Thursday, 22 April 2010

Waiting for Bottom

“Oh come on, Eddie. There must be more to life than jugs…”-Richie

In their musings on drama the Greeks decided that the life was ultimately a curious blend of tragedy and comedy - hence those twin masks, one grinning, one in tears, which are the universal symbol of theatre. And nowhere is this idea better explored, understood and trumped than in Bottom, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson’s existentialist-slapstick comedy which ran for three series on the BBC in the early ’90s, and carried on life as a series of stage shows for the rest of the decade.

Apparently Bottom was conceived by Rik and Ade while the pair were co-starring in a West End production of Waiting for Godot and the stamp of Beckett’s work looms large in the series. The pair, long-time comedy sparring partners, distilled their double-act in Filthy Rich and Catflap, an overlooked Ben Elton/Rik Mayall satire of showbiz life which succeeded The Young Ones in the mid ’80s. In the series Mayall played Richie Rich, a temperamental, narcissistic, self-pitying, sex-obsessed artiste while Edmondson played Eddie Catflap, a phlegmatic alcoholic. They’re basically Rik and Vyvian all grown up and the embryonic forms of the people who would take centre-stage in Bottom.

Waiting for Godot centres around two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, a pair of itinerant fools who spend both of the play’s acts sat by a roadside waiting for someone named Godot to appear, all the while discussing nonsense and triviality. It is obviously a symbolic work and one interpretation of the play is as a satire on the pointlessness of life, an idea which remained central to Beckett‘s work. Bottom is very similar in set-up: it is staged largely within the confines of the living room of a grubby Hammersmith flat and peopled almost uniquely by Richard Richard (Mayall) and Eddie Hitler (Edmondson).

The two are life’s losers writ large: middle-aged, single, largely unemployable, moronic and pig-ignorant. They’re like an all-male Wayne and Waynetta Slob, only deprived of even the most festering sort of romance. And like Wayne and Waynetta, the relationship between the two characters is that of a co-dependent but loveless marriage. Eddie is the drunkard husband with one foot in reality: he occasionally brings home money from some job or scheme, or else counterfeits it himself. He’s constantly pissed, supports QPR and occasionally gets out of the flat to hang around with his misfit friends, Spudgun and Dave Hedgehog, who refer to Richie as Eddie’s ‘wife’. It’s a role Richie fulfils well. He’s long-haired, does all the cooking and ‘cleaning’ around the flat and, from time to time, has to put Eddie to bed when the latter’s had a few too many. Through it all they profess to hate each other, but Richie owns the flat they share and allows Eddie lives there rent-free. It’s a marriage of convenience but, when push comes to shove, they’re all each other have.

As a set up, it’s almost a throwback to Hancock and Sid James living together on the breadline in East Cheam, but where Bottom differs from Galton and Simpson’s series is in its subtext: Hancock was very much a character study, while Bottom is more universal in scope.

There are moments of genuine poignancy in Bottom which escape obvious notice on first viewing. A recurring joke in the series is for Richie to reproach Eddie with a variation of the quote which heads this essay, and for the pair to stare contemplatively for a moment or two before affirming that there isn’t. Telly, booze, jugs, that’s all there is in life when it’s boiled down to its core. Even when the characters’ lives are saved by the hand of God at the end of one episode, they damn themselves by declaring their atheism and fall to their deaths. And indeed, death means nothing in Bottom. The characters ‘die’ at the end of each series (and occasionally at the conclusion of individual episodes) only to return, safe, well and no wiser at the beginning of the next. There’s no escape. This isn’t just a show about knob-gags and knockabout physical comedy, it looks at life deeply. And darkly.

If there’s one word which best sums up Bottom it’s ‘squalid’. The characters are all dirty old men, figuratively and literally, and the sets are a study in grime. Dirt streaks the walls of every set in the series and decay runs riot. Even Dick the Barman’s phone has its roto-dial caved in and boasts a shameful layer of grease. The show’s humour is similarly filthy, with most of the jokes concerning the toilet or a Fat Slags vision of sex. Of course there’s cerebral stuff in there too, and the humour arising from the characters’ relationship is first-rate but, well, the programme’s called Bottom. That one words sums it all up.

