Monday, February 18, 2013

Richard Briers, Tom Good and the rise of Margaret Thatcher

For all his ability as a classical actor, Richard Briers (whom we are mourning today) will be best remembered for his roles in situation comedies and for one in particular.

Yet Briers was not a great admirer of Tom Good. He told the Daily Mail a few years ago:
"I thought Tom was a very selfish person. Poor old Barbara never got any dresses, and presents, any treats. He was so obsessed. It was always about him...his ideas, his plans." 
And he said that Tom's green credentials were seriously undermined by the way he relied on wealthy neighbours Margo and Jerry when things went wrong. 
He added: "Tom had a parasitical side to his nature. He would always be popping over to Margo's for a handout."
And though The Good Life appears to have established itself as a timeless classic, it has its roots in a very particular time and place: Britain after the oil crisis of 1973 and before the advent of Margaret Thatcher.

In my day job I have learnt the hold that television comedies have on the popular imagination. We once got the same piece of psychology research reported a couple of times in the same month just because it gave the papers an excuse to publish a picture of Harry Enfield's Kevin the teenager.

Yet you rarely see these comedies used as a vehicle for social or political analysis. One exception to this rule is The Age of Insecurity by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson from 1998 - a work I admire, and not just because it is the first book whose index I appeared in.

Here they are on Fawlty Towers as a metaphor for Britain in the 1970s:
riven by conflict, indifferent to the needs of customers, held back by shoddy workmanship. Interestingly, perhaps, the only person who could make the hotel work was Basil's gorgon of a wife, Sybil. Like another woman coming to prominence in the mid-1970s, she was middle-aged, blonde, shrill, philistine and utterly ruthless.
And here is their take on The Good Life:
The Good Life showed that even those who would have considered themselves to be part of the progressive wing of the bourgeoisie, the Guardian-reading supports of the Welfare State and redistribution, had lost faith in the ability of the Government to deliver. ... 
The edge to The Good Life's humour was provided by the contrast between Tom and Barbara and their next-door neighbours, Jerry and Margo, who remained committed to their traditional bourgeois values of class superiority, keeping up appearances, the quest for promotion, comfort, security. 
The sympathy of the viewer was intended to be with Tom and Barbara as they mucked out the pigs and milked the goats, but many would have instinctively felt for Jerry and Margo as their suburban lifestyle was squeezed between the nutcracker jaws of high inflation and militant trade unionism.
They go on to suggest that The Good Life is the one classic sitcom from the 1970s that could be transplanted to 1998. I am not so sure about that: the seventies had power cuts and retired generals raising private armies, but the nineties were tame by comparison.

And it is the differences that Elliott and Atkinson point to themselves that are more striking. Tom and Barbara, they say, would be downshifters who had made their money and were now intent on 'finding themselves'. And Jerry and Margo?
The new Jerry and Margo would be much like the old Jerry and Margo, but with rather more reason to be worried. In the 1970s there was really not much threat to Jerry's comfortable perch on the corporate ladder ... But in the 1990s he would be forever looking over his shoulder to see whether the management consultants called in by his new Japanese or American owners were about to downsize him.
As to Tom Good's ideas, Davie Philip once suggested in Scottish Left Review that they were based on the writings of John Seymour, "the father of self-sufficiency":
Surprisingly John once told me that he was actually wrong about self-sufficiency. On a visit to his small-holding in Wexford, John shared with me his conclusion that it would be too difficult to sustain the noble effort of living off-grid and providing for all your own needs on your own land. Self sufficiency wasn’t enough. His new thinking was co-sufficiency, self-reliant local communities that could provide the social relationships essential for facing an uncertain future. Seymour predicted that we would need strong connected communities that could work together to meet their needs and make the transition to a post-industrial economy not dependent on fossil fuel. 
If Tom and Margo of The Good Life were striving to be self-sufficient now, they would probably have started a community garden or joined their local Transition group and be engaged in the building of food and energy security with their neighbours. That’s The Good Life 2.0, a community approach to building local resilience because, as Richard Heinberg writes in his book ‘Powerdown’, “personal survival depends on community survival”.
I think Richard Briers was right: Tom Good would have been too selfish for The Good Life 2.0.

And I don't think Tom and Margo would ever have worked, even though a latter-day Margo would surely be keen on organic food.

Jerry and Barbara would have been a different matter. One of the show's strengths was that you could see he fancied her something rotten, even though nothing was ever said. I think Barbara should have run off with him.

But Richard Briers was not Tom Good. and it is the actor not the character whom we are mourning tonight.

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Gawain said...

I really enjoyed Richard briers in the BBC adaptation of the Lifemanship/Oneupmanship books of Stephen Potter, though no eulogy I have yet seen has mentioned this short series,

Edis said...

The SLR article was in a 2009 issue.

The .pdf for this is

Epictetus said...

I'm not sure that it's worth drawing attention to the fact that Jerry fancied Barbara. He would, wouldn't he. The worst episode of The Good Life was the one predicated on the possibility of Tom finding someone more attractive than Barbara. Keeping pigs in your suburban backgarden - unlikely but possible. Being attracted by someone else when you're married to Felicity Kendal - beyond ridiculous.