Victor Meldrew as seen in the first episode
of One Foot in the Grave
|One Foot in the Grave character|
|Portrayed by||Richard Wilson|
|First appearance||Alive and Buried
(4 January 1990)
|Last appearance||Things Aren't Simple Any More
(20 November 2000)
|Created by||David Renwick|
|Introduced by||Susan Belbin|
|Occupation||Security guard (retired)|
|Home||37 Wyngate Drive in an unnamed town (Series 1)
19 Riverbank in an unnamed town (Series 2–6)
Victor Meldrew is a fictional character in the BBC One sitcom One Foot in the Grave, created by David Renwick and portrayed by Richard Wilson. The character epitomised the archetypal grumpy old man. Meldrew is a foil for the bothersome aspects of children, cars, animals, power cuts and next-door neighbours (his particular example being Patrick Trench, played by Angus Deayton). The character was created specifically for Wilson, with whom Renwick had worked on the series Hot Metal, though Wilson initially turned the part down as at 53, he felt he was too young to play the 60-year-old Meldrew. Renwick considered Les Dawson for the part before Wilson changed his mind.
In the first episode, the cantankerous Meldrew, aged 60, is forced into retirement as a security guard (which he describes as "being replaced by a box"). The series follows Meldrew as he tries to fill his new-found leisure with odd jobs and unusual idiosyncrasies, or to get a new job. However, he regularly finds himself mistreated, misunderstood or simply the victim of bad luck, which leads to his complaining heartily.
The pensioner is most famous for his catchphrase, "I don't believe it!!", an expression of discontent which was actually used fairly infrequently. Quite often, he stops short at "I don't ...". According to Wilson, this is because series creator Renwick wanted to avoid overusing it.. Other frequently used expressions of exasperation are "Unbe-lieeeve-able!", "What in the name of bloody hell?!" and "In the name of sanity!" Victor is something of a hypochondriac, keeping a medical book with him to look up every ailment he believes has befallen him. (Margaret describes it as "browsing through to see what he can die of next".)
The series was so successful that in the UK the term a Victor Meldrew has become a euphemism for a bitter and complaining elderly man. However, both Renwick and Wilson himself have disagreed that Victor is an example of this stereotype; Wilson himself once said in an interview that he was a "normal man in a world full of idiots", and he is shown to be more of a tragicomedy character, not bitter and grumpy by nature, but driven to it due to his habit of attracting trouble. Renwick once pointed out in an interview that the name "Victor" is ironic, since he almost always ends up as the loser.
Although he is seen as misanthropic by the many victims of his wrath and misfortune, Victor is often depicted as an honest, likeable and sympathetic character. Ultimately, many felt that the things that he railed against, e.g. yobbish behaviour, lack of consideration for others, shoddy service, and bureaucratic indifference, were things that he had every right to get angry about. In fact, if anything, most admired him for having the guts to stand up and be counted, as the bizarre misfortunes that befell Meldrew would be enough to exasperate anyone. In the episode "Warm Champagne", his long-suffering wife Margaret defends him. When Margaret contemplates having an affair with Ben, a man she meets on holiday, Ben puts Victor down and accuses him of being insensitive. Margaret replies that Victor is in fact the most sensitive person she's ever met. If he weren't so sensitive, he wouldn't be upset by the smallest of things, and that is the reason she loves him (and "continually wants to ram his head through a television screen"). In "Descent into the Maelstrom", Margaret is visited by a woman she used to care for as a child, but Victor discovered that she was in fact mentally unstable, sought by the police for kidnapping a toddler, and had stolen a pair of earrings Margaret treasured. Victor turned the woman over to the authorities and chose not to tell Margaret, preferring to let her think he had lost the earrings, knowing how much the truth would upset her. In the episode "Hearts of Darkness", Victor chanced upon a nursing home where the elderly residents were suffering severe abuse at the hands of the nurses. In revenge, Victor drugged the staff and placed them in a nearby field with their feet encased in concrete, like scarecrows. In the episode "Timeless Time", it is implied that Victor and Margaret had a son named Stuart who died in childhood. David Renwick's novelisation of the series confirms this interpretation.
In the final episode, "Things Aren't Simple Any More", Meldrew is killed after being hit by a car. This eliminated any realistic possibility of a seventh series. Passers-by left bouquets of flowers in homage at the railway bridge in Shawford, a small village in Hampshire, England, the filming location.
Phil Wickham of the University of Exeter notes that "the whole point of the series is that Meldrew is the only sane voice in a mad world".
Jonathan Bignell in his book Media Semiotics observes that the reason people laugh at Victor Meldrew is not simply that his behaviour is excessive, but that it contrasts with how all the other characters in the TV series are behaving.
Meldrew's name is associated with aggression or grumpiness; the journal Age and Ageing notes that "Viewers of Victor Meldrew (‘One Foot in the Grave’) would not be surprised that hostility contributes to mortality in grumpy old men." Similarly the Mail Online and the Daily Telegraph both use Richard Wilson's Meldrew to refer to a "grump", or people who enjoy "a good moan", while Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books can observe that "the timing and rhythm (of Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi) have the flippancy of stand-up comedy. The voice has Eeyore in it, and Morrissey and Victor Meldrew, and could only be English and from that postwar, post-punk generation".
The BBC recalls first that "the role of Victor Meldrew transformed Scottish TV-actor Richard Wilson into a household name and award-winning comedy performer." In addition, "So popular was his character that 'Victor Meldrew' has endured as a cultural reference for any grumpy old man." And finally and more loosely, "many viewers identified with his rages at the irritants of modern life: litter, junk mail, traffic, rudeness, streetlamps and car mechanics and to some, Victor Meldrew was a champion of the people, albeit a very grumpy one."
Victor Meldrew's persona is so powerful that Richard Wilson is perceived as "99 per cent Meldrew" by at least one critic, and when taking on a serious role as Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, another critic felt that Wilson's "performance was overly influenced by his desire to 'shed the Victor Meldrew stereotype'".
- BBC: One Foot in the Grave. Retrieved 2 June 2012.
- "The original British loser that we recognise in Victor Meldrew and Alan Partridge." Tony Hancock, The Definitive Biography. HarperCollins, 2008. Retrieved 2 June 2012.
- "Meldrew fans lay floral tributes". BBC News. 24 November 2000. Retrieved 28 January 2007.
- [cdn.cstonline.tv/assets/file/user_92/6.1reviewsCST.pdf Critical Studies in Television: Reviews]
- Jonathan Bignell. Media Semiotics, an Introduction. Manchester University Press, 2nd Edition, 2002. Pages 166-167.
- Age and Ageing: News and Reviews. Hostility, age and mortality in patients with cardiac disease. Volume 35, Issue 1, January 2006. pages 3-4. doi:10.1093/ageing/afi213
- Fiona Macrae. Don't tell Victor Meldrew but the rest of us feel 12 years younger than we really are. Mail Online, 4 March 2010.
- Richard Alleyne. The Telegraph: The Victor Meldrew effect: a good moan makes elderly feel better. 31 August 2010.
- [Jenny Turner. How Dare He?. London Review of Books. Volume 31, Number 11. 11 June 2009, pages 24-25.