Judge Adam Arseneau still has no idea what "G.B.H" stands for.
It begins innocently enough…
Bitingly sardonic and darkly comedic, G.B.H. is the kind of British television I can get behind: a scathing send-up of Thatcher-era politics in Northern England that swings wildly between black comedy and drama.
Facts of the Case
Power hungry and ambitious, newly elected city councilor Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay, Horatio Hornblower) has finally achieved his dreams of power and dominance on the town that punished him so as a child. His past harbors deep and dangerous secrets, and his first acts in charge are to take revenge on those who wronged him so in the past—and to hide all evidence of his traumatic childhood.
Murray has big plans for his town, using his popularity in the Labour party to organize a citywide strike in protest of the Conservatives in Parliament with the help of some feisty and manipulative left-wing radicals with Marxist tendencies. Before long, the entire town is shut down, and Murray is elated—until he finds out about one small school for special needs children that the picketers forgot to blockade. The headmaster of the school, mild-mannered Jim Nelson (Michael Palin, Monty Python's Flying Circus) refuses to dismiss his children. They came to learn, and, by gum, he'll teach them—and when the press catches wind of the dissidence, Murray is incensed.
Having inadvertently sabotaged a deranged politician's moment of glory, Nelson suddenly finds himself embroiled in a power struggle of epic proportions, full of revenge, political manipulation, blackmail, and agent provocateurs that threaten to unravel the lives of both men and destroy them utterly.
Written by esteemed British dramatist Alan Bleasdale (Boys from the Blackstuff), G.B.H. is a svelte example of social realism in the finest British tradition, the kind that put Bleasdale on the map, but this tale of political and personal corruption is so twisted and dysfunctional that it dances into the realm of incredulous satire. Truth can be stranger than fiction, for outlandish as Michael Murray, power-crazed city counselor extraordinaire may seem on screen, rumor has it the character was inspired heavily by real-life Labour Party-turned-militant Marxist Derek Hatton. Even the show's setting, an unnamed northern city, bears a striking visual and thematic resemblance to Hatton's stomping grounds, Liverpool. It can be hard to tell satire from the drama and the comedy from the criticism in G.B.H.
Politics are the key issue at stake in G.B.H., as a corrupt and morally bankrupt city councilor draws the attentions of Parliament by staging a citywide strike. He gets into bed with a militant left-winged group which drives and manipulates him towards more extreme measures, but for Murray, it's all about revenge. A troubled man with skeletons in his childhood closet, Murray uses his raw charisma and passion to disguise a troubled and fragile psyche. For him, rising to the rank of city councilor is all about power, getting back at those who wronged him and belittled him. Out of nowhere comes a principled school teacher who ruins his perfect political day, setting off a chain of events that threatens to destroy both men, and a beautiful woman (Lindsay Duncan, Rome) with dangerous secrets and agendas of her own.
Both men are completely damaged and dysfunctional. Murray is obsessive at never having known his father to the point of madness, a walking oedipal textbook of insecurity, regret, and repression. Jim Nelson suffers crippling anxiety attacks and bouts of hypochondria, convinced of his impending sickness and death. Between the two of them, they haven't a sane bone in their body, and they face off in a game of psychic chicken. Though diametrically opposed in action and opinion, both are slaves to their own manias, damaging their family, personal, and professional relationships. Their struggle is intimidating, dangerous, exaggerated, and more than a little hilarious at times.
G.B.H. sits like a glorious and gleaming mousetrap, with its steel jaws razor sharp waiting to swallow hapless Michael whole. He deserves it, because he's a right wanker, but it is a testimony to the writing that his bad characterization can often seem oddly sympathetic. For Michael, this is just a game, a way to get back at people for past misdeeds of his traumatic childhood, but he inexorably stumbles into a fiendish trap that threatens to destroy him utterly. The despicable villain becomes almost a sympathetic character, manipulated into breakdown after breakdown. Once he begins to realize his role in the charade as the worm on the hook, he even occasionally tries to act like a real human being to compensate—or at least a reasonable approximation of one.
As in a mystery novel, eventually all the mysteries get solved, and the final explanation is deliciously satirical, corrupt and totally unethical, full of government conspiracies and political machinations, but I'll say no more about it for fear of spoiling it. Robert Lindsay is deliciously deranged as corrupt politician Michael Murray, turning out an unhinged performance that borders on the manic, but every moment is deliciously wicked. Michael Palin turns in a more nuanced performance in his role, affecting a nice balance between quick-tongued comedic delivery and that wrenching sadness that comes when comedic talents take dramatic roles. Palin has surprisingly soulful and sad eyes when he turns them on that way.
What I love about G.B.H. is how well its elements remain in balance. Political satire, black comedy, slapstick, drama—everything goes into a big blender and comes out cold, refreshing, and delicious. As the story weaves its way through we get numerous side plots and explorations of the various strange denizens who inhabit the production—all deranged in their own charming way, but not quite as much so as the protagonists, like the surreal Fawlty Towers sequence where Jim and his family go on a English vacation and have a horrifying experience, for no other reason that I can determine other than to make fun of how lousy the English are in the hospitality business. It takes narrative skill to blend so much character development, subplots, and confusion into a seamless presentation.
From a technical standpoint, this DVD is pretty rough around the edges. The program dates from 1991, but looks at least ten years older in terms of its transfer. Heavy print damage, prevalent grain, edge artifacts, aliasing and ghosting make this a pretty challenging program to appreciate for its visuals. On the other hand, the score is marvelous, a collaboration between composer Richard Harvey and rocker Elvis Costello, full of mournful horns, pounding orchestral hits, and echoing drums—definitely not the score you might expect after seeing Costello's name attached, but engaging all the same. The stereo transfer does the job well enough—the real attraction is the excellent score—with clear dialogue and reasonable bass response.
For a four-disc set, extras are light. The best feature is a commentary track on the first episode with actors Robert Lindsay and Michael Palin and editor Peter Ansorge, which is a solid track that only suffers slightly at the recollections of its cast now twenty years after the fact. We also get a 23-minute interview with writer/creator Alan Bleasdale and some cast biographies.
A twisted and dysfunctional social satire, G.B.H. is a marvelous treasure for us North American audiences. The British have forgotten about more quality television programs than we can even make.
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