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Comedy so close to the bone it hurts
Human Remains - Series 1 (DVD)
Member Name: ms_memory
Human Remains - Series 1 (DVD)
Date: 10/03/10, updated on 10/03/10 (71 review reads)
Advantages: Brilliantly observed, well-acted, original
Disadvantages: Not for the easily offended, almost painful to watch in parts
Human Remains is a BBC comedy series created in 2000 and is made up of 6 30-minute episodes. Each one features a different couple who talk directly to the camera, documentary-style, about their relationship - how they met, what their life together is like and what their hopes are for the future. They are also followed around by a camera crew as they go about their daily lives, and the way they interact with each other often says more about their relationship than their direct comments to camera. The couples vary greatly in their social status, background, place of birth and attitudes. They are all at different stages in their relationships. Some are happy to the point of smugness while others are on the verge of splitting up. However, the same themes come up again and again: love, attraction, power, infidelity, trust, companionship and illness.
Julia Davis (better known for Nighty Night) plays all the main female roles, while Rob Brydon plays all 6 men, with both actors managing to look and sound completely different in each episode. It is the sheer versatility and talent of these two astoundingly competent actors that make the series what it is. The script is very clever and packed with wry humour, but it is Davis and Brydon's performances that add the magic ingredient.
Their characters are all slightly weird but somehow totally believable. Their lives are mainly grim and this is the kind of comedy that often verges on tragedy. If you like to wince as much as you like to laugh then this is for you. The programme won several awards for both Brydon and Davis's performances and for the make-up and costume design.
** Episode One: An English Squeak **
The first couple we meet are the rather snooty Peter and Flick, who met at Cambridge University and decided to marry moments after Flick's boyfriend Geoffrey died in a freak punting accident. Flick has never got over Geoffrey and he is buried in the grounds of their mansion, near the pet cemetery (his parents "rather selfishly" had him buried in the Lake District originally but Flick had his body exhumed after a legal battle). In fact, Flick believes that a husband is in many ways like a pet, and she treats Peter accordingly. Poor Peter can do no right and fails to live up to Geoffrey in every way, particularly in the bedroom. That's not to say he doesn't find Flick attractive: "She bears more than a passing resemblance to Camilla Parker-Bowles.. Lucky old Peter!"
This is a terrifically strong opener. The characters are slightly over the top but believable at the same time, and most of the story is told not through the dialogue itself, but by reading between the lines.
** Episode Two: Slither In **
Straight-talking Brummies Gordon and Sheila Budge met in a shoe shop and had their first date in the Cosy Kettle Cafe, where Gordon treated Sheila to a cup of tea and a bun and then took her back to his caravanette. It soon became clear to the couple that they shared a penchant for things that "go outside the boundaries of what society would consider normal". They embraced these urges and several years on run the Budge Lodge guest house together, which boasts (paddling) pool views and a well-equipped torture chamber where they hold regular swinging parties. Sheila also does psychic readings in the dining room - they say you have to have a gift, but she's proof you can learn it from a book. The couple are generally very happy together, though not everyone shares their joy: this is evident in the daily jiffy bags of excrement landing on Budge Lodge's doormat, which they believe are being sent by Gordon's ex-wife. The only potential for conflict in
their otherwise blissful lives is Sheila's comatose sister Val, who is occupying a room that Gordon wants to knock through to extend the dungeon. Still, at least they can use Val's carer's allowance to pay for a slap-up meal once a month. After all, it's what she'd want.
This was both the funniest episode and the one that made me cringe the most. The script is chock-full of jokes and innuendo; the dingy, depressing guest house is spot on and the way that Gordon and Sheila are so matter-of-fact about their sexual antics reminded me of the B&B owner and swinger couple from "The League of Gentleman", while their smugness is reminiscent of Kath and Kel from "Kath and Kim". The scenes with the tarot readings were later modified for the character of Jill in "Nighty Night". Davis and Brydon look so convincing as a middle-aged couple that it's hard to believe Gordon and Sheila aren't real.
** Episode Three: All over my Glasses **
Stephen, a catering officer for a train company, met Michelle on the Doncaster run and she moved down to the Welsh Valleys to be with him. They're planning to get married, though there's some conflict over the dress, with Michelle wanting a Lady Diana-style gown (with a detachable train for the disco) and Stephen preferring something more akin to what Mariah Carey would wear ("like a tight, transparent tube"). Luckily they have no problems agreeing on the first dance - it will be to R Kelly's "Bump and Grind", assuming that Stephen can keep a lid on his temper long enough for the ceremony to go ahead.
