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…
To begin, we look at the pilot episode of Series 1 where it all began, Alive and Buried, which first aired on January 4th, 1990…
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.
There is something innately comical about the ageing process. Many TV shows and films predating One Foot in the Grave tapped into varying different aspects of growing old, often disgracefully.
Last of the Summer Wine probably stands as the keenest British example, Roy Clarke’s series having first aired in 1973 and lasted all the way through to 2010, a good ten years after the end of One Foot. Clarke’s show depicted old age in a sleepy Northern village as working class whimsy, a fairytale world of comic stereotypes getting up to pranks and schemes like variations on Enid Blyton or St. Trinian’s. It’s charm lay in the idea that old age was about youthful adventure, even when the mind and body didn’t always keep up. Perhaps the most famous American take on ageing would be The Golden Girls, featuring four ageing widows and divorcees sharing a Miami house together and while filled with caustic humour, it would also tackle progressive issues toward the back end of the 1980’s and, ultimately, have a life-affirming streak. In both of these examples, audiences were meant to like characters such as Clegg, Compo, Blanche or Dorothy.
Were we meant to *like* Victor from the outset? It’s an open question, given Victor spends the majority of Alive and Buried in cantankerous form from the get go, railing at ineffectual mechanics or do-gooding community helpers, and grouching at his enforced retirement. “He always was a moaner” Mrs Warboys chirps to Margaret while Victor is in the room, discussing him in the third person, and it perhaps speaks to Victor’s innate character. This is not a warm and innocuous protagonist like Peter Sallis would play in Summer Wine, Victor is immediately irascible and bitter, and immediately Renwick’s writing of him sets the tone for how One Foot will explore old age. Retirement, and life in your 60’s, is not one filled with harebrained schemes with tin-baths flying down country hillsides. It is one of boredom, mental decay and lack of purpose.
Interestingly enough, One Foot’s production overlapped with that of Michael Aitkens’ Waiting for God, which starred Stephanie Cole as Diana, an equally irascible old woman living in an old people’s home, a show that shared One Foot’s later recurring guest star Janine Duvitski as a main cast member. Waiting for God never achieved the cultural impact of One Foot perhaps because it was a little *too* mean-spirited and broad, turning the old people’s home into a riotous place of spiteful misadventure for the aged folks against the anodyne, middle-aged, middle-class management. While funny in places, the humour was contrived to fit the setting. One Foot, even in Alive and Buried where Renwick covers his insecurities about the characters and dialogue with comedic concepts, has a naturalistic sadness to it which strangest resonates. You *believe* in Victor and Margaret as living, breathing people.
Wilson comments in The Complete One Foot in the Grave about how he often lobbied for Renwick to engage that kind of style in the scripts:
I was always telling David to write less because there would be so much material that we’d start cutting bits here and there. The writing wasn’t allowed to breathe. The breathing was things like watching bread being buttered, just doing simple things like that. David’s lines are very, very funny, very rich and very clever, but I used to love filming Victor walking along a street – I don’t know why, but I found that exciting. I guess it was a bit like silent comedy; trying to understand the man through his body language.
This will be an aspect that Renwick, and director Susan Belbin, would lean into much more in subsequent series, but you can see flickers of that in Alive and Buried, particularly in moments that reinforce Victor’s emotional turmoil at being ‘retired’; walking disconsolately away from his job at Mycroft-Watson (nice wink, there) Associates, or standing under the sign saying ‘Elderly People’. Wilson becomes an absolute master at how to digest, chew on and often spit out Renwick’s brilliant dialogue, but he also intuitively seems to understand who Victor is physically from the get go.
We don’t learn a great deal about Victor and Margaret as a married couple in this episode, except the inference that they’ve been together for many years and have lived in their house perhaps as long. There is a tiredness and worn comfort about a house that will later be replaced by their second home, from Series 2, as an almost-iconic British comedy set, but one which fits the Meldrew’s here. Victor and Margaret would probably have died in that house eventually, had fate allowed for that. It was an intentional move in terms of production design, to represent the staid suburbia that we see the Meldrew’s lives represent. While the curious fact they are both clearly Scottish living in the Home Counties is never really alluded to, Renwick places them as a normal, middle-aged couple living in a recognisable suburban homestead. That, in itself, marked a change for British situation comedy.
