that you can continue to see One Foot’s comedic elements slowly coming together in The Valley of Fear, even if it lacks the initial strength of the opener and the pathos of its immediate predecessor.

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Big Sleep’ (1×02)

The second episode of any new series is designed to build on the foundations of the pilot, to flesh out and contextualise the concept of the show beyond the initial set up, and The Big Sleep does just that for One Foot in the Grave.

Death stalks David Renwick’s show across the entire run. It’s inherent in the very title, let’s face it. Victor’s retirement is considered to be the beginning of a slow death, one foot literally in his own grave, waiting for the inevitable release. The great thing about Renwick’s show, in the end, is that there is no life-affirming message. Victor doesn’t find some cheesy reason to go on living and find a new lease of life. He adapts to his new circumstances but goes on grumbling about the state of the world until that car mows him down unceremoniously in the final ever episode, never reconciling his position in an uncaring, fast-paced, greedy, selfish world that is developing around him. Victor’s lot in life is to be perennially disappointed in it.

The Big Sleep has the freedom, relieved of having to establish the characters and set-up, to dive a little more into Victor’s existential position in relation to death. Alive and Buried, as a title, alluded to the same thing but that episode focused more heavily on Victor’s sense of loss, and of his position suddenly as a pensioner ‘on the scrap heap’. The Big Sleep introduces some key elements that Renwick will play with a great deal over the next six series – Victor’s hypochondria, his abject fear of death, and to contrast this his innate, under-recognised sensitivity and heart. Renwick uses, as a spine underpinning this episode, Victor’s relationship with nature, reflected in a robin in his garden which he cares for and has much more time for than any human he encounters in the story.

That’s why The Big Sleep is a stronger script, for me, than the pilot. It’s still not figured out the classic One Foot structure, but it is beginning to figure out that duality within Victor’s character.

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘Alive and Buried’ (1×01)

There have been hundreds of successful situation comedies on British television in the last sixty years, but few of them have the nuance, grace and intelligence of One Foot in the Grave.

Devised by writer David Renwick, the series revolved around Victor Meldrew, a cantankerous Scot living somewhere in England’s Home Counties with his, as oft-quoted, ‘long-suffering’ wife Margaret. As played expertly by Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie, the Meldrew’s frequently found themselves in an array of unusual, eccentric and downright bizarre comic situations in otherwise dull 90’s British suburbia, as Renwick’s tightly constructed scripts saw Victor, thrown unceremoniously on the scrap heap after losing his job in opening episode Alive and Buried, face enforced retirement and his own mortality with growing frustration at society around him, which would frequently manifest in irascible rants that would include what became his catchphrase, and one of the signature comic lines in British comedy history: “I don’t *believe* it!”.

Alive and Buried establishes the concept in clear and concise fashion. Victor is retired by the company he has worked at for 26 years, finds himself listlessly wandering around the house while Margaret goes to work, facing constant reminders of his pensionable age everywhere he turns, and being irritated by the cruel happenstances of fate which conspire against him in everything from broken down cars to magic acts. Yet, as with most pilot episodes, particularly with comedies, the mixture isn’t yet refined. There is a broadness about Alive and Buried that later One Foot episodes swop for naturalistic eccentricity, playing on Wilson’s talent for silent or physical comedy. The essential formula is present and correct but the rhythm and cadence that makes Renwick’s series stand out hasn’t quite clicked yet.

That said, Alive and Buried is among the better first episodes of British comedy series. One Foot in the Grave already knows what it wants to be, even if it isn’t quite there yet.