Ever Decreasing Circles
Following the sad death of John Esmonde, I thought I'd dig out this article I wrote for kettering some time ago celebrating perhaps the very best of Esmonde and Larbey's sitcoms, Ever Decreasing Circles. Hopefully I'll be able to prove the obituary writer wrong in their assessment of EDC as 'bland and inoffensive'. They really weren't paying attention...
The BBC used to be terribly good at churning out odd sitcoms that, while looking inoffensive enough, were actually rather subversive and cerebral. Ever Decreasing Circles ran for a compelling four series, and served as a reminder of how fragile marriage and friendship are, especially if you're taking your loved ones for granted.
Written by Esmonde and Larbey, the partnership that brought you the ultimate suburban sitcom, The Good Life, the programme focuses on Martin Bryce, a obsessive and uptight man who organised just about every activity bar orgies in his part (in more ways than one) of Horsham, a town in Surrey. Running the lives of the inhabitants of 'the Close' dominates Martin's life, to the point of having his box room as an office, and owning a duplicating machine. His ambition is to buy a photocopier. This sort of drive to be invaluable to the community, although laudable in its own way, does seem to be symbolic of something else missing, and Richard Briers certainly plays Martin in a manner that almost suggests autism in the first series (1984). Briers later gives a similar performance in the criminally underrated (and just released) If You See God, Tell Him.
The theme tune, an ostensibly twee piano piece (according to alt.fan.shostakovich, the Prelude Op. 34 No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich, played by Ronnie Lane), has a curious rhythm about it, which seems to signify a descent into mania on the part of the pianist. Martin also owns a hopelessly rigid and old-fashioned moral code, which causes him to describe Les Dawson as an alternative comedian. As Ann says "I don't think Martin entirely approves of the 20th Century.". Obviously, Martin cannot hold together the community and his marriage at the same time, which is why Ann Bryce epitomises the phrase 'long-suffering', as she tries to grab back her husband from his mania. Ann herself is an unlikely wife for Martin, as she is sociable, kind, thoughtful and open-minded, and this marriage of opposites is highlighted by the arrival in the first episode of their new next-door neighbour, Paul Ryman. Paul runs a hairdressing salon, and is totally at his ease with women, with a naughty glint in his eye. As Paul is instantly popular with people, has no respect whatsoever for Martin's reverence for tradition, and seems to master anything he puts his mind to, Martin is fearsomely jealous and scared of him. In some respects, he has cause to be scared, as Paul and Ann instantly hit it off, and the saga of whether Ann will give in to Paul's shameless flirting carries on throughout the four series.
Martin and Ann's friends (and cohorts), Howard and Hilda, are a blissfully married couple whose contentment lies in wearing the same clothes, and going through the same twee verbal exchanges every day, when Howard leaves and returns from work. Hilda describes Howard's joke on returning from work "As funny today as it was 23 years ago". However, Howard and Hilda should not be underestimated. Hilda particularly shows a passionate soul at times, and clearly fancies Paul rotten, although she adores Howard far too much to ever be tempted. Howard is often browbeaten by Martin into joining in his 'community' schemes, but can stand up to Martin if he feels that his own set of values are being threatened, and will not tolerate Martin's occasional bursts of temper. Although they are essentially as closed-minded as Martin, Howard and Hilda are really quite fond of Paul, and often find themselves in an awkward position because of Martin's inferiority complex.
Martin's inferiority complex comes from a life lived as an outsider, with his great mission being someone who is needed and respected, leading to him often creating his own world in his head when the real one doesn't come up to scratch. To hear him talk about his job (a stock control manager), you would be forgiven for assuming that he played an important role in his organisation, but his real lack of status is shown when he gets his office reduced in size. Martin is forced to stand up for himself, and we get an idea of what has made Martin the person he is when he recalls past humiliations. He is someone always searching for popularity, and fulfills his desire to be needed through his community activities. For Martin, the Close is his patch, which can only be served properly by him, and anyone who threatens that is not to be tolerated. Paul is effortlessly popular, which drives Martin to distraction, but what Martin is too angry to realise is that Paul has his own need to be loved. There isn't an activity Paul can't sort out by calling on one of his friends, and although his generosity of spirit and charm has clearly served him well throughout his life, it seems obvious to the viewer that he has mainly bought friendship. However, it is undeniable that he has exceptional talent, as he played cricket for Cambridge University, and, as his estranged wife explains, took up ladies' hairdressing on a whim and became better than her very quickly.
