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Black Books (2000-04)

Main image of Black Books (2000-04)
Channel 4, tx. 29/9/2000 - 15/4/2004
18 x 30 min episodes across 3 series, colour
Production CompanyAssembly Film and Television
ProducersNira Park, Julian Meers
WritersKevin Cecil, Graham Linehan, Arthur Mathews, Dylan Moran, Andy Riley

Cast: Dylan Moran (Bernard Black); Bill Bailey (Manny Bianco); Tamsin Greig (Fran Katzenjammer)

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The misadventures of grumpy Irish bookseller Bernard Black, his assistant-cum-'human plaything' Manny Bianco and their ditzy friend Fran Katzenjammer.

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Following the likeable, low-key How Do You Want Me? (BBC, 1998-99), Irish comedian Dylan Moran's second sitcom was a very different proposition. This time, Moran doubled as co-writer (alongside Graham Linehan), and the result emerged as a twisted cross between Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975/79) and Linehan's own Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-98), injecting several doses of wild surrealism into an otherwise traditional format.

Moran starred as Bernard Black, terminally grouchy wine-sozzled proprietor of the bookshop that bears his name. Like Basil Fawlty before him, he is entirely unsuited to running a business, openly despises his customers (instead of special offers, the shop blackboard contains stern admonitions ranging from "No Anecdotage" to an all-encompassing "Don't") and generally manages to alienate all his friends as well, with the inexplicable exception of ditzy Fran Katzenjammer (Tamsin Greig), who runs the New Age accessories shop next door.

This relationship became triangular at the start of the second episode, with the employment of long-haired, bearded Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey) as Bernard's accountant-cum-dogsbody. As sunny and genial as Bernard is surly and rude (in the first episode, Manny accidentally swallows a copy of The Little Book of Calm, with a seemingly permanent effect on his psyche), he is happy to coast along blithely, brushing aside Bernard's frequent barbs and even physical assaults as though they were mere gnat bites.

The only regular characters were the three leads, though most episodes featured inspired cameos by familiar comic performers. Examples include Johnny Vegas's sleazy landlord, Peter Serafinowicz's jobbing actor (whose oddly sensual rendition of the Shipping Forecast drives Fran wild), Jessica Stevenson's yoga fanatic, Rob Brydon's businessman spouting incomprehensible jargon, Kevin Eldon's sinister cleaner, and Julian Rhind-Tutt's explorer, so infectiously charming that even Bernard is won over. Perhaps most fondly remembered was Simon Pegg as the oily technocratic manager of Goliath Books, Manny's temporary employers after yet another falling-out with Bernard.

Black Books debuted with minimal publicity in September 2000, but quickly became a cult hit on the back of overwhelmingly favourable word of mouth. After the first series won a BAFTA for Best Situation Comedy, two more were commissioned, this time written by Moran in collaboration with Kevin Cecil, Andy Riley and occasionally Father Ted's Arthur Mathews. Although the third won another BAFTA, Moran had already decided to take another leaf out of Fawlty Towers' book and kill it off while on a high.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Bailey, Bill (1964-)
Greig, Tamsin (1967-)
Linehan, Graham (1968-)
Moran, Dylan (1971-)
Pegg, Simon (1970-)
Channel 4 Comedy