Tom Good had a midlife crisis at age 40 and decided to drop out of society, if not the neighborhood. Tom wanted to work at the job of life itself and leave the 9-to-5 drudgery and consumerism behind. So he, along with his understanding wife Barbara, turned their middle-class home and yard into a suburban farm. He was determined to be as damn near self-sufficient as possible.
I’m talking about the wildly successful British sit-com The Good Life (1975 – 1980). It was called Good Neighbors in the United States when it premiered on PBS in the early 80s. There had been an American sit-com with the same name a few years earlier and the presenters wanted to avoid confusion.
I remember seeing ads on PBS at the time, touting a new “Brit-Com” that would be debuting soon. It had a scene from the second episode, I believe, showing Barbara (Felicity Kendal) smashing the glass out of their greenhouse so Tom (Richard Briers) could convert it to a chicken coop. (Yep, they were going to keep chickens, too. And pigs. And a goat.) She was wearing a scuba mask to prevent glass shards getting in her eyes. Tom told her she looked utterly ridiculous and she called him “Honey Tongue.”
I think it was my mom that convinced me to start watching the show. Before long I was smitten. Sure, Barbara was cute as a button and awfully sexy at the same time, so that helped peak my interest. But, I wasn’t just smitten with Barbara. The show had wended its way into my heart. (If you tell people I said I have a heart, I’ll deny it!)
The Goods lived next door to the Leadbetters: Margo (Penelope Keith) and Jerry (Paul Eddington). Tom and Jerry (that sounds familiar) had both worked for the same plastics company that manufactured toys for breakfast cereals. They both started on the same day eight years previous. Tom was more talented, but Jerry knew how to play the game. Jerry rose to the executive level while Tom languished working with younger men, who would soon rise to the executive level as well.
Margo Leadbetter plays the lovable foil. She’s prim and proper. Very conservative. She has difficulty understanding why something is funny. She’s a snob, but she truly cares for Tom and Barbara. Well, Barbara. She tolerates Tom.
The two couples represent different ends of the economic spectrum. The Leadbetters are affluent and love their luxuries. The Goods are damned poor, but they love their life and their freedom from the trappings of middle class society. Despite these differences, they are friends. Fast friends. In fact, although Tom likes to think he and Barbara are self-sufficient, the Leadbetters come in very handy from time to time. Margo and Jerry come through for their friends even while being embarrassed by them. And, on more than one occasion, Jerry reminds Tom of the reality of dealing with society, not matter how dropped out they think they are.
The show is also genuinely funny. Particularly the episode titled The Wind-Break War, in which Margo’s new wind-break for her backyard keeps ending up in the wrong place for the Goods. A frustrated tradesman finds himself trapped in this battle of miscommunications between neighbors. The viewers are sympathetic to his plight, but we’re still laughing. Cooler heads prevail and the homemade wine pours. Innocent flirtations between couples come close to not being so innocent. And Margo gets the last laugh.
28 episodes plus two specials (one a command performance for the Queen) are all that there is. In the old days of American television that would be one season. But through those episodes the audience comes to know and love four very real characters. We struggle right along with Tom and Barbara, through a difficult harvest to a roof with a hole in it to the runt of the pig litter and to not having anything worth stealing. And we feel pride when the Goods brush themselves off and push on.
The Goods (and the Leadbetters) live the good life.
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