After the unexpected success of ‘The Good Life’ the BBC decided to give each of that series ensemble cast their own sit com. Paul Eddington was given the role of Jim Hacker in both ‘Yes, Minister’ and it’s successor ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ while the breakout star from ‘The Good Life’ Penelope Keith starred as Audrey fforbes-Hamilton in ‘To the Manor Born’.
Faring less well was Felicity Kendal who’s two sit-coms, ‘Solo’ and ‘The Mistress’, both written by Carla Lane were flops. Then there was Richard Briers he was already a huge star when ‘The Good Life’ started, indeed it was originally conceived as a star vehicle for him, but in 1984 he reunited with writers Esmonde and Larbey and ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ was created.
The series is slightly baffling. At first glance it’s a standard mid 80s suburban sit com, however there is more to it than that. It managed to veer from farce to realism and back again smoothly, and even the most strange of characters have depth to them.
Briers plays Martin Bryce, an obsessive man who is married to Anne, played by Penelope Wilton, they live in ‘The Close’ and Martin organises all the social activities for the area. He’s the Captain of the Cricket team, the Manager of the under 13s Football team, organises charity balls, snooker tournaments, quiz nights and basically everything.
However Martin isn’t exactly a natural leader. He is petty, small minded and probably suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. Into this world walks Paul Ryman, played by Peter Egan, Cambridge educated former army officer who buys the house next door and with an easy charm is instantly more popular than Martin could ever be.
Martin is extremely envious of Paul. He feels that while he has had to struggle for everything, Paul just gets it handed to him on a plate. That Paul is eroding Martin’s power base and doesn’t care also annoys Martin.
Yet Paul himself is flawed. He’s divorced and when his ex wife does show up she paints a picture of him as being scared of success. He left the Army when they wanted to promote him, took on a dive bar in Singapore and within six months it was the most popular place on the island, learned hairdressing in a matter of weeks, and runs a small salon in the high street. Which he later closes when it gets too successful.
Through the series he has a string of girlfriends. Unusually these were all played by actors in the same age bracket as Egan, rather than the typical older man with young women trope. In fact all of these women are presented as well educated and strong characters who either run their own business or have well paying jobs.
Martin’s wife Anne isn’t exactly a typical sit com character. At the start of the series she seems to be suffering from depression, she finds Paul attractive yet always shuts down his flirting with sarcasm and signs up to the Open University to boost her confidence, after feeling dull next to one of Paul’s girlfriends, only to find that she can barely scrape a passing grade.
Then there are the other neighbours, Howard and Hilda Hughes. Played by Stanley Lebor and Geraldine Newman. A childlike middle-aged couple who wore matching sweaters, called their spare room ‘The Polly Wally Doodle’ room and made a straw donkey named Neddy. They generally are under Martin’s thumb but also like Paul. Agreeing with him over Martin more often than not.
Somehow all of these parts come together and create something that is unique. Martin is anything but a likeable character, yet the audience ends up rooting for him. Paul is charming, although his charm is somewhat superficial like that of a con man. Anne is the most sympathetic character and then there is the bizarre world of Howard and Hilda.
As a comedy ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ stands apart. It’s of the 80s but not about them. There is a class dynamic yet that isn’t the driving force. It’s larger than life characters are somehow believable. Initially critics didn’t know what to make of it, and while some of Martin’s eccentricity was toned down for season two it continued to baffle.
Yet it picked up a strong following, and audience figures were always high. The series is often overlooked but is a real gem. A mixture of narrative and comedy that is hard to really define.
After four series and a Christmas special ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ ended in 1989. For many years it was rarely repeated yet now has become a mainstay on channels like GOLD. When released on DVD it became a surprise bestseller.