Dark Comedy

REVIEW: The Opening 1:16 Minutes of Julian Barratt in Will Sharpe’s ‘Flowers’ (2016-18)

Terry Eagleton said that a novel or a poem “seems to spring out of a kind of silence, since it inaugurates a fictional world that did not exist before” (2015, p.8). The opening of a sitcom can be analysed in much the same way – it too forms a break in reality and opens of sort of worm hole into another dimension that is real only to itself. We as the viewer journey through it from the relative safety of our sofas, over the event horizon of the title credits, and then we float around in the creator’s creation with weightless effort – comedies are like little big bangs of boffolas and we are the infinite space dust that gravitates around the clumps of humour.

Our focus for this issue of Capers Magazine is on mental health and comedy in line with Mental Health Awareness Month and what comedy show is more pertinent to that combination of topics than Will Sharpe’s dark and emotive Flowers? So let explore the opening minute and a bit of a comedy which everyone must watch to the very end…

We are dragged into Flowers’ universe with what appears to be a surrealist interpretation of a torchlight hurtling across a forest floor at the speed of sound: a round light casting at full tilt across indistinguishable foliage-like patterns of green and beige. Five or six seconds of that and we cut sharply to the face of Maurice, played by Julian Barratt. Maurice has been abruptly woken from a nightmare. As the camera cuts away to a longer shot of Maurice, we see that he has fallen asleep and awoken at his desk in a good-sized office with an entire wall of books. The room is very dark, but perhaps 04:00 or 04:30 dark just before sun-up. Alongside the visual aspects of the opening, instead of atmospheric music, Maurice narrates a poem which opens with the lines:

From a weird reverie of dark revelation / Mr. Grubbs woke up with a strange sensation…

From there we follow Maurice out of the house into the wet, muddy garden. He grabs and old rope from behind the back door as he passes and makes his way outside to an old tree. Dotted through his miniature slog up the garden we are given some lovely close-ups on a slug and worm as they do their thing in the wet grass. Maurice then climbs up an old wooden ladder and ties the old rope around a thick, sturdy looking branch. Then, back on the ground, he steps up onto a creaking wooden chair, placing a noose over his exhausted and bedraggled looking head. He kicks away the chair and attempts to hang himself.

One would not expect the great Julian Barratt to only appear in the opening 1:16 minutes of comedy program so, unless the entirety of the subsequent two seasons is set in flashback, we can be safe in the knowledge that he escapes his suicide attempt. And that he does: the old branch breaks under his weight and the suicide attempt is a failure – he falls to the ground with a defeatist “fuck’s sake”. And that, by the way, is our first joke: the failed suicide attempt. Although the tone of the failure may be very dark, it is a failure nonetheless – therefore it may be placed in the category of skateboarders failing to hit the grind and landing their nuts on the railings, and other such You’ve Been Framed fodder.

And that’s about it – so what the frig does it all mean?

What we know about Maurice from this small amount of time with him is that he is mid-aged (45-50 I’d say) or at least his life has made him look that way; he works at a desk in his house so he must be a writer or his work involves writing and has the luxury of working from home (pre-covid); judging by his wall-sized book shelf he is very well-read; and he lives in what appears to be a beautiful home with a serious back garden that resembles ‘land’ opposed to the allocated, fenced-in patch one might expect to find on a council estate… oh, and he’s suicidal.

Further to what is being put in front of us directly are some symbolic suggestions of Maurice’s person: the six seconds of speeding torchlight dream at the very beginning is suggestive of someone dreaming about escaping – added to the visible attempted suicide, it is pretty safe to say that Maurice wants to escape the life he lives, and quickly. The opening line of the poem – “from a weird reverie of dark revelation” – bolsters the notion that his suicidal tendencies may be revealing themselves to him as we watch. As we walk up the garden with him and get the close-ups on the slug and the worm, they are telling us that Maurice belongs in the category of invertebrates by association – further added to the visible suicide attempt, we can say that Maurice has most likely given up on life and has stopped fighting; he has become spineless in the most troubling sense.

When Maurice wakes from his dream, and we find him at his desk; on the desk directly in front of him is a globe (pretty normal for a desk adornment). What is strange about the globe is its size; the globe is disproportionately big to the space on offer on the desk. Thus the globe is essentially a representation of the reality of circumstance that’s screaming at him – “the world is in front of you and you are free to head out into it!” But alas he is trapped and cannot see the wood for the trees so to speak – that’s depression for you, I guess.

The symbolic representations continue with all of the natural materials at hand to unsuccessfully aid Maurice’s suicide bid: the old rope he tries to hang himself with, the old tree he tries to hang himself from, the wooden ladder he climbs to tie the rope, and the old wooden chair he kicks away to complete the job… everything surrounding Maurice is worn out and rendered useless by time. As the program progresses, we find out that this is representative of his family, his marriage, and his working attitude. His marriage is worn down and splintered; his two children – who came into the world like all children, beset with such hope and joy – have grown into irregular and disorderly people with distorted personalities; and his career, once flourishing to the point of being able to afford such a beautiful country home, is now withering away with his mind.

Like untreated wood, all natural, once-beautiful things are no match for the elements, or the effects of time. If one only realises that once it’s too late, hope to fix it is all but futile. Everyone laughed when Trigger said “this old broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time” – but oh look, he still has a beautiful, functioning broom.

The final stanza of the poem ends the sequence, and sets up the following two seasons of Flowers from Maurice’s perspective:
But then in the sludge just a few feet away / Mr. Grubb saw a plant that was quite out of place… / A single buttercup in a pile of faeces: / Mr. Grubb tore it up into a thousand pieces.

We can quite confidently say that the faeces is representative of what Maurice’s life has become; the buttercup is the hope that all of us have in any situation; and Mr. Grubb’s tearing up of the buttercup is the depression that causes one’s blindness to hope and embrace of the darkness of depression.

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