26 January 2009

Ever Decreasing Circles

Martin - an officious little man...

His wife, Ann, introduced him to suave new neighbour Paul Ryman in 1984...

Martin's friends and neighbours, Hilda and Howard Hughes (!), often liked to wear matching outfits, and made a wickerwork donkey called "Neddy".

Actor Richard Briers had worked with writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey before - most notably on the highly popular BBC TV comedy The Good Life.

The premise of The Good Life had been that middle aged, middle class Tom Good, stuck in a boring nine-to-five office job and living in suburbia, was suddenly galvanised by a notion born of the 1960s: he would leave the rat race - give up his wretched job and try self sufficiency!

The Good Life was a huge success.

In 1984, Richard Briers set to work with John Esmonde and Bob Larbey again - to produce a sitcom I enjoyed even more than The Good Life, and one which turned the premise of that worthy show completely on its head.

The leading character of this new show, Martin Bryce, was a pain in the neck. He loved routine; loved to organise; loved detail. He was in charge of a mass of local committees and clubs and generally got up a lot of people's noses. Courtesy of his unhappy childhood, he was a real control freak.

Esmonde and Larbey wanted a funny man for the role, somebody who would prevent the character from being completely hateful, and offered it to Briers. 

In my view this role was more demanding than that of Tom Good - Martin was far more intricate. Briers managed to make the character extremely funny, but also so irritating at times that many viewers wanted to strangle him - and so vulnerable and boyish-looking in defeat that many of the would-be stranglers then wanted to hug him. Underneath it all, Martin was a thoroughly decent man, willing to sacrifice his own wellbeing for the sake of the happiness of the woman he loved, as one episode proved.

A terrific performance - and Richard Briers's favourite sitcom role.

Martin's wife, Ann, was played by Penelope Wilton. Ann had been proposed to by Martin whilst she was at a low ebb, her life at a difficult and disorganised juncture. "Let me do the organising," Martin had said. And that was it. 

Ann was a faithful wife but she was strongly attracted to suave new neighbour Paul Ryman, who moved into Martin's beloved suburban Close in 1984.

Paul, played by Peter Egan, owned a hairdressing salon and was a success. Everything he touched turned to gold. He was attracted to Ann too and initially amused by the humourless and detail-obsessed Martin. But gradually the amusement became mingled with fondness and, having witnessed a couple of Martin's selfless deeds (yes, he was capable of them!), some respect.

Also living in The Close were Martin's friends, Howard and Hilda Hughes (Geraldine Newman and Stanley Lebor). Howard and Hilda were twee to the max, with their matching outfits, wickerwork Neddy and addiction to rosehip syrup, but they adored each other. 

Whilst very happy with her lot in life, and usually hard to ruffle, Hilda was sometimes troubled by strange thoughts: had she attracted a poltergeist? And what was that strange buzzing in her ear?

"It's her time of life!" said an auntie of mine, very significantly.

A title for the show had proved elusive, and Ever Decreasing Circles was dreamt up at the last moment, out of desperation.

Not everybody enjoyed Every Decreasing Circles, but for those of us who were in tune (and the show was tremendously popular) each episode was a great pleasure.

The series was rounded off with a special feature length episode in 1989. Ann became pregnant and the couple were forced to up sticks and leave Martin's adored Close as his employers relocated.

Richard Briers' performance as Martin was positively inspired throughout the show's run - indeed, it was this role that convinced me Mr B was a great actor - but the rest of the cast could not be faulted either. From Penelope Wilton as long-suffering-but-never-wimpish Ann, to Peter Egan as suave-but-not-smug Paul, and across the road to Geraldine Newman and Stanley Lebor as the slightly surreal Howard and Hilda, the entire cast was terrific, painting a vivid picture of life in The Close. The place where, according to Martin, "England lives".

Poor England!

All together now: "Three hundred and seventy five men went to mow, went to mow a meadow..."

Oh, and you'd better put the telephone receiver right.

No comments: