Horror in the Britcom
One Foot in the Grave:
Victor Meldrew’s New Nightmare
A.J. Black explores the macabre lurking within the BBC comedy, One Foot in the Grave, in his series on horror in the Britcom…
Perhaps defining the gallows humour of the nation, horror leaves fingerprints all over British comedy, and particularly One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990-2000).
Debuting thirty years ago in 1990, the spectre of misanthropic pensioner Victor Meldrew (as played with spectacular bite yet vulnerability by Richard Wilson) looms large over the British sitcom. He stands among the comic characters who transcend their series – Basil Fawlty, Del-Boy Trotter, David Brent – and achieve household recognition. Victor has gone down in history as television’s most infamous moaner, grumbling in every episode of David Renwick’s series about the state of the world to his long-suffering wife Margaret (the magisterial Annette Crosbie). From crisp packets and lager cans on the lawn to boisterous, rude teenagers and cowboy businessmen, Victor would rage in frustration at the eternal bad luck that engulfs his life, often spouting his immortal catchphrase ‘I don’t believe it!’.
It is easy to forget, however, that Victor’s misanthropy is driven by a maelstrom of not just misfortune or selfishness, greed and ignorance from his fellow man, but an almost cosmic sense of weirdness and injustice that lurks at the edge of One Foot in the Grave, particularly as the series wears on. Whenever a comedy character who breaks out from their series carries a memorable recurring phrase, they are almost always tethered to their personality. Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-2003) Del-Boy promises that ‘this time next year we will be millionaires!’ as his own personal, reaffirming mantra of prosperity against the odds. ‘I have a cunning plan,’ Baldrick regularly promises in Blackadder, affirming almost always the exact opposite. Victor’s turn of phrase organically developed as a note of disbelief at the frequently bizarre, unexpected and just downright strange events that would intrude on his enforced retirement.
Said catchphrase is, in some sense, meta-textual on the part of series writer and veritable auteur David Renwick. Victor Meldrew’s waking nightmares are infused with a recognition of horror and weird fiction tropes and references that go far beyond One Foot in the Grave.
One Foot in the Grave stands out amongst its contemporaries, and indeed has aged well from a narrative perspective, because it dares to project a world which differs from many other British sitcoms. Renwick says that ‘There is something a bit bleak and uncomfortable about Victor’s world. It’s more David Lynch than Laurel and Hardy, which means you never really feel safe.’ (1)
Evidence of the macabre and bizarre is evident early on. ‘The Valley of Fear‘ sees the Meldrew’s find a dead cat somehow frozen in their freezer; a tasteless joke, perhaps, but far from the cosiness you might see from sitcoms from any era, and indeed the following season Renwick repeats the trick with a barbecued turtle in ‘We Have Put Her Living in the Tomb‘.
‘The Return of the Speckled Band‘, in a much more effective gag, sees Margaret’s annoying but well-meaning friend Mrs Warboys (the wonderful, frequently scene-stealing Doreen Mantle) accidentally given Ridley Scott’s Alien to watch while in recovery from illness and, later, through one of Renwick’s brilliantly bizarre twists of plotting, she ends up being given by Victor what they both think is a normal egg, only for Mrs Warboys (or Jean, as Margaret calls her) to find inside the spawn of an alligator. She screams in terror as Susan Belbin’s camera zooms in on her reaction, and at that moment we could be inside a Hammer movie. The scene is funny, but the broader confluence of Alien adds to the genuine horror of the moment.
From that point on, Renwick seems to grow more comfortable with the fusion of the terrifying and comical within One Foot in the Grave, realising that Mrs Warboys being the butt of such jokes frequently is comic gold. The 1996 Christmas special, ‘Starbound‘, sees Jean trussed up in a sack by an escaped villain and thrown down into a ditch before she is humped by a randy Alsatian. It sounds horrific on the page but the comic construction of it is glorious.
Earlier, in the 1993 Christmas special ‘One Foot in the Algarve‘, Renwick plays with audience preconceptions about murderous husbands, invoking a Gothic sensibility as Jean engages in a holiday romance in Portugal with Alfonso, a charming aged man whose wife passed away but Renwick, backed by terrifically persuasive direction by Belbin (and even a creeping, unerring score by John du Prez), suggests killed her and covered up the crime. Jean’s plot throughout that feature-length episode is built on a Hitchcockian-level of suspense, filled with gloomy cellars and mysterious rooms, that Alfonso might be planning to murder her. While the eventual revelations are always fairly everyday from Renwick, at points in ‘One Foot in the Algarve‘ we are in a dark, enigmatic thriller as opposed to a situation comedy.
Few sitcoms are able to get away with these stylistic touches and inspirations and make them work, but One Foot in the Grave does so with remarkable deftness, successfully managing to combine the featureless banality of middle-age in the early ‘90s with a river of weird happenstance and horrific inflection.
