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Ian Lindsay

The Middle Age of Laddism: Men Behaving Badly (Series 5, 6 + Last Orders)

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?

Men Behaving Badly, across its final two series, sees the misadventures of Gary Strang and Tony Smart slide out of the laddism culture they propagated and into the earliest vestiges of comfortable middle age. You can feel the show doing the same along with them.

In the year 1996, Men Behaving Badly was at its cultural peak as Series 5 began to dawn, but this coincided with a significant cultural challenger to the New Lad thanks to, just two weeks after the series premiered, the arrival of the Spice Girls. Their debut single ‘Wannabe’ hit the charts in July of that year and launched the single biggest musical sensation in Britain since The Beatles over three decades earlier. Where in the swinging Sixties, Beatlemania sent legions of young people into paroxysms of excitement, the Cool Britannia of the 90’s saw the impact of ‘Girl Power’ and Geri Halliwell dressed in a Union Jack mini-skirt, the impending dawn of New Labour, the most liberal government in decades, and the Austin Powers franchise which threw everything back to a halcyon age of British ‘coolness’, injected this time with a call to female empowerment in a Britain filled with a renewed sense of optimism as it sailed toward a new century and a new millennium.

In retrospect, two men deep into their thirties swigging lager, frequently chanting “wa-hey!”, displaying disrespectful and sexist attitudes to women, indulging in infidelity and becoming almost disturbingly obsessed with sex, feels starkly retrograde in the face of the changing face of British popular culture in the late-1990’s. Men Behaving Badly was still popular, and Series 5 remains enjoyable, but it is clear that the show has passed its Series 4 peak at the true apex of lad culture, and in some respects had said everything it had to say. Writer Simon Nye spends the last few seasons continuing to mellow both Gary and Tony, not to mention their relationships with endlessly patient women in their lives Dorothy and Deborah, beginning the process of moving the show to being about not just two mates ‘and their birds’, but two couples who grow ever closer as friends and, to a degree, a dysfunctional, surrogate family. By the end of Series 6 and Last Orders, the final three concluding specials, Dorothy and Deborah feel as integral to the storytelling as Gary and Tony. Their importance grows as these two men, in their own way, slowly and surely begin to grow up.

By the final episode, Delivery, there is an argument that you could start calling this show People Behaving Responsibly.

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The Cult of ‘Laddism’: Men Behaving Badly (Series 3 & 4)

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.