Silly, But It's Fun - The Good Life Christmas Special
by Daniel Tessier
First broadcast 26th December, 1977
There are some television programmes that are just inextricably linked with Christmas. The Morecambe & Wise Show, Only Fools and Horses, Wallace and Gromit, the legendarily grim Eastenders Christmas episodes... some of the memories most associated with Christmas involve sitting in front of the telly with the family and watching a favourite programme. Some programmes give us a new festive episode every year, while others trot out the same well-worn special year after year. Somehow, though, these are the episodes that have the fondest memories attached-the ones that we remember watching as children and again as adults, the ones that have accompanied us through our lives.
"Paper chains in a pig sty?"
So it is with "Silly, But It's Fun," the penultimate episode of BBC1's The Good Life. First broadcast on Boxing Day 1977, seven months after the end of the fourth and final series, and six months before the final ever episode, the now legendary Royal Command Performance. It was last broadcast on Christmas Day 2016, but, shamefully, the BBC have decided not to broadcast it this year. (Not to worry - it's not exactly difficult to find online if you truly can't get through Christmas without it.)
The Good Life (broadcast in the US as Good Neighbors) is one of the most fondly remembered of the BBC's many sitcoms. Beginning in 1975, it saw Tom Good (a twinkling Richard Briers) become disillusioned with his career as a draughtsman for a company that made plastic toys to go in breakfast cereal boxes. Tom elected to rework his garden as a tiny farm and become self-sufficient. His wife Barbara (the irresistible Felicity Kendall), after some initial reluctance, agreed. This was a source of admiration, humour, and no little horror, to their more straight-laced friends and neighbours, Jerry and Margot Leadbetter (classic sitcom star Paul Eddington and an exquisitely cast Penelope Keith).
The Good Life always achieved respectable viewing figures for the BBC, particularly in its latter two series, but "Silly, But It's Fun" reached an all-time high for the programme with an astonishing 21 million viewers for that first broadcast (placing it within the top thirty most-watched television programmes in British history, omitting sporting events). It has repeated time and again over the last four decades.
So why is it such a favourite? Naturally, much of it lies in the good-natured appeal of The Good Life as a whole. The sitcom always displayed easy-going humour and impeccable performances from its four leads. The resolute commitments from the Goods has appealed to British audiences for years, for if there's one thing we can all support, it's the plucky underdog. There's something in the spirit of The Good Life that's just made for Christmas.
"Christmas has not been delivered."
The set-up for the Christmas special encapsulates the appeal of the series. While the Goods have spent fifteen pence on Christmas (on the balloons), making their own Yule log, growing their own dinner and crafting their own crackers, the Leadbetters have shelled out a tidy fifty grand for a vast society Christmas to be supplied by Harrods or similar. However, when the Christmas tree provided is six inches too short ("a measure to the depths to which standards have fallen,") Margot sends the whole lot back, somehow unaware that no one will be making extra deliveries on Christmas Day. If only Tom had thought just to stick on the sprig of spruce he picked up outside the grocers, the whole palaver could have been avoided.
Save for a memorable guest role by working-class hero David Battley as a laconic Christmas feast deliveryman, the episode revolves entirely around the four regulars, all of whom are on top form. The Goods selflessly invite their neighbours round to share their homemade Christmas, with newspaper party hats and peapod burgundy. After a sumptuous dinner, the four friends settle down to drinks and party games, something that Margot isn't prepared for. She's built more for canasta or bridge than sardines or balloons-between-the-knees. However, some timely advice from Tom soon puts her in the right frame of mind for such silly goings on: "Just pretend you're somebody stupid, like me."
One of the most memorable aspects of The Good Life was the simmering sexual tension that existed between the two couples (well, simmering by 1970s prime time BBC standards). The chemistry between Tom and Margot, and between Jerry and Barbara, was obvious throughout, and the presence of booze and mistletoe only brings it to the fore. By the time the balloons come out, we're practically watching a euphemism for suburban swinging.
Finally, though, it's time for presents, and while Barbara shows off her unique knitting skills, the Leadbetters lead in their gift to the Goods: their own cow. It's a wonderful moment to end the episode on, but it does raise the question: just where on Earth were they keeping it?
Dan Tessier 2017 for Television Heaven