Why we’re still in pur­suit of The Good Life

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No doubt his­tory will re­mem­ber 4 April, 1975 as the day Mi­crosoft was founded in Al­bu­querque, New Mex­ico. But for some of us, it was the day The Good Life be­gan in Sur­biton. Seen now, it wasn’t a ri­otous start, but sit­coms rarely man­age those. In Bri­tish com­edy es­pe­cially, fa­mil­iar­ity is all, and we’d soon enough be­come familiar with Richard Bri­ers’s Tom Good, dis­il­lu­sioned plas­tics designer and pi­o­neer eco-ac­tivist. We join Tom on his 40th birth­day, the day he’ll re­sign his mean­ing­less job in favour of agri­cul­tural self-suf­fi­ciency, turn­ing his gar­den into a farm. Felic­ity Ken­dal as Bar­bara Good dances at­ten­dance around the kitchen, de­ploy­ing what will even­tu­ally be­come, in real life, the Rear of the Year, 1981. Bri­ers came to the se­ries as the only ac­cred­ited laugh-raiser. His name con­tin­ued to ap­pear above and be­fore the ti­tle, but it’s to his credit that he quickly saw the pos­si­bil­i­ties in Pene­lope Keith and Paul Ed­ding­ton’s por­trayal of the ex­as­per­ated neigh­bours, the Lead­bet­ters, and asked for their sup­port­ing roles to be ex­panded. They all went on to star in com­edy “ve­hi­cles” of their own. Per­haps Ed­ding­ton, whose char­ac­ter is the least lu­mi­nous of the four, went fur­thest, as the baf­fled Jim Hacker MP in Yes Min­is­ter. The cast­ing, in short, was per­fect. Sit­com op­po­si­tion was plen­ti­ful in 1975. Por­ridge had re­cently fin­ished its first se­ries and Fawlty Tow­ers would emerge later in the year. Last of the Sum­mer Wine had started out on its chronic trun­dle to­wards a faroff ex­tinc­tion in the 31st se­ries. But The Good Life has held its own with all of those. Nei­ther of the writ­ers, John Es­monde and Bob Lar­bey, sur­vives, so it’s too late to congratulate them on the en­dur­ingly top­i­cal themes they chose. It’s not just that anx­i­ety over “feed­ing the planet” has deep­ened over th­ese 40 years (in any case, the Goods’ agrar­ian scheme is re­ally only an ex­cuse for them to out­rage the Lead­bet­ters with their muck and noise and wellies). It’s that the shape and na­ture of the Bri­tish mid­dle class re­main as mys­te­ri­ous as ever. Call­ing the neigh­bour­ing men Tom and Jerry sug­gests an on­com­ing fight, but the show proves more like a co­op­er­a­tive search for the heart of mid­dle-class­ness – some­where be­tween the Lead­bet­ters’ con­form­ist, faux-posh ac­quis­i­tive­ness and the scruffy ide­al­ism of the Goods. Mar­garet Thatcher had just be­come Leader of the Op­po­si­tion in Fe­bru­ary 1975. We were still try­ing to get used to her tone of voice. So was she. Margo Leadbetter’s tones were more bear­ably pro­duced, but as a stri­dent lady who never saw the funny side of any­thing (and worse, didn’t see why any­thing should have a funny side), she con­formed to the same type. Yet her self-right­eous­ness com­manded some sup­port. No­body who sees it for­gets Margo’s visit to the coun­cil rates of­fice, where she out­lines which of the charges she’s not go­ing to pay. “Just who do you think you are, Mrs Leadbetter?” protests the clerk. “I am the si­lent ma­jor­ity,” an­nounces Margo – a re­sound­ing con­tra­dic­tion in terms, es­pe­cially the way she says it. A darker area of mys­tery in the show, al­most in­evitably, is sex. The pre­vail­ing child­less­ness al­most com­pels you to think about it, if only in the neg­a­tive. Is this, you know, naughty sub­ur­bia? In se­ries three there’s some ev­i­dence of re­cip­ro­cal fan­cy­ing, but Es­monde and Lar­bey took things no fur­ther than that. What’s re­mark­able is how much we, the au­di­ence, loved all of them, glad though we were, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, that none of them lived next door. Rus­sell Davies The Good Life is avail­able to buy on DVD (RRP: £25.99)

Living off the land: Richard Bri­ers and Felic­ity Ken­dal in ‘The Good Life’, which be­gan 40 years ago

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