It’s about time here at TV Today that we started to give some kudos and nods to the unsung heroes of television, and I’m going to get the ball rolling with a request that we all put our hands together for Bernard Black, late of the much missed Black Books.
This week, as part of my quest to fill the grim hours of the summer TV schedules, I have watched all six episodes of the first series of Black Books. It remains as brilliant as ever. I love Fran (Tamsin Greig), I adore Manny Bianco (a sublime Bill Bailey), but both are put in the shade by Bernard, as played by the sitcom’s creator Dylan Moran.
Bernard is vile. He’s a rude, arrogant, elitist, filthy, chain smoking alcoholic. But, and this is the inspired brilliance of the character, he’s no idiot, and Moran’s cheeky, almost boyish charm renders him utterly likeable throughout all three seasons of the best sitcom of the last decade. And that’s no mean feat, as any students of quality comedy will know.
But why is he so likeable? I think it comes down to Bernard being closer to us than we’d care to admit, a manifestation of our darker impulses. There’s a side to us all that wants to say the horrible things to the people around us - and get away with it. Witness in the first episode as Bernard gets up from his desk in the bookshop he runs and hollers through a loudspeaker for everybody to get out. When challenged, he quite justifiably says: “it’s my shop.” It’s difficult to argue with such brazen logic.
He is utterly cruel to Manny, his hapless assistant in the shop. On discovering that Manny has a painful reaction every time his mobile rings, he gleefully rings said phone repeatedly, delighting in watching Manny suffer. But that’s a classic sitcom relationship - Manny is meant to be the butt of Bernard’s more sadistic side, and it doesn’t feel wrong. Well, not to me anyway - perhaps I should be worried.
He is flagrantly disgusting - Manny disgustedly refers to him as a:
“filth wizard, friend only to the pig and the rat.”
and it seems to sit well with him. And still, despite being a filthy, cruel and debauched example of humanity, you end up just wanting to ruffle his hair and buy him chips.
There’s something irresistible about that wide eyed innocence. Bernard doesn’t know whether to shout at the world or laugh at it, so he does both before heading down the pub to smoke 60 fags and swill a bucket of wine down his neck. And sometimes, don’t we all just want to do that?
He has a playful side - his favourite party piece is an anatomical wonder called Belly Savalas that requires the use of his belly button and a lollypop - but just be hopeful that if he wants to do Cubumbo that he’s left the cigars at home. If you snub him, he’ll get mortally offended, but if you turn up at the shop with a bottle of wine he’ll welcome you with open arms - until it’s empty and then he’ll chuck you out.
Across all three series, Bernard has many, many fine moments, almost too many to choose from, but I humbly put forward episode three of series one: The Grapes of Wrath…
Forced out of the shop while it is being cleaned, Bernard and Manny housesit for a friend, where they inadvertently drink a £7000 bottle of wine that’s due to be presented to the Pope. It’s an audacious piece of sitcom writing that riffs on Frankenstein and Hammer Horror to supreme effect as Bernard attempts to recreate a strain of super wine with a bottle of cheap plonk, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a twig from an oak tree.
Friends of TV Today, I give you Mr Bernard Black, our first Unsung Hero of Television.