PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'The Good Life' in Surbiton's Green and Pleasant Land

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.

The Good Life: Complete Series Two

Distributor: Acorn (US)
Cast: Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith, Paul Eddington
Network: BBC
UK Release date: 2010-05-24

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.