Eddie sums up the hopelessness faced by the characters, and by extension the rest of us, in a reproach he gives to Richie at the end of series three: “Look, you get born, you keep your head down, then you die. If you’re lucky.” Their lives are testament to this fatalism: they’re both too old and completely unsuitable for work or marriage, their day-to-day life is a pointless repetitive existence in which the only thrills are occasionally getting drunk and wanking. Their plight is hopeless; they’ll never achieve anything, they’ll never progress as human beings and are doomed to live this way until they die. If there is a message in Bottom it is this: life is meaningless, but that doesn’t mean you can’t laugh at it.

Each episode of Bottom sees the pair failing to engage with activities which most people see as life’s pleasures: when they go out and try to get laid they end up embarrassing themselves in front of a pubful of locals as Eddie, pissed as a newt, tries it on with Richie. In another episode they go camping but end up doing so on a field bearing the notice ‘Dog Toilet’ on Wimbledon Common. And then go condom fishing. When they try to play chess they completely fail to understand the game and beat each other senseless, and so it goes ever on. But in debasing each and every ‘positive’ thing about life, Rik and Ade are slyly affirming Beckett’s beliefs about life’s meaningless: even the joyous things are purposeless and crap. It’s a bleak vision until one looks at it all through the lens of the absurd.

Richie and Eddie are utterly human and depressingly normal men but are not bound by the same laws as the rest of us. When they wallop each other senseless and set each other on fire, or even blow themselves up, they’re never actually hurt. They’re like cartoon characters. And like cartoon characters, other concerns of the real world are meaningless to them. Bottom is more of a vehicle for looking at events of life in absurd, good-humoured isolation. We sit there laughing at these two arse-heads pitching camp on a dog toilet, but then remember when we ourselves accidentally pitched a tent on a cow-pat. Bottom is a sitcom and thus an exaggeration of reality, but the kernels of truth present in it are deeply, deeply resonant.

Even if you’re not naturally depressive, you have to concede that the chaps have a point in their nihilistic take on existence. The existentialist thinkers of the 20th century, who were paid to gaze at their navels and contemplate life, concluded that life was ‘absurd’ and that man is a ‘meaningless passion’. A lot of them ended up as Catholics in a search for real, genuine, meaning in life. Not to disparage catholic, or indeed any other spiritual beliefs, but the conclusion we can take away from their work is that meaning in life is, at best, elusive and at worst nonexistent. But the thing seized on by Bottom is this idea of the absurdity in life which Camus popularised. Indeed, the very slant of Bottom’s writing is to expose and burlesque all that is absurd about being human and being alive. Deep down, we’re the same as Eddie and Richie -grasping for gratification, be it sexual or otherwise, and comfort, and their plight is an exaggeration of our own.

Yes Minister is one of my favourite comedy programmes for almost the exact opposite reasons that I enjoy Bottom: it’s cerebral, concerned with gravest matters of human life and somewhat aspirational. To draw a crude analogy: it is the Freudian superego to Bottom’s id. Bottom, in its lowly setting and brutish characters explores life at a much deeper level than most other TV series’. Again it was Freud who suggested that humour and our deeper subconscious are closely linked, and in Bottom this is entirely borne out. We laugh at a show like Yes Minister for its mastery of language, that very human trait. We laugh at Bottom for its burlesquing of our more primal nature.

Bottom then entirely encapsulates the two elements the Greeks saw as fundamental to life: it is tragic in its premise and characters, yet comic for those same reasons. It is a shame that Bottom is thought of by most people as mere crudity. Like Viz comic, there’s much more to Bottom than meets to eye. Indeed, once you peer deeply into Bottom, you’ll be surprised at how much there is to see.

Click here to watch Bottom on Seesaw.

No comments: