ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Return of the Speckled Band’ (1×06 – Series Retrospective #6)

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 sixth and final episode of the first series, The Return of the Speckled Band, which first aired on February 8th, 1990…

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.

The title is the second direct lift from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon this series, only with a slight twist.

The Adventure of the Speckled Band was the eighth Holmes novel and is widely considered to be among the best, with Conan Doyle constructing a classic ‘locked room’ mystery (which Renwick will recreate for the first episode of Jonathan Creek) and providing a key element in the titular ‘speckled band’ – a venomous snake. The Return of the Speckled Band, therefore, is Renwick’s nod to Holmes as an allusion to the pet python running loose from the garden centre, layered as it with a sense of impending horror and doom. The Adventure of the Speckled Band was noted for its sense of the Gothic, and Conan Doyle considered it the best Holmes story he wrote, and here it provides some inspiration for how Renwick finally engages with cosmic horror and ‘weird fiction’.

This is an aspect of One Foot that feels under-discussed, but Renwick is a writer steeped in horror fiction, 19th century literature, Hammer horror pictures, old Hollywood creature features, and quite likely H. P. Lovecraft – the master of ‘weird fiction’, so described as a sub-genre defined by author China Mieville as “usually, roughly, conceived of as a rather breathless and generically slippery macabre fiction, a dark fantastic (“horror” plus “fantasy”) often featuring nontraditional alien monsters (thus plus “science fiction”).” Jeff Vandermeer summarises its impact in The Atlantic:

There’s a power and weight to this type of fiction, which fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected, and in that space we discover some of the most powerful evocations of what it means to be human or inhuman.

Increasingly in One Foot, Renwick plays with the idea of strange events and weird happenings around the Meldrew’s that either don’t make sense, leave open questions, or are so misconstrued they appear paranormal or supernatural in nature. *Does* Victor get abducted by aliens in Starbound or is he just off his face with cocaine? Where *does* the fly come from in The Futility of the Fly and who sent it? *Was* the caravan in Endgame haunted by Satan worshipper Mrs Velda Bassett? It doesn’t matter if the answer is no, the point is that Renwick steadily begins to drip feed weird fiction aspects into the show as Victor encounters not just societal issues, but moments of ghoulish horror or the macabre which, on the face of it, defy some level of immediate explanation, even if Renwick always plays them for comedy and usually finds a prosaic way to explain it all.

The entire plot given to Mrs Warboys taps into this for the first time. Victor and Margaret are so out of touch with popular culture, they have no idea (even ten years after it was released, presumably to high acclaim), that Ridley Scott’s Alien is a horror film. “You like Mork & Mindy Margaret suggests as to why her friend may enjoy it. “Oh yes, Star Trek, that sort of thing” Mrs Warboys agrees, understanding Alien to be of the same ilk – light-hearted entertainment for all ages. She later admits she had to turn it off halfway through, and the gag is funnier in that we don’t see her reaction to watching it. That is saved for when she is presented with her own ‘Alien moment’, a conflation of cinematic fear with real life terror, as Mrs Warboys cracks open an alligator egg. Her scream is hilarious and it reinforces, after Alive and Buried, how well Doreen Mantle can play the terrified foil.

It also manages to pay off the snake gag in less of an obvious way than other sitcoms might. The python presents a constant sense of dread once we understand it’s in the Meldrew’s home, and that gives the comedy an extra level of spice. Renwick toys with but never gives us the exposure of it, which only makes it funnier. Victor mistakes it for his leg when he & Margaret don’t realise it’s in bed with them. He almost opens the case it has snuck into, but doesn’t. We are left to wonder, by the end, what will happen once they go through customs on their holiday to Athens, and Renwick is starting to really understand the power of the off-screen joke. Much like how with horror, what we can imagine is scarier than what we see, with great comedy, the best jokes are often left for us to make after the script infers them.

The snake also allows for another moment of class distinction in One Foot, with the bin man who brings back Victor’s hat. Renwick here plays with a stereotype in the ‘dim-witted, hard to understand’ in this case Northerner, as opposed to foreigner as, say, Manuel in Fawlty Towers was an example of. The bin man is a friendly but loud, very vocal Geordie, speaking in a thick dialect Victor cannot understand, and is too polite to admit he can’t. It’s funny how I’m Alan Partridge a few years later will make a similar Geordie character in odd-job man Michael a main character in that show, but Alan’s inability to understand him would be played as to make Alan seem increasingly awful and intolerant. Here, the joke is both on Victor, for not understanding, and the binman, for being so comically hard to understand. 

Particularly post-Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, which in the 1980’s popularised English working class characters such as Geordie’s, Brummies, Bristolians and Scousers to great effect, One Foot seems decidedly dated here, and re-affirms itself as a decidedly ‘southern’, safe, BBC sitcom. Margaret, in one of the few instances where the show geographically places itself, suggests they live in a London suburb in describing how Athens will be much warmer, but One Foot never feels like it represents London, and given it was filmed in Bournemouth it never much *looks* like London either. But the Geordie stereotype, and how we’re meant to laugh at it, reinforces One Foot amongst class lines as more middle than working class. Renwick may not have any time for the snobby private school class (as represented in the smug Tory MP in I’ll Retire to Bedlam), but he doesn’t seem to understand the working class, provincial Englander much either, certainly not beyond the locale of the Home Counties or near-London boroughs.

If this aspect dates One Foot, The Return of the Speckled Band works not just for the gags that pay off, but also the thematic sense Victor cannot escape the past.

The hat that keeps coming back is a comedic trope Renwick will reuse often across the run of the series, only with varying different items. The most readily memorable is the old car in The Man Who Blew Away, which even gets to Finland before it reappears outside his house! Renwick seems to like this idea, that Victor simply can’t get rid of something he dislikes and how fate seems to constantly throw it back in his path, perhaps as a metaphor for Victor’s existential existence. All great comedy characters are trapped. Del Boy was economically grounded, Basil Fawlty is trapped in a loveless, bitter marriage, David Brent is trapped by his own lack of awareness, Alan Partridge by his delusions of grandeur, and so on. Victor is no exception. Victor is trapped in the space between life and death, trapped in his own nightmare of circumstance. The hat, the car, they keep coming back as a reminder. This is your lot, Victor. There is no escaping it.

Renwick even ends the entire series on a loaded beat of optimism, as Victor is so terrified of flying he has to take a tranquilliser to get on a plane. Athens, while utterly savaged by the tactless Mrs Warboys as being one of the worst places to go in the world, serves as another level of escape for the Meldrew’s. Little do they know when they come back, their house will be demolished. Little do they know there is a snake in their luggage. Victor says: “I suppose I am worrying about all this unduly, as usual. When you actually get to it, things often aren’t as bad as you expect, are they?”. In other circumstances, in lesser comedies, this would be a point of change for the character. But not Victor. This is temporary. Alfred Hitchcock always said the key to suspense was having a scene with a bomb ticking away under a table, which the audience knows about but the characters do not. Victor’s bomb is the snake. He will always end up back where he was.

The Return of the Speckled Band even, for the first time, features Victor’s infamous catchphrase, even if it hasn’t yet become iconic. To think there was ever a time that was so for One Foot in the Grave. Honestly… I don’t believe it…

Check out reviews of the rest of Series 1 here:

1×01 – Alive and Buried

1×02 – The Big Sleep

1×03 – The Valley of Fear

1×04 – I’ll Retire to Bedlam

1×05 – The Eternal Quadrangle

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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