When you think of the most successful exports of comedy from the UK, they are all placed within specific or hyper-real settings. Fawlty Towers, as a hotel, almost has a life of its own, and you could never imagine Basil and Sybil working as characters anywhere else. Are You Being Served?, now an artefact of the 70’s, is rooted in the kitsch, faded ‘glamour’ of the department store, and when they did try and place those eccentric characters such as Mr Humphries, Captain Peacock or Mrs Slocombe in a different environment—running a country home in sequel series Grace & Favour—it never worked. Even Only Fools and Horses, though naturalistic and earthy in dialogue, had settings that felt like characters around Del Boy, Rodney et al… Nelson Mandela House, the Nag’s Head. Those places don’t exist in One Foot in the Grave. Victor and Margaret are rooted in familiar, unremarkable, non-descript Britain.
This is, crucially, why One Foot’s comedy works, and you see it in Alive and Buried. Victor and Margaret are normal people. He worked 26 years as a security guard for a law firm and exists as part of a generation, at the end of the 1980’s, who grew up in a post-war, economic boom environment where they expected to stay in the same job for decades, gain their state pension and live a secure life in their dotage. There is no real indication that Victor and Margaret are ever hard up for money, even if they are not exactly middle-class or wealthy. They are comfortable, having presumably paid off their mortgage. Margaret only sporadically has to work across the series, doing so more to keep her mind active and likely escape Victor than anything else! While listless and riven with untapped potential, Victor and Margaret would have been like many middle-aged couples at the turn of the 90’s: in a stable position.
The comedy works because the Meldrew’s complete lack of personal eccentricity or hyper-reality is contrasted by a gallery of bizarre characters and scenario’s which Renwick only gets away with precisely *because* Victor and Margaret are so ordinary. Mrs Warboys is immediately established as a fairly clueless, if well-meaning friend, and stooge for moments of comedic horror or terror (she here fears Victor has guillotined her to death!). Nick Swainey, who will reappear in Series 2 as their new neighbour and become a recurring feature, is on his own track, oblivious to Victor’s lack of interest in his (again, well-meaning) attempts to help him, considering him one of the ‘aged’, and Owen Brenman will later in the role quite spectacularly craft a kind and lonely soul who, while completely eccentric, feels as connected to the sadness inherent in the show as Victor or Margaret. Renwick hasn’t quite figured out how to utilise these aspects or characters yet, but they’re present here.
Renwick has discussed his love of the absurd, one born of his admiration for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, amongst others:
I adore the fact you can just have this guy living a perfectly ordinary life, in a world we all recognise as real – as opposed to the cartoon universe of the traditional comedy show – and then something utterly bizarre or silly occurs, and it’s so much funnier because you’ve gone to all that trouble to put it in the right context. The more naturalistic the environment, the more unexpected it becomes, and that contrast, between the mundane and the macabre, is what makes me laugh.
This is something Renwick will practically perfect in the best episodes of One Foot in the Grave, this confluence between the natural and the absurd, but Alive and Buried only contains seeds and hints of it here.
Renwick frequently falls back on the comic technique of having Victor get drawn into a conversation about something inane or unrelated, before realising what he’s doing and snapping his way out of it. That happens two or three times here and, particularly in the scene with Nick Maloney’s mechanic garage manager, it feels laboured. That whole scene, in fact, shows how Alive and Buried doesn’t balance what One Foot will later master. Victor comes to complain about his car and the manager goes behind a screen, ranting loudly at his unseen workers, before calmly walking back out. Now Maloney is a very talented comic performer (and he’ll later appear in Season 5’s The Affair of the Hollow Lady in a similar, small but much more effective role), but this scene smacks of poor-man’s Fawlty Towers, and feels particularly domestic, set-based comedy that One Foot would frequently elevate above.
Equally, the closing gambit of Victor being collared by police for pimping feels very contrived (though it does get the biggest laugh when Victor reads the newspaper report on his court hearing and quotes “’He pulled up and called out, ‘Excuse me, miss, but can you spare me some time?’ When I asked what he meant, he replied, ‘I may need a hand pumping this thing up.” A problem, I gather, commonly associated with elderly men.’’.