Martin feels the apparent injustice of this acutely. He is particularly wounded in the local cricket match in series two (1984), where he reluctantly lets Paul play under pressure from Howard and Ann. He has to face an angry captain of the losing team, who accuses him of cheating, as the two teams are made up of enthusiastic amateurs, rather than skilled players. It is difficult not to feel sympathy for Martin, who prizes his value of fairness, something that Paul sidesteps in order to gain in popularity locally. Martin, with less justification, also feels that Paul is not playing fair in other community activities, and is trying to usurp his imaginary position as pillar of the community. All Paul really does in the early days is show just how boring Martin's efforts to organise things his way are to others, and injects a bit of fun into proceedings. Interestingly, although Paul only shows a desire to wind up Martin at first, he gets more like Martin as the series goes on, to the point where he slips into Martin's place effortlessly.
Martin is further humiliated (at least in his eyes) when he spring-cleans the house when Ann is in hospital, imagining that his talents extend to housework, showing just how much he underestimates Ann's contribution to the running of the household. Paul has to step in and save him from the mess he gets himself in, which looks like an opportunity for Martin to revise his opinion of Paul. It doesn't happen, and even in series three (1986), when Paul actually saves Martin's marriage from breaking up from the actions of a truly contemptible colleague, Martin still can't accept that Paul is capable of helping him. For all his faults, Paul represents a voice of sanity in the Close, although Martin sees him as a force for anarchy. While Martin follows his own moral code to its often destructive conclusion, Paul's more flexible approach means that he is a lot less naïve than Martin, and manages to save Martin's Neighbourhood Watch group from disaster in series four. Martin's self-righteousness is given a rather painful prick in this episode, and serves to remind him that he alone cannot protect the Close from burglars, as those burglars may not confirm to Martin's idea of what a ne'er do well is. Series four also includes the best example of how frighteningly inflexible Martin can be when he is legally, but not necessarily morally, in the right, when his campaign to secure public footpaths uncovers one running right through his back garden. He justifies himself to Ann thus: "I hate the thought (of strangers walking through their garden), love, but right is right. Now if you'll excuse me for a couple of hours, I have to make a stile.". To the relief of both Martin and Ann, a man from the council comes round and tells them that the council and developers redrew the map when the Close was built. Martin, through prompting by Ann, realises that he is being ordered to take the sign down, and does so, because he will be obeying authority.
Martin also imagines that he holds up a certain set of values on behalf of his household, and seeks to control the behaviour of others in an occasionally alarming fashion. From the start, we see that he has developed the habit of not listening to Ann, and that she is often forced to lose her temper in order for him to take notice of her. As a consequence, Martin has imagined that Ann agrees with his outlook on life, so when she becomes a mildly radicalised Open University student, Martin is outraged. Although he is proud of her desire to learn, despite trying to turn it into a point-scoring exercise against Paul, he cannot tolerate her protest against funding being cut for her studies, equating it to a support for communism. Obviously, this is absurd, but Martin is supported in this view by both Howard and Hilda, who nonetheless turns up to accompany Ann in her protest solely so Howard will be forced to drag her back home with him. Leaving aside Hilda's pre-feminist behaviour, the funniest part of this episode is Paul turning up in a Russian hat with a large placard proclaiming 'Lenin Is a Nice Man'. Although it wouldn't have helped Ann in the slightest, the prospect of annoying Martin was clearly too tempting for Paul to pass up.
Howard and Hilda show the same single track of thought when Paul helps out Ann with her Open University studies, as the meetings have to be secret to avoid Martin's jealousy. Hilda catches sight of Ann climbing over her fence into Paul's garden, and her imagination causes just the sort of trouble Ann was trying to avoid. Martin's desire to control the lives of his friends (and Ann) also becomes evident when the four of them are planning to visit the same hotel in Bavaria for the eighth year running, much to Ann's not-quite-so-secret disappointment. Paul offers them the chance of a villa in Spain, and Martin turns him down, for, he thinks, all of them. Howard and Hilda then decide to take the offer, much to Martin's disgust, and Ann is livid when she learns that Martin turned down the offer in her absence. She decides she will go to Spain, which upsets Martin a great deal, but then changes her mind when she learns Paul will be there too, as she realises the effect it will have on both Martin and herself. She tells a much relieved Martin, who then agrees (after some coaxing) to a holiday in Greece.
Martin does soften throughout the programme's run (although he's still uptight and humourless to the end), mostly due to the efforts of Ann and Paul. Paul tries to get Martin to break out of his prison of old match reports and bus tickets when his fussing over undone jobs keeps Ann up all night, although it backfires when Martin gets so relaxed that he forgets that he had promised to take Howard and Hilda to the airport. Ann also tries to persuade Martin to visit a psychiatrist, but he is unable to understand why he should go. Ann's efforts aren't confined to improving Martin's personality, however. Ann is not content as a housewife, regardless of the entertainment Martin provides, and this manifests itself in behaviour which looks like boredom to the average viewer, but is incomprehensible to Martin. In the first series, Ann often repeats things three times, although the arrival of Paul makes her life a little more interesting, which causes her to stop by the end of the series. By the second series, Ann decides that even life with Paul around is rather too repetitive, and takes off on a day trip to Bourlogne, horrifying Martin when bad weather causes her to stay over for the night. Paul then offers her a job in his salon, but withdraws it when he realises that Ann wants it to spite Martin's pride over her not having to work, showing that he isn't willing to foster bad relations between the Bryces. After a short but unsuccessful job search, Martin suggests the Open University, and so Ann becomes a student.
