ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Big Sleep’ (1×02 – Series Retrospective #2)

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 with the second episode of Series 1, The Big Sleep, which first aired on January 11, 1990…

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.

You’ve probably heard that title before, haven’t you? The Big Sleep is of course borrowed from Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled 1939 noir novel and his detective Philip Marlowe, famously adapted into a picture in 1946 by Howard Hawks starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but the title has a double meaning in the context of Chandler’s work.

‘Sleeping the big sleep’ is a euphemism for death in Chandler’s world, and while Renwick’s quaint British suburbia is no hard noir, the title works in context with just how often death strikes around Victor throughout this episode. Mortality plays a big part in his psychology, especially upon learning his cousin Geoffrey, just retired at 60 and apparently fit as a fiddle, dropped dead after posting a letter to Victor telling him as much. When Margaret takes him to a yoga class filled with decaying senior citizens, the teacher suddenly collapses dead of a coronary while in the middle of breathing exercises. “She can’t be dead! She’s the bloody health and fitness instructor!” Victor exclaims in what is probably the funniest protracted sequence the show has given us to date, capped off by Hilary Mason’s funny small turn as a woman who had a plastic hip replaced “under Kenneth Clarke”.

Side note, but Hilary Mason was one of those quietly brilliant British character actors who deserves remembering. Not only would she crop up again on One Foot in a few years in Hole in the Sky playing a profane, irate old woman who storms into the Meldrew’s house, but she memorably played one of the creepy psychic sisters in Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now.

Renwick talks in The Complete One Foot in the Grave how, while characters like Mason’s here were funny, he would find frustration that it would compound the public’s belief that Victor was simply a ‘misery guts’:

It’s the same with Dickens – the memorable characters are always the two-dimensional eccentrics with peculiar mannerisms or tics. The ones that are more realistic, with interesting shades of grey to them, never catch on with the public. So I suppose I shouldn’t really complain – it’s the two-dimensional view of Victor as a moaning old curmudgeon that’s made him such an enduring and popular figure.

The whole yoga sequence works precisely because One Foot is confronting death in a very real, very sudden and unexpected manner, in the way other major comedy series at the time would have shied away from. Renwick isn’t scared to have the seemingly healthy, forty something yoga teacher drop dead (Richard Wilson’s horrified “God!” as she does is also perfectly pitched) to underscore the point that Victor, that anyone, could face the end in swift, uncaring fashion. Victor hasn’t just entered retirement, he has almost entered a purgatory state, a limbo between this world and the next. Episodes like Timeless Time or Rearranging the Dust, two handers between Victor and Margaret, will make that point further. One Foot is pushing boundaries because comedies just avoided this territory. You wouldn’t have seen this in Fresh Fields or Duty Free! When Grandad dies in Only Fools and Horses, off-screen thanks to actor Lennard Pierce’s death, you felt it. In the world of One Foot, death is sudden and meaningless.

The Big Sleep also takes the series’ first pot-shots at organised religion, as two Jehovah’s Witnesses who Margaret mistakes for policemen (and who actually *are* off duty policemen amusingly) because of a window cleaner girl who claims Victor exposed himself to her, attempt to convince Victor the world is full of sin. By the 90’s, and even today, the amusement of slamming the door in ‘a Jehovah’s’ face remains something people culturally understand, as cruel as it actually might be, and it works as a recognisable gag audiences will appreciate, but it also speaks to both Renwick and Victor’s religious stance. Later, they attend Geoffrey’s ‘secular’ funeral (where he is being buried perpendicular – “if you can’t lie down when you’re dead, when can you?” Victor comically quips). Renwick has no truck with religious constructs, and he lampoons them right up to the end.

While admittedly Victor waking up in his garden amidst heavy fog and thinking he’s gone to Heaven, having become terrified of dying in his sleep, is not as neatly contrived as Renwick’s writing at his best, it does amuse, but it relies ultimately on some physical comedy as Victor knocks himself out with a rake and later a heavy-handed gag in which Victor, delirious in hospital, strangles an old bearded patient he’s mistaken for God, ranting about why God would lose him his job and allow crisp packets to be thrown into his garden by unseen, loud music playing, boorish neighbours. Victor reckoning with the Almighty makes sense, but it’s more on the nose than One Foot, when firing on all cylinders, needs to be. Victor would, no doubt, bring God to task for allowing the uncaring, unfeeling world he lives in to perpetuate, but it again, much like in Alive and Buried, leans too heavily into staged, traditional situation comedy actions than the organic naturalistic comedy that defines classic One Foot.

It’s why, again, I like the yoga scene, because despite being contrived, it feels strangely logical in the world of One Foot and the dark sense of fate around it, the creeping pallor of death and horror that plays the edges of Renwick’s scripts. Victor angrily shouting at the old man in the hospital is, again, too broad, and too definably ‘comedic’, against logical odds. To put it another way… I don’t believe it.

Arguably, the best work in The Big Sleep is the most intentionally touching – Victor caring for the robin. The saccharine music that John du Prez drapes over the scenes might be a bit much, but they expose the side of Victor most audiences completely missed throughout the run of the show, and Margaret spells out in a few series in Warm Champagne. Victor is deeply sensitive and caring, and he shows genuinely love for the robin in this episode, working to keep it alive in contrast to the visions of death that permeate the human world around him. “Where are you hiding this morning? Bet you’re thirsty, little thing.” He says, talking to the robin like a child he is looking after. It is easy to forget this was who Victor *really* was, and it was present as early as The Big Sleep – a kind man driven to angry, frustrated extremes by an unkind world around him.

On a technical point, the robin itself didn’t go down well with production staff, particularly Renwick:

I still think it’s shit! It’s an embarrassment and I wonder why it was put on television. The second you look at it you know it’s a mechanical robin. There was, of course, no way we could show it flying. And unfortunately in that moment (where Victor looks at it flapping it’s wings) the whole fakery is cruelly exposed. I’m not blaming Susie (Belbin, the director), but if something like that happened now in one of my shows, I’d probably have the authority to say “It doesn’t work. We’ll have to cut the scene”.

Thankfully these problematic technical points don’t take away from the quiet sadness of Victor discovering the robin ultimately dead, killed by a prowling neighbourhood cat he had earlier tried to get rid of. Even nature isn’t immune from the sudden reach of oblivion. Just to cap off Renwick’s bitterness in regards to the futility and sanctity of life, Victor buries the bird, unaware that his neighbours have thrown an empty lager can over the fence which lands on the patch of earth that is the bird’s grave. There is no respect even for death in the world of One Foot.

None of this is to say The Big Sleep is unremittingly bleak, indeed for me it is a slightly stronger episode of One Foot than the previous instalment, but the powerful shadow of death, and the show’s abject disbelief in any peace and life beyond it, is sobering territory for a situation comedy. Episodes like this make you wonder quite what special alchemy made One Foot in the Grave palatable to so many people so quickly. Perhaps the honest of Renwick’s writing was attractive. Perhaps we’re all a little bit like Victor – anxious about illness, terrified of the grave, and constantly aware life could be snatched away from us at any moment.

Bleakness, at least in this case, continues to make for fine comedy.

Check out our previous entries in this series:

1×01 – Alive and Buried

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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