Blightyvision: “The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff”

Written by Mark Evans
Directed by Ben Fuller
Starring Robert Webb, Katherine Parkinson, Stephen Fry, and Tim McInnerny

I’m pretty sure this blog’s demographic has, overall, read enough of the work of Charles Dickens to see the common threads that run through his stories.  That many encounters with nutty names and stark Victorian poverty do sort of etch themselves forever on your mind after enough summer reading lists and “Masterpiece Theatre” adaptations.  There have been scattered parodies here and there within the confines of other series (“Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” comes to mind as one of the better ones), but for extended parody and overall strangeness, we now have available to us “The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff,” a series that jams pretty much everything Dickens offered us into four episodes.

Written by “That Mitchell and Webb Look” writer Mark Evans, “The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff” is successor to his long-running radio series “Bleak Expectations.” The TV series isn’t a remake or follow-up, but stands on its own while sharing similar themes and styling.  The TV series also has the added bonus of being able to mess with sets and costumes — sometimes to an unnecessary extreme, but more on that later.

All right.  Get ready for these names, guys.

Robert Webb plays Jedrington Secret-Past, a loving (albeit very Victorian) family man who runs a shop with his wife Conceptiva (Katherine Parkinson of “The IT Crowd”) and their children Victor (Finley Christie) and Victoria (Ambra Lily Keegan).  Naturally, things can’t simply go well for them, and they find themselves the subjects of multiple conniving baddies’ evil schemes.  In the pilot, the wicked lawyer Malifax Skulkingworm (played by Stephen Fry) uses a legal loophole — and Jedrington’s secret past — to steal our hero’s shop and get him thrown in debtor’s prison.  In the series proper, the equally wicked Harmswell Grimstone (played by another “Blackadder” alum, Tim McInnerny) tricks Jedrington into going into business with him, dividing up the Secret-Past family and delving into Conceptiva’s own horrid secrets.  In both cases, Jedrington must race against the clock to take back both his family and his shop before the villain follows through with the final stage of his evil plan.

Given the writer and the actors involved, it’s unsurprising that “The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff” treads that skinny line between reality and absurdity where shows like “The IT Crowd” tend to dwell.  It never truly gets into, say, “Mighty Boosh” territory, but the over-the-top humor delivered in a stately period drama fashion does tend to brush elbows with surrealism.

Well, all right, that’s mostly true.  The hour-long pilot released right around Christmas may have been written and acted in the same style, but a slightly more ambitious budget created a distinct divide in tone.  The heightened images of Dickensian England provided a sort of American McGee-esque eye candy that pings at least my personal aesthetics.  But they didn’t really stop there, and they probably should have, because their desire to make their visuals as quirky as their writing turns the whole thing into nothing so much as an English major’s fever dream.  The writing is great on its own; it doesn’t need to try that hard to get our attention, and the surrealism very nearly turned me off.  But with cameos by David Mitchell and Johnny Vegas, and Stephen Fry being all Stephen Fry-y, I still liked it.

I enjoyed the series proper a lot more, because they found their balance and knew where their strong points were.  The whole cast is great, and McInnerney plays slimy so well and seems to be having the time of his life doing so.  It’s fantastic, too, seeing Parkinson in a new role for an extended period of time so we can see what else she can do — I mean, Webb is great, but we already know what a range he has from his sketch comedy.  The surprising standout, though, was Finley Christie as Victor.  He steals every scene he’s in, and he’s not precious or precocious at all.  The character is already genre-savvy, and Christie knows how to play that.  If anything, I wanted to see more of him.

I file “The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff” in that same category as “The IT Crowd” and “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” — not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re into that sort of nebulous weirdness, it’s perfect.  Once they stopped trying too hard, I settled into it.  I’m not sure if making more would wear out their welcome, but it looks like the sort of show that could be trotted out for an occasional holiday special if the writer has a brilliant idea.  If you’re a Victorian lit geek, this is one of the better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon for sure.

There’s no word on a DVD release for “The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff” in any region yet.  It could be they spent all their extra money on animating Stephen Fry’s protracting top hat.

  • Guest

    No DVD yet, but it’s on iTunes :(

    • Guest

      Ooops, that was supposed to by a :)