The Christmas special of the second series presents Martin with a challenge when, while he is in bed, Ann and Paul use both houses to house all of Paul's guests for Christmas. To Martin's horror, even Howard and Hilda are having a good time. However, in a very clever piece of reverse psychology, Paul gives Martin the job of organising accommodation and rotas, which Martin throws himself into with glee. "You know, I've worn out three biros already!".
Given that Ann and Martin are often quite different, the viewer could be forgiven for asking why they ever got married in the first place. Esmonde and Larbey show their talent for character development throughout the show's run, giving us scenes suggesting that Martin wasn't always putting community before Ann, with Ann always bringing up the memory of a weekend in Kidderminster to get Martin in the mood. The sight of an aroused Martin is intriguing, and lets us see the Martin that Ann fell in love with. However, that is not the whole story. Despite Martin's old-fashioned ways and obsessions that often result in her exclusion, the storyline with Paul demonstrates just how much Ann really loves Martin, and that her love goes deeper than a dirty weekend in the West Midlands. As she tells Martin later in the series' run, she loves him because of his belief in honesty and integrity, which is under threat due to his unreasonable loathing of Paul. In fact, if Ann had loved Martin any less, their marriage would certainly have broken up, as Martin's inability to come to terms with himself causes rifts between them, but it's fair to say that the real trouble lies only in Martin's head. In effect, he nearly splits up with himself. The depth of his despair is shown in a scene from the fourth series (1987), where a curious sequence of events leads him to believe that Ann has finally left him for Paul. He breaks down in tears, which is impossible not to be moved by, even when you've been infuriated by his behaviour earlier. He shows how much he really loves Ann by leaving the martial home, leaving Ann a note to wish her luck with Paul, bringing meaning to the phrase 'If you love someone, let them go.'. Their reconciliation, rather aptly in the library when Martin is taking his books back, brings a much-needed openness to their relationship, and sets the scene for the final feature length episode broadcast in 1989, New Horizons.
The feature-length episode features a newly promoted Martin, who is content with his life for perhaps the first time, when he is given the news that the company is relocating to Oswestery, and that he has the option of earning a great deal more money if he moves with the company. Martin tells everyone he knows that he couldn't possibly move, as he feels part of the Close, and the whole episode then shows us, and Martin, that while people may have appreciated his efforts, he is not irreplaceable. It takes an argument with Ann for her to tell him that part of the reason she wants to move is that she is pregnant with their first baby, and the possibility of Martin getting a different job at his age is remote. We see the organisation of the local fete, where Martin recognises that he no longer has the time to devote to it, and finds himself handing over the organisation to Paul, who, with the help of his contacts, does a better job. Although the episode gives us a nice conclusion to the series, it is over-long, and could have been done within 40 minutes. As a consequence, the joke rate is vastly reduced, but it is still well written and serves a useful purpose, as we see the final breakthrough of Martin's character. After almost resenting his unborn child for 'forcing' him to Oswestery, Martin suddenly realises how badly he has behaved, and how his presence in the Close is not essential. As he explains to Ann: "In order for someone like me to be centre stage, I needed to write the play.". It becomes clear to Martin that the play is not ending, but simply entering the next act.
Mark Lewisohn, in the Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy, gives a damning account of Martin, and suggests that Ann should have left him for Paul, but this seems a bit unfair. After all, Martin was simply trying to represent values of honesty, integrity, and caring for others. Ann stays with Martin because she admires these core values: it's just because Martin got so caught up in trying to uphold these values for everyone else that he became so inflexible. The result of such dogmatic thinking is still clearly to be seen in the world today. Ever Decreasing Circles seems to be one of the forgotten jewels in BBC Light Entertainment history, as it is hilarious, witty, touching and intelligent. In fact, it is far superior to the (still excellent) Good Life. In addition to the fine writing and production, the casting is perfect. Richard Briers gives a painfully accurate performance of Martin, with Penelope Wilton showing Ann as a frustrated, but tolerant and loyal wife, who is a well-rounded individual in her own right. Peter Egan is a charming and compassionate Paul, with the sort of smile that would make a pair of knickers drop at 30 paces, and Stanley Lebor and Geraldine Newman make a perfect Howard and Hilda. It is a wonderfully watchable masterpiece.