Black Books: Series 1, Episode 1 “Cooking The Books”


black-booksHey everyone! I have a sudden urge to talk about Black Books. Perhaps one of my favorite British TV series of all time. I’m gonna do one recap and if there’s sufficient interest, I’ll do start doing one a week.

Watch on Stream? How do?

  • Black Books is available currently through Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Vudu. Or Youtube. Whole episodes are available on youtube that have not been taken down for some reason.

Black Books was a television series that debuted on September 29, 2000 and ran until April 15, 2004. Created by comedian Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan (of Father Ted, The IT Crowd, and a billion other things), the series follows the adventures of a trio of chemically dependent, toxically co-dependent shopkeepers in London. Bernard Black(Moran), an Irish book dealer, his accountant/manservant/keeper Manny Bianco(Bill Bailey), and curio shopowner Fran Katzenjammer(Tamsen Greig).

The first episode ‘Cooking The Books’ is striking largely because of how well-formed the show is right out of the gate. Bernard is an alcoholic, misanthropic, at-best indifferent, dealer in books. Manny’s an anxiety-ridden accountant with a positive attitude looking for a change. Fran’ s desire to be there for friends and family can be undone by distractions as innocuous as figuring what precisely it is that she sells in her shop. The show knows who these characters are;  there’s no early weirdness here.

The episode begins proper with Bernard dealing with customers in the usual manner: not tolerating their time-wasting in his shop. Chastising customers with a megaphone and a broom, it’s a wonder how Bernard stays in business(a thread that will run throughout the show). His first interaction with Manny is fabulous as it establishes their relationship. Bernard’s pointlessly cruel to Manny, who is looking for ‘The Little Book of Calm’, by showing him every book that’d do nothing but increase anxiety.

Bernard, having to meet his accountant Nick, asks his friend Fran, to watch the shop. Fran is a great character. Like Bernard, she chooses to lose herself in distractions rather than deal with responsibilities, in this case it’s being there as a birthing partner for a friend. Fixated on a mysterious orb*  that she ostensibly sells, she agrees.

Bernard meets with his shady accountant Nick at his office. What I like here is that even Nick, as shabby and sketchy as he is, looks down on Bernard’s filing system for his accounts which is mostly stubs, receipts, or crumpled pieces of paper in his pocket. Alas, the troubles are only just beginning for Bernard, as Nick the Accountant flees the office with police officers in pursuit.

Meanwhile, Manny is having a tough day at work finding himself completely at odds with his supervisor. Manny, at times, is treated like a doormat on the series, but it’s clear here and later on that while he takes a lot of guff, he doesn’t do it with a smile on his face (sometimes it’s just him giving a raspberry) On his way to a meeting he drops The Little Book of Calm into his chunky soup and starts choking. At the hospital, the doctor (Martin Freeman!) explains to him that the Little Book of Calm is lodged in his throat.

Bernard is forced to do his accounts but fails immediately, fuming about it not making sense or maybe not wanting it to make sense(because it’d mean effort). In so desperate need of a distraction, Bernard allows in two door-to-door Christian evangelists.  I tend to lean towards Bernard not really wanting the accounts to make sense or not having the patience for it, largely because of this scene here. Bernard demonstrates that he has a sharp intellect, rattling off knowledge of the gospels in a way that immediately charms and engages his visitors. He’s smart, he’s just not really willing to use it in any other way than to mouth off.

Having to return to reality again, Bernard resolves that the only way to not have to do the books (outside of making a rather smart blazer of them) is to be so injured that he can’t do them. He almost gets a taker in breaking his legs in exchange for a free book. Alas, it turns out the customer has already read this book.

Dr. Martin Freeman returns to find that Manny’s absorbed the Little Book of Calm turning into a sort of soothsayer of silly bromides (‘Add a dab of lavender to milk; leave town with an orange, and pretend you’re laughing at it.’) There must be something to it as Manny wanders around, finding Fran’s friend in labor, and outside calms a barking dog and a car alarm.

All plot points lead back to Black Books. Fran’s gathered a group of customers and on-lookers trying to figure out the orb. When one suggests it’s a fake breast that reminds Fran of her friend in labor. Manny slowly returns to the shop, finding a group of soccer hooligans. He tries to dispense wisdom, only to be smacked in the face and brought back to reality. Bernard notices the commotion and sees it as a way to be gravely injured. In this instance, he turns out to be correct due to some well-thought out insults he throws.

Manny, like the face of God, is the first thing Bernard sees upon waking. Due to Bernard’s ‘selfless’ act, Manny wants to pay him back by doing his books. Fran returns to the shop more frustrated than ever about the orb she sells. As Bernard tries to light up for a smoke, Manny takes one look at the orb and presses a button, revealing it to be a lighter.

Fran cries out in horror as the episode cuts to credits.

Stray Observations

  • That theme song, tho. I’ve never had a theme song apart from maybe Tank! from Cowboy Bebop that gets me so completely set in for an episode. It fits so perfectly with the tone of the show that I would be irrationally angry if it ever aired somewhere without it.
  • Interesting that the first episode of a show called Black Books, is partly about making sure that the Books are in fact in the Black. You know, financially speaking.
  • Bilingual Bonus Points everyone!
    • If you can read Japanese, you will see the boxes in Fran’s store clearly read    「ライター」 ’lighter’!
  • Bernard does not know his mother’s name. Also fun, Bernard’s conversation is the same one every adult child seems to end up having when their parents. Or maybe it’s just me?
  • Bernard, Fran, and as we’ll see, Manny, drink and smoke with abandon at their jobs. Although many, many things separate the characters, Bernard would clearly agree with Randall from Clerks ‘This job would rule if it weren’t for the fucking customers.’
  • Manny, with his long hair, beard, and receding hair line, dressed in a gown, he looks so much like JC that he scares off the Christians at the end of the episode.
  • ‘I expect better service!” ‘Expect Away!’

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