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Every now and then, the media will run a story about the 'death of British sitcom', comparing the classics of yesteryear to the dross we put up with now. The dross in question are those shows that find their way to primetime BBC1 ( My Family and Mad About Alice being recent examples), but if the journalists had a closer look at the 'lesser' channels, they'd see a wealth of innovation and laughs. While BBC2 has given us The Office and The League of Gentlemen, viewers of Channel 4 have been similarly enthused by Spaced and Pheonix Nights.

Black Books: Series 3
Black Books may not be quite as well known as those shows, but it has built a loyal band of followers due to strong characters and crazy storylines. It follows the adventures of Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), the dour owner of a second-hand bookshop. Bernard is something of a social misfit with a slight loathing of the general public. Fortunately, his employee Manny (Bill Bailey) and neighbouring shopkeeper Fran (Tamzin Greg) are on hand to make sure he doesn't frighten away too many customers.

The Series
Series Three of Black Books consists of six episodes:

Manny Come Home
Fran returns from a short holiday to discover that Manny has left Bernard to work at Goliath books, where manager Evan adopts a very different working regime…

Elephants and Hens
Manny and Bernard try to write a children’s book…with disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, Fran goes on a hen-night…with disastrous consequences.

Moo-Ma, Moo-Pa
Manny’s parents come to stay and Bernard and Fran are roped into entertaining them. Unfortunately, Manny hasn’t been entirely truthful with Mum and Dad, and a bit of roleplay is also required.

A Little Flutter
Bernard gets the gambling bug and uses the shop as collateral for a poker game he has no chance of winning.

Black Books: Series 3
Travel Writer
Fran and Manny fall for the charms of a dashing travel writer.

Party
Bernard, Fran and Manny have a drunken evening at a party, followed by a drunken night at the shop. Inhibitions are lowered, and secrets are revealed.

Cult comedy is an incestuous thing, as is revealed when Simon Pegg from Spaced and Lucy Davis from The Office pop up in supporting roles. Of course, they co-starred with actor and writer Dylan Moran in Shaun of the Dead, and I could go to great pains to list all the cast connections in that fabulous film. But, you know what? I doubt you'd be interested.

No, you want to know if Black Books is worthy of your time and attention. Well, it is—up to a point. And that point is episode five, where the series takes a turn for the worse. Don't get me wrong; episodes one to four are great, with some inspired humour and fantastic performances. Unfortunately, entries five and six are rather tired affairs. Travel Writer adheres to just about every sitcom cliché, while Party, the series finale, lacks any semblance of a plot and bows out with little more than a whimper. If Black Books is to end here, then it is a poor curtain-call.

Criticism aside, the originality of the series shines throughout. Here is a show that wants nothing to do with mainstream comedy; the central trio of Bernard, Manny and Fran are so flawed that they're a welcome antidote to the characters chewing the scenery in most sitcoms.

The interplay between the three is where most of the humour originates and the cast cope admirably; particularly Bill Bailey as the faintly strange Manny. Also of note, are the moments where the series turns to cartoonish surrealism; familiar to viewers of Spaced and used to good effect. Fans of visual comedy are also in for a treat, with some beautifully orchestrated moments—particularly in A Little Flutter.

While series three of Black Books doesn't represent the best of the sitcom, it has enough hilarious moments to warrant a rent at the very least.

Black Books: Series 3
Video
Set predominately in a dingy bookshop, Black Books is not the greatest celebration of bright colours. However, it handles the dull browns and shadowy interiors with a minimum of fuss and the definition is solid. Grain is apparent only in those rare moments where filming leaves the studio. The world outside the bookshop is supposed to have an almost unreal quality; appearing bland and lifeless. This idea is well-represented with the picture quality.

Audio
The audio on this disc performs all that is asked of it—without ever being outstanding. As is the norm for comedy discs, we have a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that adequately balances dialogue and sound effects. The laughter from the audience can sound slightly overbearing through the two speakers, but it seems common nowadays to have an over-emphasised laughter track.

Extras
The Deleted Scenes mainly constitute short exchanges of dialogue that were sliced out of the episodes. There are less of them as the series progresses; with episode one having at least ten minutes removed and episode six missing just one or two moments.

The Outtakes are a funny bunch, thanks mainly to the camaraderie shared with the main stars. There are quite a lot of them, so they should stand up to repeated viewings.

Bernard’s Letter is a scene featuring Dylan Moran as Bernard, composing a letter to a publisher who has rejected his latest novel. It’s not particularly funny and is also pretty short. Its inclusion is, perhaps, a little pointless.

The same could be said of the Trailers. There are three in total, and theey’re used to advertise the first half of the series (clips from Episodes four, five and six not present).

Finally, there’s the Photo Gallery; an oddity in that it’s mainly made up of film-stills and photographs of the shooting, as opposed to the usual variety of publicity shots. Lacking re-watch value, but that’s no big surprise.

Black Books: Series 3
Overall
Black Books never quite hits its stride mainly because the quality seems to vary from episode to episode. When it's good, it's very, very good, but when it's bad, it's forgettable. The extras fail to beef up this DVD into something that will appeal to casual viewers—and the absence of commentaries (present on the earlier discs) is a huge oversight.


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