It’s also quite clear that Crosbie hasn’t *quite* found Margaret yet, not as clearly as Wilson finds Victor, even if the constituent elements are there. Crosbie, a perfectionist and taskmaster on herself, originally played Margaret with a broad cockney accent and here overplays her at times, with the character often coming off as a bit of a simple foil for Victor’s grouchiness. Margaret at points seems a bit too oblivious and flighty here, as if she is living in a bit of dreamworld, and that is also likely Renwick’s writing not quite meeting his later standard. Margaret isn’t eccentric, or wacky like Mrs Warboys or Nick Swainey, but the sadness in her character—a different sadness born of sexual frustration and emotional neglect—isn’t yet there.
The reason Alive and Buried does work, ultimately, is that you feel Victor’s existential predicament. How many comedy series would open with two heartless corporate employees discussing the main character’s impending firing while his desk is brutally smashed to pieces by workers just in frame? “I’ve been replaced by a box” Victor admits, after one of the employees (played with brilliant, sneering fakery by Susie Blake) sends him packing after showing him the now comically antiquated technology that the company have employed to do the job he spent almost three decades doing. It is cruel and heartless and entirely believable in the shadow of Thatcherism and a more ruthless, unkinder politics that fuelled corporate competition and led to companies by the turn of the 90’s that would cease to value human resources in favour of cheaper, compliant technology. Victor neither understands nor belongs in that world.
One Foot in the Grave is, in some sense, a post-Thatcherite series which questions the sanctity of suburbia, and the comfort of old age. Victor never seems to have been particularly ambitious, having spent three decades almost as a security guard, and appears to have allowed his creative hobbies and interests to slip past him as he conformed to the regular, monotonous security of a day job. The moment he is thrown out of that paradigm, he returns to magic acts and escapology. “He used to put on little shows for the children. He’s still got all the junk stored in the loft.” Margaret tells Mrs Warboys with a quiet pride and fondness. Much as she often ridicules or moans herself when Victor indulges an artistic hobby, there is already a sense it’s one of the reasons she loves him. Victor, equally, never got rid of it all and stored it away, perhaps in the unconscious hope he could return to what he truly enjoyed someday.
When Victor loses his job, and that sense of security and place in the world he knew for years, he is thrown into more of an uncertain world. The 90’s, while placing the Meldrew’s in a comfortable suburbia and airing in a decade where the world took a breath between two major global existential crises, is perhaps reflected in One Foot in the Grave precisely because it places Victor in a world he doesn’t understand anymore, a world where the unexpected lurks around every corner. Is the show prophetic in some way? Does Victor’s constant, cruel treatment by the hand of fate, doling out misfortune on a man who is actually a kind and sensitive soul behind the audible frustration, represent a warning to us all not to get too comfortable? Because while Victor may face down what he believes is an old age filled with boredom and a sense of waiting to die, the reality becomes something quite different over the next 40+ episodes.
Alive and Buried, nevertheless, establishes Victor Meldrew as a promising comedy character, a normal man who suffers a deep existential trauma and immediately has to try and adapt to a situation he never expected to find himself in. Victor never considers himself old, much like Wilson didn’t (he was very reluctantly to take the role on precisely because he believed he was too young), and rather works to reject the idea of what old age means. Retirement was supposed to be on his terms, not that of a faceless, uncaring corporate system. One Foot in the Grave immediately suggests we may not dictate the terms of our dotage like we spend decades believing. We could be replaced at any minute, by something cheaper and less human, and there is nothing we could do about it. Our old age may not equally be Floridian beach houses or quaint country idylls filled with comical adventures.
One Foot in the Grave, in establishing such a world which contrasts the bizarre, the macabre and the resolutely ordinary, doesn’t present itself as an immediate classic, but certainly a show unlike anything that has come before. What follows will bear that out in spades.
Check out reviews of the rest of Series 1 here:
1×02 – The Big Sleep
1×03 – The Valley of Fear
1×04 – I’ll Retire to Bedlam
1×05 – The Eternal Quadrangle
1×06 – The Return of the Speckled Band