Wednesday 2 November 2022

If You See God, Tell Him

Society has been bombarded with adverts ever since the first marketing guru climbed out of the swamp and tried flogging cheap holidays to trilobites. A rather whimsical take on the history of advertising, perhaps, but the fact remains that advertising has assiduously worked its way into every space where humans dare tread. And the rise of the internet means we’re now targeted more frequently and with a disturbingly tailored precision. The result of having this consumerist dream regularly rammed down our throat is that it’s very easy to feel insecure. Adverts promise us nothing but undiluted happiness and the answers to all of life’s little problems. So, why wouldn’t we hang on their every word? Well, perhaps the answer lies in Andrew Marshall and David Renwick’s excellent 1993 comedy If You See God, Tell Him.

Godfrey Spry (Richard Briers) hasn’t had much luck recently. Whilst queuing up to get in the Post Office, he’s the unfortunate recipient of a wheelbarrow full of bricks falling on his head. Godfrey, somehow, survives. But the doctor warns he’s likely to suffer from ongoing mental abnormalities and a reduced concentration span. For Godfrey, however, it’s the beginning of a voyage of intellectual discovery. He may struggle to focus his attention for longer than 30 seconds, but this means he’s the perfect recipient for absorbing the spiel of advertising executives. And this is how Godfrey’s life will now be steered. Gleemy washing up liquid, for example, claims its tangy pineapple fragrance will leave your plates cleaner than ever before. A claim Godfrey puts to the test by buying a crateload and filling his kitchen full of suds.

Life takes another difficult turn for Godfrey three days after he leaves the hospital. Test driving a new car along a cliff, to see if it really can go from 0 – 60 in five seconds, he’s involved in a horrific crash which leaves him maimed for life. Matters can, and indeed do, get even worse for Godfrey when he heads to Hamburg for a relaxing break with his wife Josie (Barbara Grant). The holiday begins as a minor success but ends with Josie being stoned to death by rampaging football hooligans.

Once home from his disastrous trip to the continent, Godfrey sells his house in order to pay two month’s rent in advance for a luxury penthouse in a converted prison. Whilst here, he manages to furnish his merchant banker neighbours first with trading advice that makes them a packet and, then, tips which lose them millions and result in their suicides. All of this insider information is, of course, nothing more than regurgitated advertising slogans. With no money left, Godfrey is evicted from his apartment and moves in with his nephew Gordon (Adrian Edmondson) and his wife Muriel (Imelda Staunton). Gordon already has his hands full as a busy dentist and is seemingly always caught up in the bureaucracy and foibles of authority; the presence of Godfrey is the last thing that he needs. And it's at Gordon and Muriel’s house that Godfrey will launch his most ambitious and disastrous exploits.

Believing that he needs to find love, Gordon at first belittles and alienates an old flame before arranging a wedding where he hopes to marry a last-minute bride – perhaps the prostitute he meets in a hotel. Loneliness strikes again for Gordon at Christmas, but he manages to combat this by positioning himself as a Fagin-like figure for a gang of children at the local shopping centre - a move which inexplicably leads to a series of race riots. Encouraged by the promise of vibrant employment prospects, Gordon decides that he needs to find a job. Failure in this pursuit results in him taking advantage of exciting government schemes to set up the Gordon Spry Organization, an enterprise which will result in catastrophic and grisly consequences.

David Renwick and Andrew Marshall had previously collaborated on a number of successful television projects including End of Part One, Whoops Apocalypse and Hot Metal, so expectations were high when If You See God, Tell Him arrived on BBC1 in November 1993. With its four episodes running to 40 minutes each, If You See God, Tell Him was clearly positioned as a comedy drama rather than a sitcom, although Kate Battersby of The Daily Telegraph described it perfectly as “a sort of sitcom on acid”.

Its late timeslot, however, coupled with the public’s befuddlement over the content and a couple of controversies (more on them later) meant that this comedy drama struggled to make the impact its creators were aiming for. Only one episode, as part of a David Renwick evening on BBC4 in 2007, has ever been repeated and explains why the series – whose title is based on the 1980s British Gas advertising slogan “If You See Sid, Tell Him” – is remembered by so few. However, it did receive a DVD release in 2008 and this means I can take a closer look at the series.

Ask anyone who has seen If You See God, Tell Him to describe it in one word and it will be a miracle if anyone fails to pluck “dark” from the air. And it is dark. Not quite Chris Morris in his 1990s pomp dark, but it certainly trumps the darker side of David Renwick’s other 90s masterpiece One Foot in the Grave. And this darkness is always delivered with an impeccable sense of comedy.

