Think about this: A vegetable garden in your backyard. A chicken coop to the right of that garden, a penned-up goat to the left, and a pigsty behind it. Your entire front yard taken up by a potato crop. A makeshift electricity generator in your basement because your attempt to become self-sufficient means giving up what used to be essential in your life. And a few miles away, a patch of a field with other crops that can’t be nurtured at your home. Could you handle all this and make it work?
Tom Good (Richard Briers), snugly ensconced in relatively quiet Surbiton on the outskirts of London decides to try it after eight years as a draftsman for a company commissioned to create plastic toys for cereal “packets,” as they’re called in England. On Tom’s floor of the building, this work includes an ambitious young man named Brian who’s only in the first episode, but who proves perfectly why Tom wants out. Brian’s gotten so into the job that he won’t get out until he realizes what he’s done all these years, and by then, he’ll be too old to do anything about it.
Tom isn’t alone in this pursuit of a better life. His wife Barbara (Felicity Kendal), in the course of these three seasons (“series” in the U.K.) of the show, is one of the most willing, patient, and supportive wives ever on television. Without her, there really is no Tom Good, as she walks around their small garden in the first episode, thinking about what this idea of Tom’s will do to their lives, what they will have to give up, what they could live without, and how to do it without becoming insane from all the little problems that will creep up at every turn, from Tom wrenching his back and becoming unable to collect the first harvest, to Pinky the pig giving birth to a runt, sending everyone into a tizzy, including Tom and Barbara’s next-door neighbors and friends, the snobbish Leadbetters, Jerry and Margo (the late Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith), as milk, brandy and blankets are retrieved for the runt, as well as Barbara and Jerry rushing to the local hospital for an oxygen tank.
This certainly isn’t a typical sitcom and after a few episodes, the cheery, homey feel of the series is unmistakable. As the byplay of each couple becomes more and more distinguished, both pairs gradually mingle and “The Good Life” (BBC Video labels as it as “Good Neighbors,” but go with the U.K.’s title on this one. It’s more about life in Surbiton between these neighbors and the drive for self-sufficiency, than just them as neighbors) is even more endearing. Tom is not afraid to joke around with Margo, skidding very close to sexual overtones, though as Margo will be Margo, many jokes are lost on her over the course of these shows. There’s a novel sequence later on in the third season where, after the Goods have settled their anger with the Leadbetters over a wind-break in the Leadbetters’ garden potentially blocking the sunlight that would shine on the Goods’ fruit crops, about two bottles of the Goods’ Peapod Burgundy wine are consumed and they all engage in a subtle form of wife-swapping without even knowing it. In the ‘70s, according to the half-hour set of interviews on the fourth disc, many British newspapers had noted wife-swapping taking place in various neighborhoods, and this was John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s way of incorporating it, but with a slyness and even a sweetness that’s rare by other writerly sitcom minds.
The performances by all four actors are truly ensemble-tight. In the confines of any room, in the garden, near the pigsty, looking over fences, they all get their chance to show what they can do together and in some episodes, they stand out magnficiently, separately. Penelope Keith has a frenzied performance in “Mutiny” where she prepares for a disastrous community stage production of “The Sound of Music” where the real humor is mined a few episodes prior by her jockeying for the role of Maria, unbelievable casting when it comes to watching Margo all this time. Paul Eddington gets his moment in “The Wind-Break War” where his nerves are shorn by yet another erupting argument between Tom and Barbara, and Margo over the fruit crops being in the shadows. He just gets completely frustrated and flustered in that one moment. Richard Briers is good all around, in any scene, and Felicity Kendal strengthens Barbara even more in “The Last Posh Frock”, the last episode before the Christmas special, where all the work in becoming self-sufficient finds her being mistaken for a boy by a passer-by wanting directions, and she realizes what’s become of her, and of course, Tom isn’t aware of her frustration over this, especially when he doesn’t notice her wearing the only fancy dress she has left that makes her feel glamorous, and a real woman.
Still, they live side-by-side and as much as Margo disapproves of those inopportune times when Tom and Barbara’s work threatens her social successes in Surbiton, she appreciates the variety the couple provides in her life, even striving to learn why some things are so funny, as she never had much experience at laughing when she was at an all-girls school, with her branded with the nickname “Starchy.” If anything, these couples are also a close-knit family. None of them could possibly leave each other’s line of sight without a noticeable gap.
And besides all that, the British are lucky with their expressions. Where did we Americans stop in our own language that we ended up not having what they have? Take what we call Rock, Paper, Scissors in our country. It’s called Ching-Chang-Cholla over there. Boots, or work boots as it would seem, are called “wellies.” “Tat” means junk, trash, garbage or any other words close to those, and “shirty” means uppity, crazy, or emotional, from what can be made out during these seasons. It’s good that we keep our own national identity, but I think they got the better deal with their words.
All of this combines and you have one of the strongest comedic offerings in the history of their television industry. In the opening title sequence of “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, Bridget is in her pajamas, depressed, with “Frasier” starting on her TV. I only hope that the TV shows given to the U.K. by our country are an even trade. For what they’ve given us with this and many other high-quality works, hopefully it’s enough.