Possibly the best British sitcom since Father Ted, Black Books only has one noticeable fault; the theme tune is a tuneless bit of guitar noise that becomes irritating to listen to after seeing a couple of episodes, and falls a long way short of other, more memorable theme tunes for sitcoms (Ted, The League of Gentlemen, Dad's Army etc...) Otherwise, this is sheer comic bliss. The joy of many episodes is the way that the potentially banal and cliched is made fresh and hilarious by the sheer brilliance of the writing and acting; then again, any set-up for a comedy that features an Irish Withnail type reduced to bookselling, an intellectual hippie who alternates between being Christlike and a cowering wretch, and, er, Debbie Aldridge from The Archers has to be worth a look, and this proves to be sheer joy, albeit perhaps something of an acquired taste. The episodes are of a remarkably high quality, considering their utterly surreal subject matter:
Cooking the Books
Where Bernard (Moran) realises that he needs an accountant, despite his great fear of them and penchant for drawing pretty pictures in his accounts books, Manny (Bailey) swallows the Little Book Of Calm and becomes a messianic figure, to the dismay of the doctors predicting his imminent demise, and Fran (Grieg) realises that most of what her shop sells is appalling tat. Hilarious if you buy into the uniquely warped worldview being showcased here, utterly bewildering if you don't.
Manny's First Day
One of the slightly more 'accessible' episodes featured here, this follows Manny as he attempts to impress Bernard into taking him on as an assistant, despite Bernard's wish to remain an autonomous bookseller, preferably without selling any books. Almost- almost- feeling like a conventional sitcom episode, without any deeply bizarre moments, this is still hilarious stuff, with some priceless byplay between Bailey and Moran.
Grapes of Wrath
The first truly great episode, and probably the one that brought it to the attention of the BAFTA judges (who promptly gave it the best sitcom award.) After an incident involving a rather odd dust cleaner (as played by the really very strange Kevin Eldon) Bernard and Manny are invited to housesit for a 'friend' of Bernard's, who gives them strict instructions not to drink the expensive wine he has earmarked for the Pope. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensues. Meanwhile, Fran goes on a date with a charming, if Will Young-esque, man, with little success. Worth watching if only for a hysterical (and entirely plot-driven) Frankenstein parody halfway through.
Manny watches 'The Sweeney', and gets ideas; unfortunately, these ideas involve his ending up at the police station interrogating suspects. Meanwhile, Bernard is attempting to retrace what, precisely, happened to him the previous night, with little success. As with many of the episodes here, the appeal is in the flawless performance and sheer surrealism of the set-ups (Belly Savalas?? A terrified, hippy interrogating cop??) than the nominal storyline, and is an utter joy to watch.
The Big Lockout
Bernard is locked out of the shop and is reduced to working in a burger bar, Fran is driven to extremes when she hears a man's remarkably seductive voice, and Manny...well...'goes a bit native' with absinthe and some dead bumblebees. By now, this will either be one of your favourite comedy programmes ever, or you will have long ago given up in disgust; your loss, but this is still a fine illustration of how much of an acquired taste this is.
He's Leaving Home
Manny becomes disillusioned with life at the shop, leaves, and falls in with a beard pornographer. Yes, you read that correctly. Meanwhile, Bernard descends into an alcoholic haze (yet again), and Fran is...well, Fran. If you find the idea of Bill Bailey dressed up as a Little Bo Peep figure, pulling coquettish glances while doing so, about as funny as leprosy, this is unlikely to appeal, yet again. However, it is about as perfect a half hour of comedy to those of taste; fine acting, scripting and a surprisingly effective and low-key climax make this a more than worthy end to the series.
A nice anamorphic transfer from VCI, that makes the series look considerably better than when it was first broadcast; colours are strong, there is no print damage, and the overall effect is a pleasing one.
It's not The Fast and the Furious, but the soundtrack does a fine job of presenting the dialogue clearly, and manages to keep the laugh track from being too obtrusive.
A commentary is provided by Moran, Bailey and Greig, who come across as being very similar to their on-screen characters, so much so that occasionally I wondered if they were doing it in character. There are some moments of hilariously off-the-wall observation here, such as a running commentary on Moran trying to act ('There goes an eyebrow! There goes another eyebrow! Oh, is that a lip I can see twitching?? Is it?? No, it's not!'), but there's virtually nothing of any actual use revealed, such as why Moran decided to write the second series without Graham Linehan (who might well have brought some sense of order to the track). Recommended, but in small doses. Some riotously funny outtakes (including a very funny Bill Bailey song) are also included, along with a pointless photo gallery and a very brief trailer for series 2 (which is far, far more surreal than this series, which will either delight or disappoint you, depending on how much you liked this one.)
A love-it-or-hate-it series is presented on a technically good disc with some good extras. Given that I seem to love virtually everything that falls into the love it or hate it category, it comes as little surprise that I found this utterly uproarious; however, it's worth watching the current series on channel 4 on Fridays to see if you like it before buying it, as it is such an acquired taste!