A descent into lunacy is rarely as fun as it is in G.B.H., the BAFTA Award-winning British miniseries that pits Robert Lindsay against Michael Palin, who in turn become their own worst enemies. The satiric drama from Alan Bleasdale skewers the way the Labour Party turned on itself to its own hurt during the Thatcher years, but political intrigue often takes a backseat to the batty characters at the story’s forefront. The lines of protagonist/antagonist that seem so clear-cut at the beginning of the series are constantly shifting, and the result is a consistently entertaining and often hilarious madcap ride.
Lindsay stars as Michael Murray, the up-and-coming Labour leader of a local council. He’s charismatic, charming, and thoroughly narcissistic. He finds himself butting heads with the mild-mannered Jim Nelson (Palin), a headmaster of a special needs school, when Nelson refuses to comply with a strike to protest against the government.
The two are set up instantly as diametric opposites. Murray runs roughshod over everything in his path that doesn’t align with his agenda, organizing protests at Nelson’s school to intimidate him and the disturbed children who attend it. Nelson, meanwhile, remains calm and turns the other cheek.
However, it doesn’t take long for both characters’ worlds to be transformed, with personal crises assaulting them from every side. Whatever initial impressions were given, it becomes clear that neither is in control.
Murray is haunted by an incident from his childhood — one that is slowly pieced together through flashbacks — and becomes paranoid that the girl who tortured him as a child may be coming back to cause him more trouble. Unfortunately, he is largely unaware of the far more serious threat of government officials and certain Labour figures looking to bring his leadership down.
Nelson sees his hypochondria flare up, along with a number of strange physical tics, including frequent nude sleepwalking and an inability to drive over bridges. After a dismissal from his job, he is set adrift without a paddle into his sea of psychoses.
We see Murray and Nelson — initially so opposed — eventually travel along the same axis to end up at exactly the same point, even if their paths cross less and less frequently as the series progresses. They are two very different men experiencing a very similar bug of insanity. Bleasdale’s scripts create a world that is certainly centered in a historically precise time and place, but is always on the verge of tipping into absurdity.
Fully embracing the absurdity in their own ways are Lindsay and Palin, both of whom turn in astonishing performances. Lindsay seems to have no inhibition, giving us a character who is the only one who can’t seem to recognize his own ridiculousness. Palin, in an early foray into dramatic territory, imbues his character with immense pathos.
Also spectacular are Julie Walters — bespectacled and wigged as Murray’s mother — and Lindsay Duncan, the potential femme fatale who becomes Murray’s only solace, but may be working against him.
G.B.H., which originally aired in 1991, has all the makings of a cult TV classic, especially here in America where it’s far more obscure. It makes its Region 1 DVD debut with all seven episodes on a four-disc set. The first episode includes commentary from Lindsay, Palin, and editor Peter Ansorge, and the final disc includes a 20-minute interview with Bleasdale, who discusses the show’s satire and how his relationship with the characters changed the more he wrote of them. Biographies and filmographies of the principal cast are also included.