The trio of unfortunate events (mental impairment, disability and spousal bereavement) which initially hit Godfrey may seem horrific, but Renwick and Marshall manage to contort them into unimaginable hilarity. In true Looney Tunes style, Godfrey’s umbrella is the only protection offered to him against the gravitational pull of a falling wheelbarrow. His horrific car crash, meanwhile, has the edge taken off it when the revelation comes that he was trying to emulate an aspirational car advert. And perhaps the most difficult moment to stifle your laughter arrives when Godfrey describes his and his wife’s trip to Hamburg: “We had a splendid two weeks away from it all. Marred only by our final evening at the hotel when she popped out for a packet of cough sweets and was stoned to death by a mob of drunken soccer fans”. If you can find a more sublime use of the word marred then please get in touch. Anyway, this is how If You See God, Tell Him sets out its comedy stall, so proceed cautiously from this point onwards if you prefer your comedy more latte than americano.

The reason If You See God, Tell Him hangs so beautifully together is down to the wonderful talent involved all throughout the series. Renwick and Marshall, naturally, must get top praise for the highly imaginative and creative framework they have built. Advertising is an invasive art and If You See God, Tell Him acts as a forensic and disturbing analysis of its malevolent influence. And this essay is beautifully detailed with a multitude of spoof adverts which are painstakingly accurate; the Frank Hexton’s Double Barrel Australian lager advert in the first episode is meticulous in its authenticity.

Against this backdrop of manipulative advertising are the characters. Godfrey is the victim of the piece, but his geniality knows no bounds and this is only magnified by Briers’ innate and all conquering jolliness. Godfrey’s sugar-coated veneer cracks just once; this sniff of pathos emerges when, with his employment prospects looking grim, he sadly admits “people don’t want a cripple” to Muriel. It’s as far removed from Tom Good as you could possibly imagine.

Much closer to Godfrey, although occupying a different universe in terms of mental acuity, are Gordon and Muriel. Positioned as the calm to Godfrey’s chaos, they bring a peculiar brand of domestic bliss to the series. In many ways they’re drawn from the same lines as Victor and Margaret Meldrew. This is most demonstrably obvious in Gordon, a man seated as the classic ‘sane voice in a mad world’ character – see the scene in episode two where an insurance claims auditor is giving Gordon’s concertinaed car a visual inspection and asks Gordon to clarify the damage. Muriel, meanwhile, is experiencing maternal pangs now their son has fled the nest. Cleverly, the opportunity to look after Gordon allows the series to counter its darker moments with tenderness and warmth.

The denouement for these characters, in keeping with the tone of the piece, is decidedly bleak. There are no lessons learned for our protagonists. No skipping towards a sunset as the opening bars of Lovely Day by Bill Withers begin to chime. Instead, for the viewer, there’s a realisation that all the characters (and indeed themselves) have an unsettling future ahead. Godfrey, now in prison - thanks to… actually, I won’t spoil it for you – has his television set confiscated and, surely, this means his voyage of intellectual discovery is over. But no. Even without a constant supply of adverts, the wiring of his imagination has been permanently soldered into a world of unachievable aspiration.

And, as Godfrey rises up forlornly from his wheelchair and walks out of his cell straight into an advert for Old Vienna chocolate thins, it’s clear he’s been completely indoctrinated. A state of affairs underlined by the final shot of Godfrey staring contentedly at the stark coldness of his cell door. But this may not be the most troubling part of the series’ finale. Just before Godfrey’s departure from reality, Gordon finds himself involuntarily repeating the slogan for a pair of luxury tights when Muriel ladders her own. Is this a sign we’re all destined, regardless of our mental strength, to become zombified parrots, stumbling through life under the control and influence of advertising executives and false dreams? Or is Gordon, who appears to be continually tested by the madness of the modern world, already teetering on the edge of his sanity? Either way, it’s a grim outlook for all of us.

The legacy left behind by If You See God, Tell Him is an intriguing one. At the time it was mostly remembered for complaints about a scene where children play football with a dead duck – complaints which were not upheld by the Broadcasting Standards Council – and the fact episode three was postponed by a week. This postponement was, in fact, down to the fact it involved children and a shopping centre in the week the James Bulger murder trial was reaching its conclusion.

But If You See God, Tell Him is far too three dimensional to rely on shocks to see it over the finish line (and the postponement was simply down to timing and a kneejerk reaction by the BBC). Instead, it’s an extraordinary piece of television with a level of incision which is both daring and prescient. And to strengthen this point, I’ll leave you with Godfrey’s disturbingly accurate predictions for the 21st century, “A century that will almost certainly be filled with more civil wars, famine, ecological disasters and hideous global catastrophes than mankind has ever known” 

This article originally appeared in issue four of the Curious British Telly fanzine.

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