Fantastically observed characters again, but the comedy in this episode is a little more physical and childish. The main source of laughs is due to the fact that Michelle is extremely stupid and Stephen hideous and cocky. Having said that, there are also moments that are so uncomfortable they made me wince, such as the look on the faces of the people waiting at a bus-stop as Stephen licks yoghurt off Michelle's face. This episode features Ruth Jones who went on to play Davis's sidekick in "Nighty Night".
** Episode Four: Straight as a Flute **
Gruff Australian Tony gave up on his first marriage after his wife carelessly got herself paralysed in a fall and proved to be a burden to him. He suffers heart problems but is proud of his resilience: "a dicky ticker didn't stop me leaving my family". When he met his second wife Beverly they were both satanists, but they later found God and are now rather self-satisfied pillars of the local community, leading home prayer groups and visiting their vicar every day with a curly sausage casserole. It's strange how the vicar's never in when they call. But then, he's such a busy man he has a live-in male friend to help him (although Tony and Beverly are certain he's "straight as a flute"). Luckily the couple have other things to occupy them as well: their next-door neighbours, who they're sure are up to no good, and Tony's salesman job at "Bathroomz".
My opinion: More subtle than the other episodes, this also has similarities with "Nighty Night" - there is the theme of the couple's obsession with their neighbours, and Beverly is an incompetent and rather nasty West Country hairdresser, just like the character of Jill Tyrell. The ending of this episode is so bleak that you wonder whether it can really be called comedy.
** Episode Five: Hairless **
American Barne (so-called because he was conceived in Barnestaple when his parents were backpacking through Europe) and his girlfriend Fonte make up the Fonte Bund Band. They are both very creative people, so have their artistic differences, but their conflicts have lately spilled over into their personal life too, and Barne feels threatened by Fonte's affair with an elderly female paraplegic. He finds solace in counselling sessions, song-writing, and self-pleasure, but Fonte is beginning to tire of him.
My opinion: This is Rob Brydon at his very best: Barne is a fantastic comic creation. Davis is also wonderful as a vain, stuck-up, glorified karaoke singer. There is so much material in this episode that a second one was made - it can be found in the extras section and features the Fonte Bund Band on tour. It is strange to see Davis looking glamorous here compared with her other very frumpy characters.
** Episode Six: More Than Happy **
Les and Ray lead a seemingly idyllic life in Brighton. They met when they both worked for the gas board but were laid off and so opened a flower shop which has gradually expanded to sell bras (though not for the larger bosom), dubious meat and fish sandwiches and body piercings. They spend many an afternoon soaking up the sun on the beach, with Ray knocking back her wine while Les sings his self-composed, music-hall-style songs. Yet below this cheerful surface there is a much darker side to their 8-year marriage. Since the twins were taken away from them they have had to move house: "the neighbours started throwing accusations, then stones, then bricks". Les also admits he sufferers from a serious sexual hang-up which seems to cause him considerable pain. At least they have a trip on the Super Sea Cat to look forward to.
My opinion: This is a masterful episode to round off the series. It is beautifully shot, with gorgeous seascapes and hypnotic shots of Brighton Pier at night. The stunning visual element contrasts greatly with the subject matter, however - this is the bleakest of the six episodes and the fact that we are left in the dark about what actually happened to the couple's children means that there is no relief to the nagging sensation of doom that pervades the episode. Davis's drawn, haggard, dead-eyed expression at the end is yet again proof of her prodigious acting talent. At the same time there are moments of humour, not least when the Les and Ray are doing the shop's accounts.
** Extras **
I'm not usually interested in DVD extras, but this is an exception. There are no cast interviews, but instead we are offered a glimpse of how the characters were created, from the rehearsal/improvisation stage to the make up and costume tests. The latter in particular is really interesting. Davis and Brydon are made to look like completely different people in each episode, and here we can see how it is done, from wigs to stick-on teeth to false eyes. The deleted scenes are great as they simply offer more high-quality material from the episodes, while there is a further entire episode dedicated to Barne and Fonte, which I thought was even better than the original episode from the series. It shows them live on stage, and proves that Davis and Brydon are also brilliant live performers. Interestingly, they perform with the folk musician John Martyn, who sings the series' haunting theme tune.
** Conclusion **
This is a sick but truly brilliant comedy. It combines masterful acting with a well-observed , watertight script that is so close to the bone in parts you feel guilty for laughing. It's not for the easily offended, and isn't exactly the kind of comedy you should watch to cheer yourself up (I couldn't watch more than two episodes at a time) but it is well worth watching.
The DVD is currently available on amazon.co.uk for £3.97
Summary: Great fun if you like to laugh and cringe at the same time
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