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 third episode of the first series, The Valley of Fear, which first aired on January 18, 1990…
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.
The title is, again, a reference to a literary work, in this case Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel of the same name, the last major Holmes novel to be published and the second reference to the world’s most famous detective in only three episodes of One Foot so far.
You can see why Conan Doyle might heavily appeal to Renwick, given they both share a penchant for mystery plotting in their stories. Renwick will, of course, later write his own darkly comedic take on Holmes in Jonathan Creek, which blends his One Foot-style uncanny absurdity with traditional British murder mystery storytelling to, often, extremely good effect (Jonathan Creek at its best arguably rivals One Foot’s strongest work). Renwick’s choice of evocative names for his episodes, often based on literary or cinematic references, is another aspect which makes One Foot stand out from the sitcoms flanking it in the same era, adding that extra layer of intelligence and thought to the series. In this instance, the ‘fear’ in The Valley of Fear is not the underlying threat of unionised terrorist struggles in late 19th century America (as it was in the Holmes novel) but rather Victor’s fear of gangs of youths roaming the streets targeting senior citizens.
One Foot doesn’t really seem to know how to tackle this issue bar making it a rather existential fear that underscores, more so, how out of touch Victor now is with the modern world. He cites a report in the newspaper of a 15 year old boy breaking into a mortuary and hacking the head off a corpse “for a laugh”, which utterly baffles him. “We never used to go about hacking people’s heads off when we were their age”. As horrifying as an incident like this is, and whether based on any kind of truth or not, this portrayal of late 1980’s youth culture doesn’t fit with the idea of Victor being physically assaulted. We don’t see this happen, tellingly, because Richard Wilson remains a visibly tall, in shape and strong-looking man, indeed it stretches credulity that anyone *could* mug Victor at all. It’s a contrivance, perhaps established so Renwick can later invert the trope of the ‘savage youth’ by, when he actually *does* show young people, they are good natured and attempt to help Victor, believing he’s having a heart attack, or a bit dim, clueless and innocent like the plumbers’ assistant.
The gag works, in that Victor—who has already committed ‘armed’ robbery by stealing what he believed to be the jacket stolen from him while holding a starting pistol visibly in his open bag—becomes the aggressor unintentionally, fighting back against the youths, who he believes intend to mug him again, but it suggests Renwick’s message is confused. On the one hand, One Foot plays into the societal preconceptions about violent youth culture and subculture while systematically suggesting they are a figment of Victor’s overactive raging against the machine. And yet he *was* mugged by a gang. So One Foot wants to have its cake and eat it here for comedic purposes, suggesting youth culture—which, while gangs remained active in inner cities, was transforming more into an outwardly harmless, inwardly harmful rave drug culture entering into the 90’s—is a psychological fear for the elderly while also twisting those assumptions so Victor can, in broad fashion, be played for laughs.
There is also a small but interesting political subtext rippling beneath The Valley of Fear which further demarcates One Foot as a post-Thatcherite series, dealing with the litany of domestic social problems left behind by the arrival of globalisation and neoliberalism, and the partial abdication of the state in people’s lives. After Victor’s disturbed moan about the boy who broke into the mortuary, Margaret reminds him that he voted for the SDP, adding: “That’s how she got in, isn’t it? People like you”. What is Margaret suggesting here? The SDP have fallen back into the history books but, in short, the Socialist Democratic Party was a short-lived Labour offshoot formed in the early 1980’s in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s election, and Labour’s very left-wing stance in committing to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC. The more socialist Labour became, in response to Thatcher’s right-wing Tory government, the more centrist the SDP attempted to position itself.
