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The Young Ones, the anarchic 1980s comedy you now have to be middle-aged to remember, was set in a house where students from Scumbag College ranted, spat, and cleaned the fridge so infrequently that the food inside developed consciousness. They hated a lot of things, but high on the list was a sitcom set in a much more salubrious environment – The Good Life, a series so canonical that, 46 years after its first broadcast, it can be summoned with a few words: Surbiton, self-sufficiency, Tom, Barbara, Margo, well thank you very much Jerry.
The series, which attracted 15 million viewers each week at its peak, enjoyed a resurgence during lockdown as people searched for comfort TV. Further evidence of its ongoing appeal will come next month when a stage adaptation, starring Rufus Hound as Tom, begins a nationwide tour.
But, for The Young Ones, it was too nice. “Felicity Treacle Kendal and Richard Sugar-flavoured-snot Briers!” screamed Ade Edmondson’s Vyvyan. “They’re nothing but a pair of reactionary stereotypes confirming the myth that everybody in Britain is a lovable middle-class eccentric!” The studio audience agreed. So did the producer, Paul Jackson (later ITV’s head of comedy). The Good Life, he said, was the result of “an over-satisfied brain overdosing on sugar”.
This case against The Good Life is easy to put. There’s that jaunty harpsichord theme. Those cartoon titles, with the cheerful duck and the pink petals that produce the names of the stars – Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington. Its bourgeois comedy of manners, conducted in RP over wooden fences or glasses of pea pod wine by a cast poached from mid-1970s productions of Alan Ayckbourn. (Ayckbourn rang the producer to make a mock-serious complaint.) That Tom’s boss was played by Reginald Marsh, also the boss in Terry and June, suggests that the commuter line might carry you from the Goods’ Surbiton to the Medfords’ Purley.
The Good Life, though, entertained the collapse of something bigger. Terry and June never discussed communism and conservatism. They never owned a chicken called Lenin or had swastikas daubed across their living room. The Good Life couldn’t keep politics out of the conversation. Its writers, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, created a protagonist who quits corporate life to become a subsistence farmer. In doing so, they took the problem of how to live in capitalism from the letters pages of New Statesman and New Society and replanted it in a prime time comedy.
The Good Life asked: do you rebel against the system like Tom or suck up to management like his neighbour and colleague Jerry Leadbetter? Do you embrace radicalism like Barbara or remain a sceptic like Margo? Esmonde and Larbey played these questions out between characters whose relationships accommodated mutual suspicion, deep affection and a touch of envy.
And they did it deftly. In one episode, Tom is flattered by student acolytes who want to talk about the “sociological revelation” they’ve experienced on his allotment. Margo dismisses them as undesirables who “reward me for subsidising their grants by forming Maoist cells in our major cities”. Then, Esmonde and Larbey give the situation a great twist: the student leader is a millionaire who wants to buy a house in Surbiton and found a commune. Tom, briefly incensed, decides to prevent the purchase by mobilising the Surbiton residents’ association.
When it went out in April 1975, reviewers understood the implication of The Good Life: the destruction of the England in which other sitcoms were set. “Somewhere buried here,” said The Listener, “is the knowledge that neo-Georgian England is make-believe, and quiet times are gone, as perhaps they should have long since. The bell is tolling, and even these two are not sure what there is to laugh at.”
In 1975, that bell rang loudly from the TV. That year, the children of Britain – myself among them – were traumatised by the science fiction series The Changes, in which a weird howl carried by electrical pylons turned ordinary families into manic technophobes. The heroine’s pipe-smoking dad picks up the ashtray and caves in the television; his family joins in, piling appliances on the kitchen floor and crushing them with wordless determination; out on the street, people are chucking kettles and toasters from their windows.
Viewers allowed to stay up a little later were offered other visions of catastrophe. Survivors, written by Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, envisioned a world depopulated by a virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory. It opens in a commuter village where the heroine, Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour), is playing tennis with a mechanical ball-dispenser – the ultimate stockbroker-belt gadget.
Both of these series expressed a surprisingly ambivalent attitude to the collapse of British society. At the start of Survivors, an old doctor asks Abby if she could make a candle from scratch. “All the old crafts and skills must be learnt,” he says. “We must learn.” Like The Good Life, the series is the story of how they do it – a strange confluence of post-apocalyptic drama and pre-apocalyptic sitcom.
It reflected culture beyond the screen. I spent the 1975 summer holidays on a smallholding in Suffolk run by family friends, a couple who left their jobs in production design to go self-sufficient. (One of them constructed the suburban world from which Reggie Perrin escaped.) I fed the pigs and learnt to milk a cow.
We ate mainly courgettes, a vegetable I had never seen before. One Saturday, we watched a Doctor Who episode about aliens destroying North Sea oil rigs. “It’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent on a mineral slime just doesn’t make sense,” sniffed the Doctor, unsympathetically.
Half a century later, it still doesn’t; and the questions asked by The Good Life remain live. The new stage play, adapted from Esmonde and Larbey’s scripts by veteran writer and director Jeremy Sams, keeps the action in the 1970s but gives new emphasis to the intellectual background: Sams sends Barbara to the library to find a copy of Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, published in the 1950s by the American self-sufficiency pioneers Scott and Helen Nearing.
“I think The Good Life shows you the beginning of the bifurcation of England,” says Sams. “Brexit really brought it home that neighbours could be completely opposed to each other. But we’re neighbours for better or worse.”
A sugary sentiment? I don’t think so. And perhaps that argument about the sweetness of The Good Life is over. One British comedy authority was recently asked to compare it with The Young Ones. The shouty slapstick of the 80s anti-sitcom, he said, now looks “tired and slow”. But Tom and Barbara, rotovating their Surbiton lawn in pursuit of a greener, happier, more ethical life? “If you watch it now,” he said, “that still looks relevant.” The name of this authority? Ade Edmondson.
The Good Life is at Theatre Royal Bath Oct 7-16, then touring. Tickets: thegoodlifeonstage.com