From Fleabag to Flowers: The Resurrection of ‘Gallows Humour’
In the wake of being cruelly dumped at the bus stop by Fleabag, audiences everywhere are evidently in desperate need of more dark comedy to fill the empty, aching, Fleabag-shaped void. No one can deny that UK television has had a significant shift in tone, it seems we no longer want to watch something which is just funny, or just tragic. Instead, the current surge in popularity for the ‘hilarious-come-heart-breaking’ suggests our conception of comedy itself is changing. Though Fleabag is the word on everyone’s lips, I wanted to draw attention to an equally ingenious British show that is born out of the same ‘gallows humour’ school of comedy. So, instead of crying into your duvet and re-watching Fleabag for the sixth time, close BBC iPlayer and give Flowers a watch.
Channel 4’s Flowers, written and directed by the infinitely brilliant Will Sharpe, has been dubbed as “a comedy with mental illness”. Although the show turns three this week and consists of only 2 series, of which there are unlikely to be any more, the genius of Flowers comes from seeing it in its entirety. Where Fleabag worked the tone of televised fringe theatre, Flowers functions cinematically, each series with its own individual colour palette and tone, both intricate halves to a glorious whole.
In the first episode, the audience is met by Maurice Flowers (Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh) trying, and failing, to hang himself from a tree in the back garden of the Flowers’ tumbledown family home. He gets as far as a noose round the neck before the branch above inevitably snaps, leaving Maurice winded on the grassy floor below, mumbling “fuck’s sake”. This is ‘gallows humour’ at its least metaphorical and to say the first scene sets the tone of the series is an understatement. Unflinching and grotesque, Flowers often treads this boggy boundary between darkness and comedy. The self-loathing is pungent, but so is the absurd humour, which often breeds an odd mix of discomfort and exhilaration when watching the gloriously dark dialogue unfold.
The titular Flowers are a brilliant but sad, strange but hopeful family living together in a cottage in the rural English woods. At times, both series feel like the characters are trapped in some modern-day Grimm’s fairy-tale, but reality often bleeds through in snatched scenes of life from the outside world: explosively awkward dinners, avant-garde church concerts and a petrol station mutiny.
Maurice is a depressed children’s author and his wife Deborah, played by Olivia Colman (yes, I know), is always somewhere between hysterical optimism and aching pessimism which Coleman manages to play off as equally funny and heart-breaking. The couple live with their maladjusted 25-year-old twin children: Amy (Sophia Di Martino), whose presumed bi-polar disorder is at the spiralling heart of the second series, and Donald (Daniel Rigby), an inventor-come-plumber, whose one-liners are the most traditionally comic amongst the family. And then there is Shun, Maurice’s Japanese illustrator, who, played by Sharpe himself, is perhaps the most endearing member of the family. The series does not ever allow its energy to plateau. Instead, it constantly vacillates between multiple personalities; sitcom funny one minute, Gothic fairy-tale the next, and hallucinatory Art House to sorrowful drama. When it is funny, it is hysterical. When it is sad, it is piercingly so.
The show’s treatment of mental health is like no other, which is what makes it truly important. Sharpe has often said that his type-two bipolar is something he is “happy to talk about” and it shows. In series two, Amy’s artistic leanings begin to swell over into something far more frenetic and shapeshifting than Maurice’s depression of the first series. The chaos of the colourful visuals and haunting soundscapes makes Amy’s experience of bipolar feel immersive, even overwhelming. Sharpe is obviously aware of the responsibility to “get it right” when portraying something as sensitive as mental illness, but that does not mean he sugar coats it. Instead, the unflinching realism within the semi-fantastical world of Flowers means that, for the first time on television, mental health is given the space to truly express itself with all the humour, frustration, sadness, and anger that comes with it. Sharpe’s script gives all the characters a space for acute tenderness, no matter how shocking or uncomfortable their behaviour may seem at points. Each character is desperately trying to do their best, for themselves and their families, but often with very little success. The desperation and frustration of living with someone who has serious mental health issues is portrayed frankly, painfully, and sensitively by Coleman, whilst the infuriating narcissism of Rigby’s terrified man-child, Donald, also conveys a truth about the ugly face of panic and worry.
Comedy and darkness, happiness and sadness need not be mutually exclusive, if anything the juxtaposition opens a space for a new way of dealing with the shit bits of life. Barratt sees “gallows humour” as a way of uniting people in a “isn’t life shit” kind of way, and, through the strange and startling lens of Flowers, there is a funny truth in that.