10+ Years Later: Exhumating the Genius of BBC's HUMAN REMAINS

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
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10+ Years Later: Exhumating the Genius of BBC's HUMAN REMAINS

The United Kingdom is a breeding ground for eccentric comics, boasting a revered institution and experimental comedy lab in the BBC. Over the years, the BBC brought into the daylight impressive and frequently underrated gems like 15 Storeys High, Blackadder, Coupling, Fawlty Towers, Gavin & Stacey, I´m Alan Partridge, The League of Gentlemen, with the list unrolling from there.

The alchemy between the talent and such an institution as the Beeb produced a rich and utterly original medley of spear-heading comedy, marking the UK as the motherland to masterpieces of awkward and cringe comedy while never ceasing to expand, even transgressing into uncharted recesses. Weird, surreal, grim, idiosyncratic were all strong calling cards.

Among the original albeit underrated crop is a series of six stand-alone episodes in Human Remains. Airing on BBC Two in 2000, and produced by Baby Cow Productions with the company´s founders Henry Normal and Steve Coogan serving as executive producers, Human Remains is mostly the child of writing-performing duo Julia Davis and Rob Brydon who, along with Coogan and Normal, are deservedly feted as British comedy royalty.

Even though the initial set-up does not sound so alluring and ground-breaking (a pair of comics shifting wigs and costumes to bring to life an array of possibly outrageous characters) the show has a solid pedigree in British sketch/stand-up comedy. What distinguishes Davis/Brydon´s effort from, for example Walliams/Lucas´ Little Britain, is the degree of explicitness, ridiculousness, low-brow and even sophisticated (albeit grim) approach to the material.

Instead of projecting the most energy into the performances, Davis and Brydon paid equal attention to the writing. The first episode has a female character suffering from acute vaginismus “making penile accommodation absolutely impossible” while having a former lover buried in a small private pet cemetery in the backyard.

The topic of Human Remains wields (at least) two planes. The first one, instead of reckless pilfering of national stereotypes, sees Davis and Brydon zooming in on marital and partnership dysfunctions in a rich and exotic range of psychological states, acts and feelings such as self-delusion, anxiety, fanaticism, denial, humiliation, obsessive-compulsive masturbation. They then let the magic of cringe comedy do the trick.

The second plane becomes almost academic, stating that the unbarred essence of humor residing in rawness, vileness and its taboo-breaking force bears the cathartic effect, despite being subversive to social mores and morality.

Furthermore, the comedians manage to achieve both planes through sophisticated rendition, nothing of outwardly explicit or sensationally outrageous nature. Even if the humor is of a grotesque breed (its anarchistic source rooted in the medieval ages), it is that rare kind of implicit grotesqueness that progressively returns with a shock, and not the kind inspired by slapstick comedy (as Little Britain is).

Human Remains, as the tittle gently suggests, springs from the darker recesses of comedy. It's situational humor does not always spark up from the collision of two partners despising each other but mostly from the evisceration of their dysfunctional relationship. A portrait of collective awkwardness makes for an exotic complement, certainly in the case of a middle-aged S&M-inclined husband and wife couple running a bed & breakfast joint while attempting to get their “playroom” to become the venue for the next swingers seminar while the wife's sister lies in a coma in the guest room.

It is interesting to note that Human Remains happened at the dawn of Davis and Brydon's careers. A place where both had plenty of room for creativity, both scripted and improvised.

While Davis has had the chance to play a plethora of different characters and types across her career, the one she became most recognizable for was the nagging and manipulative shrew she pushed over-the-top in the maniacal series Nighty Night, which she has done on several more occasions including last year´s Camping (created by Davis herself).

Brydon,  best known as the wingman to Steve Coogan in The Trip series, came to Human Remains, playing the pitiable and hard of understanding Peter, or the overly optimistic flower-seller Les living in deep denial regarding his suicidal manic-depressive wife whose only spark in the life is to anally torture him. Brydon eventually, certainly enlightened by the Human Remains experience, created and starred in yet another mockumentary series Marion & Geoff where he plays the only character.

17 years after it first aired, the series continues to unquestionably prove its innovative spirit. Human Remains used the mockumentary format in a comedy show before the form evolved into the norm, airing one year before Ricky Gervais introduced his fly-on-the-wall-style series The Office. As a spoof of marital cohabitation and its deeply flawed participant, Human Remains were conceived three years before the docu-reality-soap Wife Swap materialized on small screens bringing the parody into the world before the target of the lampooning came into existence in a sort of anticipatory and prophetic gesture.

Furthermore, Human Remains bears the staple of a different era in comedy and in history as well. The series and its humor is without a doubt uncompromising. Not Chris-Morris-kind uncompromising, but is nonetheless radical enough that the doors in the current age of squeaky clean PC would have been hermetically sealed for such kind of transgressive and even sick comedy (whatever underground remains would probably be very accommodating to its pitch-black no-holds-barred satire).

Finding and producing humor in death, depression, suicide and in addition, turning them all into a sort of avant-garde comedy series, Human Remains show two great talents on the verge of comic genius, which Davis and Brydon are certainly endowed with as their subsequent careers confirmed. 

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baby cow productionscringe comedyjulia davisrob brydonUK