One might consider Victor’s entire retirement to be some kind of curse and in ‘Beware the Trickster on the Roof‘, this is made manifest in the glazed scorpion in amber that the Meldrew’s eccentric neighbour Nick Swainey brings into their possession, one which allows Renwick to play out scenarios that apply themselves to the traditional horror plot of a cursed item wreaking havoc on suburbia. Swainey himself is redolent of One Foot’s creeping sense of Lynchian unease; an outwardly friendly man, who often helps out the aged and the community, he lives with an unseen mother he cares for and frequently ambushes Victor or Margaret with a monologue in unusual situations – through a door he’s inserted into his fence, or practicing archery by using his house as the field. Renwick plays distinctly on our broader knowledge of horror with Swainey, specifically Hitchcock again with Psycho (1960). Swainey is the outwardly normal loner who could be inventing his mother, or could be up to even more sinister goings on, a la Norman Bates. Unlike in Psycho, One Foot never commits to anything with Swainey beyond a sense of existential depression and loneliness, but actor Owen Brenman plays him just off-kilter enough to leave the audience wondering if Swainey has dark, horrific secrets lurking within his suburban homestead.
Renwick takes the biggest delight, however, in how he paints the perception of Victor. Audiences knew him as a misanthrope broadly, but those paying attention would see what Margaret saw, as she describes in ‘Warm Champagne‘: ‘he’s the most sensitive man I’ve ever met. And that’s why I love him and why I constantly want to ram his head into a television screen.’ Victor is actually kind and generous in many of his actions, his temper only triggered by the selfishness and unkindness of society, but through the cleverness of his storytelling, Renwick portrays Victor to his neighbours as a combination of psychopath, serial killer and deranged old man. The central source of comedy mined from his other neighbours Patrick & Pippa Trench (Angus Deayton & Janine Duvitski) lies in the swirl of events that build, over seasons, to both of them (Patrick particularly) considering Victor to be completely insane. The joy for the audience is understanding the reasons, be they bad luck or mistakes or conflicts, that lead to the misunderstanding, and revelling in Patrick & Pippa’s escalating terror.
Take ‘The Pit and the Pendulum‘ (one of many episode names Renwick would steal or adapt from literary sources, in this case, Edgar Allan Poe), in which they find Victor buried up to his neck in soil by a disgruntled gardener he quarrelled with, his head under a plant pot. What about ‘The Man Who Blew Away’, in which Patrick sees a naked old man swinging by his office window as he introduces his setup to new corporate bosses, a man who is in fact Mr Foskett, someone the Meldrew’s met years ago who randomly turns up, stays all day, and then later kills himself after his wife and children leave him.
Or ‘Secret of the Seven Sorcerors’, in which attempts to build bridges between Victor & Patrick result in an escalating series of misunderstandings revolving around a magic act and an old, amateur magician accidentally trapped in a box, who Patrick believes has been intentionally locked up by Victor. There are plenty more examples but each of them works as part of a consistent, running gag in which titanic bad luck and misconception combine to project the image of Victor as a malevolent, crazy human being. The results are often hilarious.
Yet it would be unfair to describe One Foot as simply throwaway, as Renwick is unafraid to use horror-inflected narratives to either create pathos or develop character.
Perhaps the most infamous and celebrated episode of One Foot in the Grave is ‘Hearts of Darkness‘, which starts as a not so veiled play on Joseph Conrad’s 19th-century novel (by way of cinematic homage Apocalypse Now) and segues midway from a comical Victor & co lost-on-a-day-out-episode into an incredibly dark expose of elder abuse at a remote care home, where Victor transforms into a one-man vigilante to save the abused victims, confront the matronly woman in charge, drug the abusive care workers and truss them up as scarecrows in a nearby field. The episode forced BBC edits on repeat broadcast to remove scenes that challenged censors over depicting the abuse on screen (2), but while Victor’s punishment of the abusers is macabre in the extreme, Renwick ensures a deeper level of justice infuses the story. Victor gets the chance to right a wrong that fate, in his own life, rarely affords him; he stumbles upon the abuse, deals with it, and then disappears into the night. “Victor Meldrew, the Crimson Avenger!” as he jokes in another episode, indeed.
In a different context is ‘Endgame‘, an episode toward the tail end of the series that could have operated as a finale in other circumstances. Victor buys a cheap, old, battered caravan which he later comes to believe is inhabited by the spirit of Mrs Velda Bassett, a Satan worshipper, and upon rowing with Margaret and taking himself off in the caravan on a solo holiday to Dorset, he has a vision of a ‘fetch’ of Margaret (3) before hearing she has had a near-fatal stroke. ‘Endgame‘, at times, is the closest One Foot comes to genuinely engaging with the supernatural, as director Christine Gernon works to enhance the level of creeping dread and fear around the supposed haunted caravan. ‘Endgame‘ is the second episode in a row to expressly lean into the ‘90s penchant for genre television—The X-Files (Fox, 1993-2018) being the big TV horror phenomenon at the time—after ‘Starbound‘ toys with the possibility Victor might have been abducted by aliens. The supernatural possibilities behind these events are always played down by Renwick, who merely uses them to heighten One Foot’s often bleak or bizarre mood, but at other points Renwick actively encourages more of a sadistic streak in his storytelling.
