The Good Life

The Good Life

1975 - United Kingdom

The mere mention of this series name is likely to bring a very large smile to the faces of British sitcom fans, for The Good Life is one of the few series that is considered a true classic. 

Created by veteran comedy writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey - who also created such comedies as Please Sir! and Ever Decreasing Circles - the series starred Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith. The idea for The Good Life came from two places - the first from Jimmy Gilbert who had been promoted to the Head of Comedy at the BBC in the early 1970's and wanted to find a vehicle for Richard Briers. 

The second from Esmonde and Larbey who, while taking a short break from writing one day, had started talking about middle age. It was through this conversation that the idea for The Good Life hit them. Both writers were approaching 40 and they wondered if this age marked a crossroads in life. It was from here that they came up with the idea of the story of a man who turns 40, was doing a job he hated, and felt terribly unfulfilled and decides to pack it all in for a new life. Excited by this idea, they sat about and thought what sort of new life would the character want for himself? The two mulled over several ideas until one of them suggested self-sufficiency. No sooner had the idea been mentioned, John and Bob knew they had something great in the making.

With the basis of the series at hand, the two writers approached Jimmy Gilbert at the BBC who immediately realized the series would have great potential and gave the go-ahead for the show. Initially, John and Bob thought Gilbert hated the idea, but as it would turn out, he actually loved it. Once they had got the go-ahead from Jimmy Gilbert, Esmonde and Larbey knew that the key element to the show would lie in the form of the characters. 

On behalf of the two writers, Jimmy Gilbert decided to approach Richard Briers to see if he liked the series idea. Luckily he did, but he asked to see some scripts before he would fully commit. With Briers now on board, Gilbert commissioned the two writers to produce a pilot episode and a backup one that could be used later in the series. Esmonde and Larbey put pen to paper and came up with two great scripts. The scripts met with Gilbert's approval and he then approached the Controller of BBC-1, who gave the go-ahead for the series. 

On reaching one of life's milestones, Tom Good (Richard Briers) is brave enough to take stock of his life and actually do something to change it. While they say life begins at 40, for Tom it does. It's been eight years since he joined JJM Limited as a draughtsman on the same day as his friend Jerry Leadbetter. But, while Jerry's career is flourishing, Tom's lack of ambition and ever-increasing dissatisfaction with his life has relegated him to an unrewarding career in middle management. Tired of commuting each day, earning a meagre salary, and doing a job he totally dislikes, Tom decides to pack it all in and attempts a life of self-sufficiency in suburban Surbiton. 

Although his loyal wife Barbara supports his decision to give up a secure job and risk all, Tom rarely considers her feelings in his struggle to make a success of his new life style. Even if courage, joviality and determination are his strengths, obstinacy and chauvinism, combined with a part of him that has never grown up, are among his weaknesses. Barbara is unwavering in her devotion to her husband. While she willingly gave up her comfortable lifestyle of holidays and dining out, she stands by Tom and gives him practical support in his fight to become self-sufficient. 

The Good Life TV series
Barbara and Tom

Once the series two main characters were in place the writers developed the personas of the two next-door neighbours: Jerry and Margo Leadbetter. Jerry is hard-working and does his best to help his wife Margo in the lifestyle she has become accustomed to. While Jerry enjoys the rewards of his labour, bubbling beneath the surface is a hankering for a less stressful life. Battling the traffic of the daily commute he almost envies his neighbours, the Goods and the bravery, determination and solidarity they show in their drive to buck the system and live off the land. But unlike Tom, Jerry doesn't have the kind of spouse who would agree to such an idea. Margo is a kind-hearted snob who buys her clothes at up-market boutiques in London all the while complaining that her clothing allowance is too small. 

Thanks to her husband Jerry, Margo is able to live a life of luxury, while she stays at home and looks after the house. Apart from spending money, Margo is a 'leading light' in the local musical society, rides horses and belongs to a women's political society. Despite appearing to be outgoing and gregarious, Margo has an inability to understand jokes or to let her hair down. The Leadbetters had to be completely different to the Goods. It was definitely a Margo driven household and Jerry's behaviour was always about keeping his wife happy. Jerry had a bit of a neurotic edge to him, because of his job and responsibilities, and while he didn't completely approve of his neighbours lifestyle, part of him envied what they achieved. But, while Jerry was extremely successful in his job, Margo was definitely the kind of wife that suited him. 

Margo was socially adept, and quite willing to entertain 20 businessmen at short notice. She supported her husband in all that he did but she did have her pretentious and snobbish side. Margo would not be unknown to say she was too good for Surbiton. 

Margo and Jerry in The Good Life
Margo and Jerry

When it came to deciding who would direct and produce The Good Life, Jimmy Gilbert felt the best person for the job would be aptly skilled John Howard Davies. Davies jumped at the chance to work on the series as he was looking forward to working with Richard Briers. 

With Briers having already been cast as Tom Good, it was up to Davies and his team to find the other three major characters. One of Davies original choices to play Barbara Good and Jerry Leadbetter had been Hannah Gordon and Peter Bowles. When Gordon was asked to play Barbara she turned the role down because she felt the character was too close to one she had just finished playing on TV. And when Peter Bowles was approached to play Jerry, he decided to say no also as he didn't' want to be tied down to a series and preferred to take on a stage role he'd been offered instead. 

Esmonde and Larbey suggested an actress they'd seen in a Benson & Hedges cigarettes TV commercial who they thought would be good for the part of Margo. While they had no idea who she was, it turned out that the actress they were interested in was Penelope Keith, who was appearing on stage in Alan Ayckbourn's play "The Norman Conquests". Jimmy Gilbert was excited by their choice as he had seen both Keith and Felicity Kendal a few weeks earlier in the play and thought both would be suitable.

Although the show was originally written as a vehicle for Richard Briers, and while he and his screen wife enjoyed the majority of the early episodes, the Leadbetters were so well defined and brilliantly played that they soon became stars in their own right. 

The character of Margo was only a peripheral figure in the early episodes, but when one episode ran short, the writers devised a filler scene showing her talking on the telephone. Penelope Keith quickly established herself as a formidable character. The British public became fascinated by Margo's intense snobbery, and many viewers tuned in to enjoy the characters chastisement of The Good's, Jerry or whichever hapless workman she was employing that week. 

Penelope Keith quickly established herself as a leading comedy actress and went on to take top billing in subsequent sitcoms. In fact, all the cast were rewarded further with their own starring vehicles when The Good Life eventually ended. The Good Life is a prime example of British situation comedy at its best. The humour is inoffensive, unthreatening and warming and combined with a wealth of good storylines. It was the interplay between the two couples that gave the show its lasting appeal.

Published on December 19th, 2018. Written by Bob Furnell & Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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