One Foot In The Grave
UK, BBC, Sitcom, colour, 1990
Starring: Richard Wilson, Annette Crosbie, Doreen Mantle
Born Iain Colquhoun Wilson in Greenock on 9 July 1936, Richard Wilson had a long and unspectacular career as a TV comedy-actor, with hundreds of bit-part and supporting roles, before - in his mid 50s, and probably much to his own surprise - being elevated to superstardom. The transformation, after years of slogging away, came through his portrayal of the cantankerous Victor Meldrew in One Foot In The Grave, and from being a recognisable face to which few viewers could put a name, Richard Wilson was suddenly an award-winning and greatly popular actor.
It all started quietly. At the beginning of the first series Victor Meldrew is forced into taking early retirement, and tries to adjust to an unwanted final years of leisure with his wife Margaret. Refusing to believe that he is no longer of any use to society, he takes odd jobs, helps out with good causes and generally tries to make himself busy. Although glum of expression, and generally fed up with the inanities of life, he nevertheless maintains an air of optimism - feeling, despite all evidence to the contrary, that things will turn out all right. He is invariably wrong about this, and all manner of events conspire against Meldrew to send him into increasingly strange situations. These consequences are rarely of his own making but are instigated by wild coincidences, complex misunderstandings, bureaucratic inefficiencies and sheer, awesome bad luck. As Victor becomes embroiled in such shenanigans, his volcanic temper - which tends to simmer at the best of times - erupts in a torrent of verbal vitriol against the unfairness of it all, such onslaughts usually being preceded by his bemoaning exclamation 'I don't be-lieve it!'.
Throughout it all, Margaret tries to keep her patience and rise above her husband's frustrations, but, because she is often caught up in the same maelstrom engulfing Victor, she too sometimes vents her anger - unfairly blaming Victor, who is usually an innocent pawn in the Machiavellian plot that has them ensnared. It is not Victor's fault that he suddenly finds himself in possession of a huge mountain of radioactive compost; it is not his fault that he is caught by his wife in bed with an old woman, someone whom he assumed was Margaret but is actually a stranger from a nursing home, dumped there owing to a clerical error; it is not his fault that, while awaiting an operation in hospital, his pubic hair is shaved by someone he assumes is a doctor but who turns out, mid-shave, to be a dangerous escaped lunatic...
Richard Wilson became a star because of the role written for him, and because he perfectly captured the stupefied disbelief with which the Scotsman Meldrew confronted each and every surreal turn in his life. He was also blessed to be working with Annette Crosbie, who turned in a brilliant and underrated performance as Margaret, a Scotswoman whose expressions and eloquent silences could speak volumes. Rounding out the cast was Margaret's friend Mrs Warboys, an irritating widow who has attached herself to the couple; and neighbours Nick Swainey, an annoyingly cheerful, slightly mad individual looking after his senile mother; and (neighbours on the other side) young couple Patrick and Pippa. The last-mentioned becomes good friends with Margaret but Patrick, always catching Victor in the most preposterous situations, believes him to be certifiably insane and malicious. Patrick and Pippa eventually move away but the Meldrew curse casts a long shadow from which they never fully escape.
One Foot In The Grave attracted only moderate ratings to begin with, and critics were lukewarm (or worse) to its appeal. Perhaps it was the very premise - the grumblings of an irascible malcontent - that failed, yet, to make its mark. But as the show developed it began to attract increasing numbers of fans, and word-of-mouth testimony lured new viewers into watching repeated episodes. However they arrived at it, all who saw One Foot In The Grave were in for a treat. David Renwick's extraordinary scripts combined intricate plots with wonderfully colourful dialogue and black humour. Renwick said he had been inspired to create Meldrew after watching an embittered character whom Walter Matthau had portrayed in a Neil Simon film (presumably, Willy Clark in Herbert Ross's 1975 movie The Sunshine Boys) but it was the extreme, almost surreal nature of the piece as much as the characterisations that made the show so successful. Renwick was never afraid to take chances with his ideas, setting almost entire episodes in a bed or a traffic jam. The jaunty theme song - written and performed by Eric Idle - indicated too that there was more to this show than first met the eye. Meldrew was a tragi-comic character, who thought himself a sane man living in a mad modern world. His relationship with his wife seemed framed more by habit than by love or affection, yet their past held a bonding secret: they had lost a child and remained somehow unfulfilled.
By the third series, One Foot In The Grave was making the Top 20 ratings, with some episodes seen by more than 16 million viewers. Meldrew - and Wilson - had finally earned a place in the UK sitcom hall of fame. The episodes maintained a mad momentum, with seasonal specials faring particularly well: the Christmas 1993 edition topped 20 million viewers and the 1996 Boxing Day special was only pipped in the ratings by the record-breaking final series of Only Fools And Horses The 1997 special introduced the Meldrews' new neighbours Derek and Betty McVitie, who moved into the house vacated by Patrick and Pippa. Then, after a gap of three years, the show returned for one more series, accompanied by a press statement announcing that this run would end with Victor's death. These last episodes encompassed many of the show's strengths; in the last, Victor was the victim of a hit-and-run accident, the car driver (played by Hannah Gordon) later befriending Margaret - without, of course, revealing her guilty secret. It was a characteristically dark end to a show which was never afraid to explore the flip side of the comedy coin.
Notes. The final episode, screened by BBC1 on 20 November 2000, was immediately preceded by I Don't Believe It! The One Foot In The Grave Story, which looked back at hit sitcom. But there was still one more chapter to come - the BBC1 Comic Relief broadcast of 16 March 2001 featured a final glimpse of the Meldrews, as Margaret sat at the hospital bedside of an aged relative and Victor ranted on as normal, unaware (a la the supernatural film chiller The Sixth Sense) that he was a ghost whom she could neither see nor hear.
A US adaptation of One Foot In The Grave, retitled Cosby, was produced by Carsey-Werner and ran from 16 September 1996 to 28 April 2000. As the title indicates, it starred Bill Cosby (as Hilton Lucas) and Phylicia Rashad (as his wife Ruth - she had been his wife in The Cosby Show too). Although on air for four seasons, 96 episodes, it failed to tear up any trees; terrestrial British broadcasters steered clear of it, although it was shown on the cable/satellite Paramount Comedy Channel.
On 20 September 2002 BBC1 screened The RealVictor Meldrews, a spurious tie-in that combined clips and interviews with real-life grumps. Four One Foot In The Grave TV scripts were adapted for radio by David Renwick and re-recorded by the cast - the programmes aired on BBC Radio 2 from 21 January to 11 February 1995.
In the BBC1 Scotland special Richard Wilson: A Life Beyond The Grave the actor made a sentimental return to his Greenock roots and looked back over his career. Though not shown across the network it was screened north o' the border on New Year's Eve 1992.
Researched and written by Mark Lewisohn.
Number of episodes: 44
Length: 34 x 30 mins · 3 x 60 mins · 1 x 90 mins · 1 x 70 mins · 1 x 50 mins · 1 x 45 mins · 1 x 40 mins · 2 x short specials