You are hereRichard Briers: why there’s no going back to the good life

Richard Briers: why there’s no going back to the good life

Anyone who thinks the Seventies was a decade of misery, inexcusable haircuts, appalling taste and grinding poverty really should spare a few moments on YouTube watching one of the classic sitcoms of the era, The Good Life.

The world it depicts could scarcely be further removed from the grim, tumultuous era of punk rebellion, oil crises and union work-to-rule you read about in all the trendy social histories. On the contrary, The Good Life makes the Seventies look so warm and charming and nostalgia-inducingly cosy that you rather wish we could all go back in time and live there now. Especially if we were lucky enough to have a next-door neighbour as delightful as that paragon of decency and niceness, the late Richard Briers.

Briers was, of course, a prolific light-comedy actor who excelled in a number of roles on stage and screen in a long and distinguished career embracing everything from Ayckbourn to Shakespeare. But there is one performance above all that he’ll be remembered for – Tom Good, the genial draughtsman who decides on his 40th birthday that he’s going to quit the rat race and live a simpler, more honest life of rugged self-sufficiency in his quintessentially middle-middle class suburban home in Surbiton.

“Downshifting” is what it would be called now. Back then, though, there wasn’t even a word for it. Sure, the world’s first Earth Day had been a huge success, the hippie movement was trundling on, and wholefood, self-sufficiency and vegetarianism were seen by Guardian-reading types as the coming thing. But these still were very much thought of as faddish, richly comical eccentricities.

To appreciate how much the world has changed, just try imagining a modern The Good Life remake. It would most likely fail for a number of reasons, starting with the premise: far from being appalled and embarrassed by the “sustainable” lifestyle of Tom and his wife Barbara, their aspirational neighbours Margo and Jerry Leadbetter would be falling over backwards to emulate it.

The dramatic conflict would have to come not from their comically contrasting world views, but from their fierce eco-rivalry: the Leadbetters would pour scorn on the Goods over their abject failure to own a Toyota Prius; the Goods would retaliate by catching Margo one day committing the mortal sin of putting a cardboard loo roll in the recycling bin meant for plastics and metals only.

Not, of course, that in the modern world neighbours would spend any time socialising with one another anyway. The Leadbetters would be far too busy on their laptops communicating with their cyber friends on Facebook and Twitter; the Goods would be preoccupied with a “Surbiton Says 'No’ To Fracking” campaign.

Above all, though, a remake would fall flat because nowhere, anywhere, in showbiz would casting agents likely find four actors capable of recreating the palpable warmth and sweetness of its stars, Paul Eddington, Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal and the great Richard Briers.

Partly this is a function of fashion. We live in the post-Ricky Gervais era, where humour is expected to be more knowing, edgy and naturalistic than in such old-fashioned comedies of class and manners as The Good Life, Dad’s Army and Steptoe & Son. Actors have adjusted their styles accordingly.

But it’s also a reflection of just how brilliantly talented that original Good Life ensemble was, especially Briers, for whom the series was written. Playing nice is among the hardest things to pull off for an actor: it’s so easy to be outshone by the villains or to come across as a bit naive or simple in the manner of Forrest Gump. Briers had the rare gift of making boundless innocence and endless enthusiasm seem not like signs of incipient idiocy but qualities to which we should all aspire. “Being happy in your skin, that’s the important thing,” his character – and indeed the sitcom built around it – seemed to say. “Everything else is a pure irrelevance.”

The Good Life’s viewing figures ran into the many millions – certainly a good 10,000 times more than the number of people who ever went to a Sex Pistols gig. Which is one indication, I think, of the bizarrely skewed perspective we have on our history: we rarely concentrate on the lives most ordinary people actually lived.

I remember the Seventies well and the decade I experienced couldn’t be more different from the version of popular media myth. Yes, there were power cuts; yes, we sometimes wore flares and tank tops; yes, there were only three TV channels. But at the time it all seemed normal, pleasant and perfectly comfortable, actually. We didn’t eat black forest gateau, prawn cocktail and Angel Delight as a sneeringly ironic retro fashion statement: we ate them because we thought they tasted delicious.

This is why so many of us of a certain age are going to be so devastated by the loss of Richard Briers. From the comforting voiceover he did for Roobarb (and Fiver in Watership Down) to his performance as Tom Good, Briers was the embodiment of a kinder, gentler era with values sadly now all but vanished. We shall miss him greatly.

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