‘Hole in the Sky‘ features Christopher Ryan (of The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84) fame) playing twin brothers, both workmen, who pull repeated practical jokes on Margaret that frequently involve serious and bloody injuries, much to her annoyance and Victor’s amusement. But in a classic example of ‘cry wolf’, when one brother is genuinely injured, Margaret doesn’t believe him and he ends up embroiled in a serious argument with a group of invading, profane pensioners (one played by Hilary Mason, chilling in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) decades earlier). ‘Tales of Terror‘ contains a ghoulish postscript to the characters of Ronnie & Mildred, a pair of nerdy, joined at the hip friends, endlessly cheery, who the Meldrew’s go to great lengths to avoid. Mildred, in the middle of a game of Happy Families, hangs herself from the upstairs window, the camera showing the bottom half of her corpse dangling by the window as a storm rages, and a baffled Ronnie looks heartbroken. It’s so unexpected, to us and to Victor and Margaret, that it provides a real punch, almost making you feel bad for enjoying the Meldrew’s avoidance of two well-meaning friends, one of whom was suffering from such intense depression she takes her own life. These kinds of One Foot in the Grave episodes display just how unafraid the programme was to confront the horrors within our own psychology, as well as play, from a comedic standpoint, on ghoulish tropes and concepts from film, television and literature.
The episode that, for me, sums up just how well David Renwick’s series balances the mundane and bizarre, is ‘The Futility of the Fly’. Aside from the haunting and emotional series finale, it stands as the strongest episode in a rather weak final season, built around the massive sculpture of a fly that is delivered to the Meldrew’s house. They never know where it comes from, who sends it or why, a fact that fascinates their housekeeper and aspiring playwright Katy, who stages a ribald, end of the pier take on Victor & Margaret’s life, with all its unusual happenings, that is savaged by a London critic. He refuses to buy into the idea that the fly would just appear, with no context, claiming—in one of the best inversions of Victor’s catchphrase—that “I don’t believe it”. The fly is the one singular story thread in seasons worth of plotting that Renwick—a writer who would lie face down on his carpet for hours agonising over how to make storylines connect—intentionally doesn’t explain. That’s the point. The mystery, and the potential horror behind who would send such a peculiar object to the Meldrew’s and why, underscores the intersection between reality and terror that One Foot resides in.
The brilliance of One Foot in the Grave is how it manages to combine these two conflicting realities: the banal and the outlandish. Victor & Margaret live in a fairly anodyne part of ‘90s Britain, not wealthy but not poor either, with fairly liberal but undefined politics, and a sense that they are secure in house and home. Everything that happens to Victor, and by consequence Margaret, happens to them, thanks to largely farcical misunderstandings, mistakes, feckless people and cosmic bad luck, but Renwick’s series is entirely about one man’s stand against the growing self-destructive nature of society. The horror that surrounds the series, which Renwick and his directors work to enhance, aware of our awareness of many of the classic horror tropes they are indulging, is a consequence of Victor watching a modern decay in everything from youth to business to government and beyond. The horror at the heart of One Foot is change; a developing world that Victor is no longer part of and doesn’t understand. How else to explain the callous, offhand and brutal nature of his sudden death in ‘Things Aren’t Simple Anymore‘? Of all the ways Victor could have been killed or badly injured over the seasons, he dies in a hit-and-run accident on a rainy side street.
Here is the beauty of that final episode, and how it underscores, quietly, the show’s commitment to darkness beneath the comic light. Margaret learns, months after Victor’s death, that Glynis—a fellow widow she met subsequently through a community group and befriended—was the one who hit and killed Victor. The steel with which Annette Crosbie silently looks at Glynis as the woman rambles with guilt, trying to explain what happened, is for me the scariest moment in the entire series. There is coldness and murder in her eyes, and we earlier saw Margaret swear she would kill the person who struck Victor down if she ever found them. In a wonderfully ambiguous moment, we see Margaret hold painkillers near Glynis’ drink. We never see if she put them in. We only see her hand Glynis the drink, walk away, get in her car and drive off. We are left to decide for ourselves if she murdered or forgave. The horror of One Foot In The Grave in the end is that, like the fly, and like all of the cosmic weirdness visited upon Victor, we will never know.
Now that… I do believe…
Webber, Richard. The Complete One Foot in the Grave, pg. 77.