In the hit or miss world of TV comedy, everything starts with the script. In America, the most successful sitcom series have used vast armies of writers, but in Britain it has traditionally been a one- or two-man (or very occasionally woman) operation, and the writers have often become household names, almost as much as the performers. Examples include Galton and Simpson, Carla Lane, Marks and Gran, and Richard Curtis. One duo, however, produced consistently highly-rated and high-quality series for more than 20 years without gaining that same level of public adulation: John Esmonde and Bob Larbey.
The ITV Years
It all began in 1966 with Room at the Bottom, a vehicle for Kenneth Connor1 which lasted just one series. Esmonde and Larbey had learned, though, and their next foray into television would be a stunning success.
Please, Sir! was based on a very simple premise; a young, newly-qualified teacher (John Alderton) arrives at tough, inner-city Fenn Street School and is put in charge of their rowdiest class - misfits and no-hopers not much younger than himself, the dreaded 5C. They exploit his naivety and inexperience, but he eventually wins them over with his compassion. This series gained huge ratings, establishing Alderton as one of Britain's leading comedy actors and spawned a feature film of the same name. The major disadvantage of the premise was that the actors couldn't go on playing schoolkids for ever and in 1972, after four series, it was time to say goodbye - but only to the school, because The Fenn Street Gang showed us those same young adults setting out into the real world, getting (or failing to get) jobs, dating, marrying and having babies, for another three seasons.
Following the adventures of Fenn Street was never going to be easy, and in the end Esmonde and Larbey plumped for that staple of British comedy, the military misfits sitcom. This was a tried and trusted formula from The Army Game through Dad's Army to It Ain't Half Hot Mum. Get Some In! followed a group of National Service recruits joining the Royal Air Force, and once again a talented actor broke through in a lead role: Robert Lindsay as Jakey Smith ('Is that with one 'f' or two?') was the wise-cracking London lad, the thorn in the side of Tony Selby as Corporal Marsh ('That's B-A-S-T-A-R-D, Marsh'), the man given the task of knocking these soft civilians into shape. David Janson2 played the innocent Ken Richardson, often led astray by Smith's bad influence.
Get Some In! didn't set the world alight, but it achieved respectable popularity and a five-series run, even surviving Lindsay's departure to star in John Sullivan's Citizen Smith, in which he once again played a loudmouth called Smith with a sidekick called Ken. It was, however, another Esmonde and Larbey creation from the same period which was to guarantee their place in the comedy firmament, taking them to the BBC and its middle-class world from the more working-class situations of ITV. The series that launched a million daydreams about Felicity Kendal's bottom was The Good Life.
Dig For Victory
To some people, The Good Life was the epitome of twee television, but millions watched every week and it became one of the best-loved comedy series ever. Set in the dyed-in-the-wool Tory commuter heartland of Surbiton, it was the story of a middle-ranking professional who hits 40 and decides to do something more original with his life: go self-sufficient. He digs up his lawn for a vegetable patch, buys a goat called Geraldine, and quits the rat race.
The charm of this premise was exceeded only by the strength of the four main characters, and the quality of the performances they drew from the cast: Richard Briers was Tom Good, the nicest of men and the most hopeless of dreamers. Felicity Kendal was his lovely wife Barbara, managing to be both the woman every man wanted to be with, and the one every mother wanted their son to marry. The late Paul Eddington as Jerry Leadbetter was the next door neighbour, former colleague and best friend to Tom, who would never dream of trading in his Volvo and his gin and tonic for a wheelbarrow and a glass of peapod burgundy. Penelope Keith was Margot, apparently stern and hidebound by convention, but underneath it all warm-hearted and just a little in love with Tom. The sight of Margot mincing around the garden helping Barbara to get in the potato harvest while Tom was bedridden with a back spasm was quite unforgettable.
After The Good Life
All four of the leads from The Good Life went on to their own series, and deservedly so. Kendal starred in Carla Lane's Solo alongside Stephen Moore3. Eddington saw his finest hour in Lynn and Jay's Yes Minister and later Yes, Prime Minister, reputed to be Margaret Thatcher's favourite TV programme. Keith took her snobbish persona even further upmarket as Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton in Peter Spence's To the Manor Born. Only Briers, however, had a follow-up also from the Esmonde and Larbey stable.
Ever Decreasing Circles starred Briers as Martin Bryce, a man a million miles away from Tom Good in almost every respect. Interfering, socially inadequate, obsessed with detail and with lists, Bryce was the man you'd most dread to be stuck talking to at a party. His one similarity to Good was a lovely and superhumanly understanding wife (Penelope Wilton as Anne), but even she was in danger from the debonair, dashing and incorrigibly flirtatious neighbour Paul (Peter Egan). Fleshing out the cast were the utterly dependable but deathly dull Howard and Hilda, temazepam on legs with matching sweaters. Circles won large audiences, but was never taken to the nation's hearts, probably because the main character was so annoying.
In 1986, while Circles was still in mid-run, Esmonde and Larbey's creative talents were turned to another series, this time firmly back amongst the working classes with Jacko, a house painter with an eye for the ladies, in Brush Strokes. The part of Jacko was taken by Karl Howman, who had impressed the writers when he replaced Robert Lindsay on Get Some In!, and the series was blessed with a memorable theme tune from Dexy's Midnight Runners which became a Top 20 single. The most memorable subsidiary character from the series was Elmo, played by Howard Lew Lewis, so over-the-top as to transcend tastelessness and with a wine bar to match. Brush Strokes flourished and ran for five series.
By the end of Brush Strokes, Esmonde and Larbey's style had perceptibly changed for the darker. Their new more introspective, downbeat view of the world gave rise to Hope It Rains, set in a seaside waxwork museum whose gloomy owner (Tom Bell as Harry Nash) hopes for bad weather to drive the crowds off the beach into his establishment. Harry's life is changed by the arrival of his 18-year-old orphaned goddaughter Jace, and their friction-filled relationship gave the series its laughs - but not enough of them to sustain it beyond a second season.
Their next creation, Mulberry, was in some ways even darker, but had an originality of thought and a deftness of touch which made it supremely watchable. Karl Howman again took the title role as Death's son, sent to Earth to gather souls; in particular the soul of the spinster Miss Farnaby (Geraldine McEwan), though the revelation of this fact was teased out across the whole run of the first series. Mulberry proves too kind-hearted and cannot bear to take her, to the frustration of his father. Mulberry was thought-provoking without being too demanding, and if it remains - as it is to date - their last major success, it will be a fitting epitaph to the careers of this fine writing partnership.
Bob Larbey has also had several solo projects worthy of note over the years - he wrote the screenplays for some episodes of The Darling Buds of May, and had individual sitcom successes with A Fine Romance, in which Judi Dench and her real-life husband Michael Williams starred as a middle-aged couple with an on-off relationship. In Larbey's As Time Goes By, Judi Dench stars again, this time opposite Geoffrey Palmer. A mature couple who had fallen in love during the war, but were separated by circumstance, are reunited when Lionel (Palmer) retires back to England after a lifetime growing coffee in Kenya. As Time Goes By is still running, and has become an enduring worldwide success - including a successful debut season on PBS in the USA in 2000 - thanks to its gentle, mature intelligence. However, it is surely for his work with Esmonde that Larbey will be most fondly remembered.