Victor voting for the SDP reinforces his position as someone who, in an ideal world, would not exist in a land of extremes. Victor’s reputation as a local ‘character’ (that’s how he’s eventually described in his obituary, or something like it) and by viewers as a moaner is always only in response to the growing extremes he witnesses in social behaviour, and while One Foot is never expressly political and focuses almost entirely on social mores (although the next episode certainly leans into political polemic too), all social behaviour is ultimately defined by political actions and movements. Victor is, therefore, a centrist who Margaret—presumably a Labour supporter and far more leftwing—voted for the SDP in either the 1983 or 1987 (or both) General Elections where they fielded candidates before in 1988 morphing into what we now know as the Liberal Democrats. Margaret’s suggestion is that by ‘throwing away his vote’, he helped cement Tory rule across the 1980’s, and as a result Thatcherism, which has led to the moral decay in community and youth culture of the kind Victor, himself, is angry about.
Is this also Renwick’s politics shining through? Quite possibly. One Foot is never an entirely conservative or indeed an entirely liberal or progressive series, indeed even up to the final series in 2000 there are still very questionable jokes about homosexuality, in particular, that look dated from a futuristic perspective. It’s rare, nonetheless, for Victor or Margaret’s politics to be directly referenced, and it certainly says something about their characters and the rationale behind the positions they take. This also further adds to the realisation, examining Series 1 more closely, that Margaret simply isn’t written as the character we know in later seasons. This is nothing on Annette Crosbie’s performance, which is often very good as you’d expect, but Margaret is still being portrayed as something of a ‘witless woman’ here.
In fact, the relationship here between Victor and Margaret resembles what we would later see in Patrick and Pippa Trench, their long-suffering eventual neighbours. Patrick often speaks down to Pippa and cuts her off, talking to her like she’s an idiot for not grasping his frustrations and concerns, and Victor is the same in The Valley of Fear. Would Margaret really go around leaving freezer doors open or loft ladders down? It’s the mark of a ditzy scatterbrain that Renwick, having not quite found Margaret yet, is consigning her to, when later seasons would suggest these are far more the clueless mistakes Victor would make that trap old women in lofts or cats in freezers. “Bloody woman!” Victor moans when he finds the loft open, suggesting Margaret does this often. It doesn’t track and thankfully, once Renwick starts in later series switching this dynamic around more, the comedy is less mean-spirited and more effective. The only time you see a hint of Margaret’s controlled fire is when Victor barks at her loudly to shut up. The look she gives him is withering and Victor knows he crossed a line.
While The Valley of Fear on the one hand gets good mileage out of bizarre or uncanny jokes, such as Mrs Warboys’ hand grenade (and her brilliant greeting of Victor with “You look awful! Worse than usual, in fact!”, an early example of how she has zero tact while equally never being horrible with it), at the same time there is a harshness to Renwick’s comedy here which has nothing, like in The Big Sleep, to temper it. It’s hard to laugh at a kindly old woman locked in the attic. The plumber (played by Christopher Ryan of The Young Ones, in a remarkably similar role—also involving a loft gag—that he’ll play in Series 5’s Hole in the Sky) is just a nasty piece of work, and there is again disdain for youth culture in how his assistant is portrayed as a clueless idiot.
Renwick talks in The Complete One Foot in the Grave about how much of this came from real-world experience:
My own radiators were making a clanking noise, and that gave me the idea for the old lady banging on the pipes. And the guy who came to fix them had this rather dimwitted young assistant who he seemed to enjoy humiliating, so of course that whole relationship went into the script.
As for the cat in the freezer, well… the BBC received viewer complaints even back in 1990 and you can see why. It’s a horrible gag, and an immensely contrived one too.
In the end, The Valley of Fear is an assemblage of good ideas, with some interesting political and social aspects, which doesn’t hang together as well as the previous two episodes. Victor vs youth culture isn’t well enough defined, or well enough understood, to really make for the kind of laughs David Renwick is going for. Even the locals assembled for a neighbourhood watch meeting, with Victor hoping to curb youth violence as the spearhead, is undercut when they’re more interested in the mysterious smell by the sideboard or watching Emmerdale Farm. Victor should have taken the hint right then and there.
Check out other entries in this series: