Black Books: 4 Reasons the British Sitcom Remains a Classic

The cast from left to right: Tamsin Greig, Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey.
The cast from left to right: Bill Bailey, Dylan Moran and Tamsin Greig.

BAFTA-winning show Black Books (2000 – 2004) is easily one of the most successful and beloved British sitcoms of all time – however, it was not initially widely known to non-UK residents. The goofy and creative show has picked up listeners over the last decade though and is on its way to become a sitcom classic already. 

Surprisingly, Black Books has no affliction with the BBC whatsoever; created by Dylan Moran (who also plays the lead) and Graham Linehan, the show was filmed at Teddington Studios and broadcast on Channel 4. It centers around Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), the careless, grumpy, wine-inhaling owner of Black Books, his friend Fran (Tamsin Greig) and his assistant shop keeper Manny (Bill Bailey). Specked with a few fun cameos by people not yet famous at the time, this show is a hilarious roller coaster ride that will make you laugh until you cry. But where exactly does its ingenuity lie? How does it continue to entertain after a good 10 years? What makes it a sitcom classic already?

4. Madness

An episode of Black Books will start out quite calm; a harmless joke, amusing outdated intro sequence, the draft of an arising conflict. In classic sitcom style, it will then build up that conflict, add layers to it and perhaps introduce another storyline that will eventually collide with the initial one – and it all ends in one ridiculous roar of laughter. In contrary to regular American sitcoms, this British success goes beyond all expectations and rationality though, introducing one mad scenario after the other – all of them still remaining connected. From Manny absorbing a book full of wisdom that changes him into a Jesus-like messenger of peace to a the Nazi-esque (ironically named) rival bookshop ‘Goliath books’ to a charming travel writer reminiscent of Gilderoy Lockhart, Black Books has it all.

3. Rituals

This feat stands in great contrast to the afore-mentioned. However, it’s certainly the rituals that make the madness of Black Books even more effective. The introduction of rituals itself isn’t very unusual in the genre, as every good sitcom needs its rituals – think of the How I Met Your Mother sandwich metaphor or the dream sequences in Scrubs. They most prominently serve the purpose of making the audience feel more familiar with the show and feel like it’s a true part of their lives. Furthermore, rituals can serve as easy laughs, since situations can become even more ridiculous when repeated over and over again. Some of the rituals in Black Books include the daily walk to the pub, Bernard throwing a tantrum and being rude to customers and nights ending in a binge of red wine and cigarettes. As assumed, the audience becomes more familiar with Bernard and his companions through repetition while their characters become more realistic and relatable – after all, most people’s lives consist at least to some extend of rituals.

Black Books still

2. Quotability

For a show that consists of only 18 episodes of 20 minutes each, Black Books offers a vast amount of creative and spot-on one liners free for use in daily life. While “I will… drink heavily and shout at you” is an example of the more versatile quotes, there are plenty of more specific options such as “I can feel bits of my brain falling away like a wet cake”. The usage of these quotes will increase the bond between the viewer and the show and furthermore make it easy for the appreciator of Black Books to detect others of his kind. The most-quoted lines from the show are often from the last two thirds of the episodes, which fits with the paragraph about the shows madness. This is when writers Moran and Linehan truly get to prove their capabilities, because after all, a sitcom is more about dialogue and characters than about suspenseful plots. This isn’t to say that Black Books or any other sitcom are dull, but the suspense often arises from a simple scenario that is blown up through dialogue and mannerisms expressed by the characters.

1. Randomness

Although there is a clear continuity in the show that encourages the audience to watch the all episodes back-to-back, Black Books is a typical example of a series that you can seen at random (a trademark of most situational comedy shows). The viewer may catch only a single episode on TV or elsewhere, yet will most likely immediately be drawn in, which serves as a bonus in comparison to lengthy, in-depth, dramatic shows like Downtown Abbey or Sherlock. Even mid-way into an episode, one is still able to enjoy and engage in the plot of the particular episode. The briefness of the show may also be a help here – as there are only so many episodes, the enthusiastic fan may not care about the order in which he or she watches them after a while, which makes it easier to watch the show in a larger group. Also, a person is able to turn on the show in the vicinity of another person he or she would like to convince to start watching the show, and will most likely succeed.

All these treats are fairly custom to sitcom tv shows overall. The difference between other shows and this one is that few other sitcoms master all of these treats as well as Black Books. In particular, it is hard to compete with the level of madness that is established in the show and distinguishes it from American counterparts like Two and a Half Men or 2 Broke Girls. It’s what makes Black Books deserve its status as a sitcom classic.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I missed it the first time the series were shown and only caught up by downloading them a couple of years ago. I couldn’t believe this had been out there since 2000 and I didn’t know about it.

    Goddamn. I’m going to download some episodes again, as I made the mistake of deleting them after watching – some of them are classics and I feel sorry for those who don’t get the humour. Maybe there’s not enough car chases or shootouts or something else wrong.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Yes, I hadn’t heard of it until recently either, but the DVDs are very inexpensive and you can watch all episodes for free on youtube.
      It’s such a great show, I can’t imagine anyone not liking it either.

      • All the episodes are currently on Netflix. Its a great show that has brought much love to those of us throughout the years. It also helped to make some over comics household names too.

  2. Geoffrey Rog

    Not for me, I was hugely disappointed by this. I love Dylan Moran’s stand up comedy and I usually love series written by Graham Linehan. I watched all 3 series of it waiting for it to be funny.

    I love Peep Show, I love I’m Alan Partidge, Blackadder, Arrested Development, Green Wing etc etc. Father Ted and IT Crowd are above average. I just found this to be terrible, it was like watching a BBC 7pm Saturday sitcom.

    I think I smiled twice in season 1 (not laughed) and that was it for the full 3 series. Not a single laugh.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Well, I’ve found one already. No, it’s okay, humour is a very, very subjective thing so of course you’re free not to find this show funny.

    • Well different people, different kinds of humour.

      I watched the first ep and maybe laughed once of twice, mainly at Bern suddenly deciding to make a coat out of his receipts. But I loved the second episode much much more than the first one so that’s what changed my mind and I quite like it. Dylan Moran’s persona here is virtually indistinguishable from the one he keeps for most of his stand-ups, but that’s great because I can never get enough of him.

      I REALLY need to watch Blackadder. I’m pretty sure it’s high quality comedy, it’s just I’m not a native English speaker and British English can be hard to understand without subtitles. At least English subtitles.

      You seem to have good taste, though. Besides not liking Black Books of course, but hey, nobody’s perfect (/jk). I’d like to hear what British shows would you recommend.

  3. Luke Briggs

    This is the only British show that I DO find funny. I’m generally not a fan of British humor at all – I’m bothered by direct mocking and insulting of certain people/subgroups (e.g. Little Britain), by unnatural grimacing (e.g. Mr. Bean) and the political incorrectness. However, Black books doesn’t have any of that – just regular, but in my opinion very funny, humor.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      I have liked all British comedy shows that I’ve seen, but they’re not many; Keeping Up Appearances, Miranda and this. So I guess there are some less funny ones. Mr. Bean is kinda weird, I don’t know what to think of it.
      Anyway, I’m glad you found an exception to your general dislike of British humour.

  4. Jessica M Farrugia

    I only recently discovered Black Books, but I think Dylan Moran’s character is pure genius. Though I understand that some people may not find the show ‘laugh-out-loud’ funny, I’d argue that its dryness is what makes it so amusing. As for the script, I don’t think I’ll ever get over Bernard’s efforts to insult a group of ‘skinheads’ shouting: ‘you’re all really dreadful, and your girlfriends are unfulfilled and alienated…’! Great article!

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Hahah, love that scene. I absolutely agree, it’s Bernard who’s the most funny thing about the show and I do find him laugh-out-loud-ish.
      Thank you, Jessica!

  5. Jordan

    I’m on season 3 at the moment and I can’t believe I never heard about it till recently! Although I’ve been finding Bernard’s anger is starting to get really irrationally annoying. you can tell he’s just trying to make people laugh. Seriously, his character needs anger management stat!
    I love Fran though 🙂 she’s my favorite

  6. Jonathan Matos

    Still haven’t checked out this show and I so need to. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. Great show. Season 1 and 3 are superior to season 2 in my opinion. There should have been more episodes!

    • I laughed on a regular basis during series one. My favourite episodes is Episode 3 of the first series. The one where they look after the guys house, get drunk on a £7000 bottle of wine. Replace it with their own home made wine which then when given to the Pope as a present later on, poisons him, thus jailing the guy who gave the Pope the wine. And it was all their fault haha. That and the whole Frankenstein/mad scientist scene was brilliant in that episode. Bill outside looking for something then Bernard comes out and whips him silly and tells him to get inside. Brilliant!. It was made like Manny was Igor and Bernard was Baron Frankenstein in that scene haha.

      I laughed maybe three times during the first four episodes of series 2. I laughed more than that during one single episode of series 1. It was as if something was missing from series 2 and 3. It just didn’t feel right. They were good series 2 and 3 don’t get me wrong. They were just not as good as the first series. I think you could describe the comedy levels of each series as the following. Series one was on crack. Series 2 and 3 were on the come down from the crack buzz that series one was on.

  8. Sunni Rashad

    I’m not familiar with the show, but I will say that it does sound interesting if only for the loving way you describe everything. That said, it doesn’t sound all that unique. It comes off as another slice of life T.V show that may have it’s own special features still falls in the same tropes of the genre.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      I guess that may be true, British humor is British humor and it’s kind of similar in most shows. But this is a very good ambassador of that sort of thing.

  9. I’ve never heard of this show. I’ll have to check it out! You should watch My Mad Fat Diary. It’s a British show that takes place in the 90s. It’s quoteable, relatable, and features great music!

  10. Black Books is classic alright!
    Other great British comedy TV series:

    1) Monty Python’s Flying Circus
    2) I’m Alan Partridge
    3) Mr. Bean
    4) Fawlty Towers
    5) Black Adder
    6) Brass Eye
    7) The Young Ones
    8) The League Of Gentlemen
    9) Red Dwarf
    10) Ali G In Da USAiii
    11) Fonejacker

  11. Just found Black Book and love it. I see a lot of John Cleese genius in the situations and characters.

  12. Dave404

    TV shows have watchers, not listeners. I also couldn’t tell if you meant “affiliation” with the BBC or whether “affliction” was an attempt at a joke.

  13. I love, looove Bernard he is so out there that it is hilarious. I consider british writers to be really good at mistery and comedy.

  14. Freedom Gayle

    I love Black Books! I wish they made more. I am from the US, but absolutely love british comedies. First hooked at 13 yrs. of age by Monty Python on PBS. The cast of Black Books is hilarious

  15. I am also from the other side of the big pond, and in New York we had a hysterical comedy called Seinfeld, which also has characters and stories you love. In sitcoms that I truly fall in love with, it’s because I feel I have become part of the show.. This is one of those shows, and yes, I wish there were more

  16. Have just stumbled across Black Books on youtube. Have been watching old britcoms an episode at a time during my lunch break. This is one I hadn’t heard of before, but I am oh so glad I found it. Already a fan halfway through the first episode. Laughed so hard I could hardly eat my lunch yesterday and today. Maybe a good thing there are only a few episodes. I might otherwise starve to death from laughing and not eating.

  17. Mark Connolly

    A true work of genius, such a shame it ended so soon….

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