[9 June 2010]
All the greatest television sitcoms have one thing in common: brilliantly written characters. Not just interesting, amusing characters with some depth, but characters that are so richly detailed, well-rounded and, appealing that one yearns for them to exist in real life.
Such characters are almost always inhabited so comprehensively by the actors who play them that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles. Couple great performances like these with witty scripts and an original and interesting central scenario and you’ve got television dynamite, and a large audience share.
The BBC’s The Good Life, still beloved by British audiences 35 years after its first broadcast, is one of those sitcoms. Like Del Boy and Rodney Trotter in Only Fools and Horses, the main characters in The Good Life are so well-rendered that one can even fill the gaps in their undiscussed past, ponder how they would react in fictional situations of one’s own making, and perhaps even imagine, with some clarity, what becomes of them when they’re off-screen, in a twilight sitcom zone where unscripted antics continue eternally, away from unseeing eyes.
The central theme of The Good Life is simple enough by today’s standards, although during its heyday in the mid-‘70s the show’s subject matter – self-sufficiency and green, organic living – was very innovative. In fact, at the time, such alternative lifestyles had yet to enter mainstream public consciousness in the UK, and so novel was the concept that The Good Life‘s creators John Esmonde and Bob Larbey had competition on their hands, with several other writing teams also attempting to get a similarly-themed programme off the ground first (thankfully the BBC won the race). At its peak, The Good Life was phenomenally popular, averaging around 15 million viewers an episode – almost a third of the country.
The show features a middle class married couple, Tom and Barbara Good (the perfectly cast Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal), who become tired of their indulgent and materialistic life, prompting Tom to leave his stressful job. The pair decide to live off the “land” (merely their garden), keep a small amount of livestock, trade items with local businesses in order to acquire basic provisions, and generally get down and literally dirty, all the time extricating themselves from the clutches of capitalism and consumption.
What gives The Good Life its very interesting edge are two things: firstly, Tom and Barbara, despite embarking on their alternative lifestyle challenge, decide to remain in their very pleasant but thoroughly impractical suburban home on the affluent outskirts of London (self-sufficiency in this period was considered the preserve of the rural, not the suburban); secondly, the Goods are neighbours with the socially-aspirational snob Margo Leadbetter and her more easygoing husband Jerry (the equally well-cast Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington). Originally intended as peripheral characters, the Leadbetters were instead fleshed out to become key participants in the chaos, and very welcome they are too, adding massively to the dynamic of the show.
In fact, most of The Good Life’s tender humour and social commentary is derived from Jerry and Margo’s unenviable position as frustrated but thoroughly loyal and tolerant friends, and although neither of them can fathom why the Goods wish to expose themselves to such self-imposed hardship when they could be enjoying the fruits of corporate success, they all get along rather well.
In stark contrast to the Good’s living-on-the-breadline approach, Jerry works very successfully in upper management at the same company Tom resigned from, leaving Margo free to indulge herself and fraternise with various clubs and societies – mainly involving the arts – in the belief it will her elevate her cultural capital within the local community, something she desperately craves. Despite the warm friendship that both couples share, it’s the constant, gentle and friendly ideological conflict that provides the main thrust of the programme.
However, despite the excellent performances and the entertaining situations that are faced by the foursome, one key criticism that can be leveled at The Good Life is that it lacks a defined and developing story arc over the course of four series, never really elaborating in scope and seemingly happy to remain fairly formulaic throughout. Even as the final series drew to a close in 1978, the Goods were still stoically soldiering on and battling against the Leadbetter’s good-natured chagrin, much as they were at the very beginning (as both couples are childless, it got me wondering how the show might have changed had to Goods become parents, for example).
So, to all intents and purposes, this second series contains nothing definitive that separates it from either earlier or later series. That being said, many millions of viewers were content with more of the same week after week, so it is a testament to the show’s quality that its popularity never waned, despite the increasingly familiar set-up.
Historically, it’s also worth mentioning that just a few years after The Good Life ended, British television comedy was blown into an entirely new shape thanks to the young, vibrant and massively daring alternative comedians, who were on the cusp of mainstream success. The perceived drawbacks of The Good Life‘s “affable-but-dull” middle class subjects and subject matter were stereotypically lampooned during the brilliant The Young Ones, when Ade Edmondson’s anarchic character Vyvyan disrupts the familiar The Good Life title sequence – which suddenly and randomly begins onscreen halfway through the episode entitled Sick – by smashing through it, ripping it off the screen and ranting about how “bloody boring and nice” it all is (It’s a literal removal of the old guard, or out with the old, in with the alternative, if you prefer).
However, to dismiss The Good Life as twee and unchallenging does the show a disservice. Besides the fact that the cast and writers of The Young Ones are now far older, more suburban and richer (and calmer, judging by some of the sedate work they’ve subsequently undertaken) than either the Goods or the Leadbetters ever were, The Good Life actually says something pertinent about the pressures of commerce and materialism, and tensions borne of a lack of money, particularly in upwardly mobile social groups. This alone makes it an interesting programme, regardless of the accessible family-friendly humour it also embodies.
Perhaps, overall, this is the key to the show’s longevity. While The Good Life can certainly be viewed as cosy, nostalgic, and light-hearted, its environmentally progressive and prescient subject matter, and its healthy vein of social commentary – still highly relevant today – have ensured the show’s status as of one of the more durable sitcoms the BBC has produced.
Never mind that its simpler pleasures often leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside, because The Good Life remains clever, funny, and beautifully performed, and I’d wager that the edgy alternative comedians who so lambasted the show in the early-‘80s would probably now admit – having mellowed with age and fully part of the establishment – that they actually enjoyed The Good Life all along; much like the rest of the UK, in fact.
The extras on this 2-disc set are reasonable, consisting of cast filmographies, a photo gallery showing a range of Margo’s sartorial efforts, plus a real gem: a very welcome and exclusive interview with Briers, who discusses aspects of the show.