Bottom manages to pull off a good trick, and in doing so it makes itself a much better sitcom for it.
On the one hand, Bottom is a cartoon. A big, garish, violent, over the top cartoon. On its own, that would work, but it’s also small, intimate, featuring tiny people with tiny minds. Where a cartoon is brash and vibrant, Bottom is absolutely grotty. It’s one of the last sitcoms to have grimy walls, beaten up furniture, and a squalor that has seemingly vanished from our screens.
And one of the best examples of this dichotomy of styles is Gas.
Gas starts small, and erupts into cartoon violence. It highlights the skills of its writers and stars, and is easily one of the best episodes of a sitcom I personally have ever enjoyed.
From the opening card game, to the arrival of the gas man, we see the smallness of the show. Here’s two trapped idiots, wiling away their lives in a shitty flat, betting chores because they have nothing else to gamble. It’s easy to see the Beckett influence on Rik & Ade, but there’s loads of Hancock here too, and plenty of Steptoe and Son as well.
No matter how many times I’ve seen this episode, it’s hard to watch it without being swept along by it all, but I tried my best, just to try and see some new things.
From the beginning then …
Look at this. How’s that for an establishing shot. Look at the grime on that fire, the laziness of the discarded matches and bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. This is a set that looks lived in, but it’s also exactly where Richie and Eddie would live.
And this oven.
It’s not just the dirt on it, it’s those missing knobs too. I know I spend a lot of time looking at sets and backgrounds, but they do a lot of character work and are often under appreciated. Take this table …
It would be easy enough to get any old table and chuck a grubby cloth over it, but Bob Warans went and found just the right one. Beat up, run down, knackered. And just the tat in the background. A pot of Ajax so old and dirty it’s been there, unused, for years. The underpants.
Anyway. The gas man arrives.
My goodness but this sequence is fantastic. Rik and Ade’s performances are amazing, as is Mark Lambert’s. The still camera as Eddie creeps away and creeps back is beautifully executed by Ed Bye.
And the logic of having no gas is a masterclass in spinning out a comedy idea. The conclusion of drinking cold tea is a great pay off, and using real leaves in it just sells the grossness even more.
There’s more going on here too. I’ve always wondered if the Bottom flat set was built on a raised stage. It must be in order to accomodate the stairwell, and the exteriors – I could be wrong – but it also means its easier to get these more unusual (for studio sitcom) lower angles.
It gives the frame more verticality, which makes for some great visuals in the fights for example.
I also never noticed or appreciated the snow on the windowsill before.
Or course it’s winter.
Aside: what’s the painting please? I’m sure someone on Twitter uses/used it as an avatar.
I know Eddie isn’t Vyvyan …
… but I love that he shares his progenitor’s inability to tell the time properly.
I sat down to watch this episode thinking that once the story leaves the flat, it loses something, but I think I’m wrong. The arrival of Brian Glover and Gabi Valenti really ups the ante, and turns the denouement into a nice little farce (Bottom style).
And look at this.
That’s a heck of a piece of set design. I honestly can’t tell if it’s a set extension, or if they built all of that. It’s just wonderful.
Let’s take a moment to revel in the choice of expletives.
This is where restriction helps creativity. Not being able to swear properly on the BBC gives the show an interestingly arcane language palette. It’s not bloody hell, or even blimey, it’s Bloody Nora.
They’re not shagging, or even doing it, they’re Having It Off.
Even in the 90s no one said that.
Anyway, my Grandad had a camera just like Eddie’s.
I used to be fascinated by those square, disposable flash bulbs.
Then we come to the bit that I thought might make me cringe – Richie perving over the sleeping couple.
It’s gross, but it’s notable that while Richie objectifies in this scene, the camera does not. We’re not supposed to be on Richie’s side in this moment. A lesser show would have given us Richie’s POV, and may not even have had any comeuppance.