British Situation Comedy

One Foot in the Grave, like so many of the Britain's most enduring and well-liked situation comedies, took three seasons to establish itself before suddenly becoming the most popular programme on television, with 18 million viewers. Five series of the program, and two Christmas specials, have been presented between 1990 and 1995.

The show was writer David Renwick's first situation comedy after having spent a number of years writing sketches for the likes of The Two Ronnies and Alexei Sayle. Renwick created the lead character, Victor Meldrew, with Scots actor Richard Wilson in mind, but Wilson initially turned down the role because he felt he was too young to play a sixty-year-old man. Luckily, he thought again and a new hero for the 1990s made his debut on 4 January 1990.

The first episode, "Alive and Buried", introduced Victor Meldrew just as he was about to be made redundant from his job as a security guard--replaced by a computer chip. From then on Victor's life is portrayed as a never ending battle against the rest of the world. Everything conspires against him, from his neighbours to shop assistants to God. The series showed that elderly people did not have one foot in the grave, but wanted to lead lives which were the same as anybody else's. However, Renwick very cleverly created situations which would anger anyone but which, bizarrely, could only happen to Victor Meldrew. In "Valley of Sleep," for example, Victor finds himself in hospital with suspected appendicitis. It is only when the male nurse who is shaving him begins discussing the price of property on the moon that we, along with Victor, gradually become aware that the nurse is, in fact, a mental patient. In "The Worst Horror of All" Victor is convinced that the skip he has hired will, in the morning, have an old mattress dumped in it. When he wakes, his familiar cry of "I don't believe it" reveals that someone has in fact dumped a Citroen 2CV. Renwick skillfully returns to his original joke, however, for when Victor opens the car door, out falls the mattress which he had so feared he would find.

The program's other constant character is Victor's long-suffering wife Margaret, played by the often underrated Annette Crosbie. She has to bear the brunt of most of Victor's tetchiness and although he sometimes drives her to distraction, we are never left in any doubt that she loves him dearly. It is to Renwick's credit that he has occasionally been able to insert some moments of great pathos in which we learn a little more about Margaret and come to understand why she and Victor may be unable to live without each other. Although they are childless, we do learn in "Timeless Time" that they had a son who died as a baby, but we never learn how.

The series has not been without controversy. Some viewers objected when Margaret found a dead cat nestling amongst the fishfingers in her freezer, and others when an old lady got trapped overnight in their loft. The programme was censured, however, for content in the "Hearts of Darkness" episode. In one scene, set in an old peoples' home, a resident was abused and kicked, actions that offended a number of elderly viewers. The scene was cut slightly when the episode was repeated.

In addition to his two wonderful main characters, Renwick also created an idiosyncratic supporting cast. Margaret's friend Mrs. Warbouys (Doreen Mantle) to whom Victor can barely be civil; Nick Swainey, the social worker who lives next door and constantly refers to his (unseen) bedridden mother; Patrick and Pippa, next door neighbours whose lives are made a misery from the moment they first meet the Meldrews.

Renwick has constantly tried to extend the boundaries of situation comedy, not only with the situations his characters have to face, but also within the confines of the 30-minute programme. In "Timeless Time" the whole episode is devoted to a sleepless night, in which Victor and Margaret toss and turn, still agonising over life, and during which no other characters are involved and we never leave the bedroom. The first ten minutes of "Heart of Darkness" contain virtually no dialogue, the only sound a musical accompaniment. "The Beast in the Cage" sees the Meldrews stuck in a traffic jam for the whole episode. This daring culminated in "Trial", when Victor was given an entire episode to himself as he waited at home to be called for jury service. As many newspapers pointed out, this was the first time any actor had been given this comedy accolade since the great Tony Hancock.

Above all, One Foot In The Grave has given us, in Victor Meldrew, a comic hero for the 1990s who is just as much of his time as are the likes of Harold and Albert Steptoe and Basil Fawlty.

-Pam Logan


One Foot in the Grave
Photo courtesy of BBC


Victor Meldrew....................................... Richard Wilson Margaret Meldrew ..................................Annette Crosbie Mrs. Warbouys....................................... Doreen Mantle Patrick .................................................Angus Deayton Pippa...................................................... Janine Duvitki

PRODUCER Susan Belbin


4 January 1990-


Bedell, Geraldine. "What's Gone Wrong?" The Independent (London), 28 February 1993.

"Funny but Serious." Sunday Telegraph (London), 24 December 1995.

Rampton, James. "Interview: Can You Believe It?" The Independent (London), 27 April 1996.


See also British Programming