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  • Writer's pictureAustin Birks

Life after "After Life" by Ricky Gervais

I can, if perfectly honest, only think of two TV comedies that had a significant impact on yours truly. The first, (and I can still picture it to this day) was when I was about 15, in 1975. I went into the dining room of my parents home in Monmouth Drive, Sutton Coldfield at 20.30, one cold Thursday night, to watch a new TV show called “Fawlty Towers”, starring John Cleese from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, something which many younger people may never have heard of. As I recall, I was laughing so much that my dad actually came into the room to see if I was alright, which indeed I was. The next day at school, it was the talk of the classroom. It had a real impact.

Fast forward to March 2019, (44 years later), and a new show appears on Netflix, it is called “After Life”. I did not know that much about it, but it was written and starred big Ricky Gervais and I was already a big fan from “The Office” onwards. I also knew that it was about a man who was coming to terms with life after his beloved wife Lisa dies from breast cancer. He makes it his mission to decide to say whatever he likes, to whomever he likes, irrespective of the consequences. He does not care, if truth be told, he can't cope without his beloved Lisa, and the episodes contain many videos and flashbacks of the joy and laughter that they enjoyed in one of those unique relationships that very few people get to enjoy in real life.

The pathos is even sharper as he drinks his way closer to suicide, only saved by the constant company and unswerving loyalty of his dog, Brandy. So, why have I found watching all three series so influential in my life and times? Well, truth be told, firstly, because if you live with cancer the resonance of everything that he shares both before and after his wife’s death is that little bit more close to the edge. Second, is because when I watched the first two series I did not have a dog, and now I have. Why is that a big deal? Because in the past, I don’t think that I had really experienced the simple and utterly forgiving beings that dogs are. Gervais enjoys a literally life-saving relationship with his dog, and I can see clearly now why, and how, that would work.

The script and acting from the cast is excellent, it dollops equal measure of cringeworthy comedy, and jaw-stopping vulgarity, which is also extremely funny, as is the unique eccentricity of some of the characters, accentuating the Englishness of people of this island. Equally poignant is the sadness and tragedy that loss imbues on those left behind. And the three series manage to show his journey, because that is exactly what it is, from angry and bitter widower left to stew in his bitter isolation, numbed by drinking, and an ever closer perfect storm of deeper resentment fuelled by anger and a general hatred of people, edging him ever closer to suicide. Contradicted by the huge bond that we witness with his wife who has left him on his own, where their special relationship and deep love only heighten the difference between his before and after world.

So, why did it affect me quite so much? Well, I suppose because when you live in the shadow of cancer, or some equally dark illness, that spectre of loss is never that far away from your psyche. You have to learn to live with it, and I believe that so far, myself and those closest to me have done so, occasionally however a stark and savage reminder is thrown into the mix. After Life does that remarkably well. There are scenes that you watch, that quite simply make you cry, or at least they should.

So, if you have not seen it, I strongly recommend it to you. Be prepared for dark and twisted humour, but also be prepared for a journey about hope, because that is what Tony, the main character, slowly and painfully comes to understand about himself. From the depth of his own sadness and despair, he actually becomes a man who learns to inspire and guide others. It’s not a story of transition from devil to saint, its far from. It is much more a recognition that hope is a salvation that all are entitled to experience. It is powerful and it is evocative and it can move mountains.

So, yesterday me, Yvi, and Donna the dog, went to a park in Birmingham called Cofton Hackett. In that park is a special bench; it was supplied by Netflix and After Life and they have little logos bolted onto it. When we got to the park, by default we found it straight away. There was a couple sat on it when we set off to see it. Indeed, in our short walk there and back to the car, you could see people making a beeline for it. It is, I think, a little magnet, a beacon for those seeking solace in a simple park bench. And inscribed on the bench is this immortal message “Hope Is Everything”. And, guess what - it is. Well done Ricky, and well done Netflix.

Austin and Donna sitting on a bench in Cofton Park donated by Netflix's After Life

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