What follows is a lie.
Here is some dialogue that was cut from Ever Decreasing Circles:
MARTIN: Look, Howard, I am trying to scull here. Would you kindly stop dragging the anchor in the water?
HOWARD: Sculls don’t have anchors.
MARTIN: Now, let’s have a look at you, Devizes. You’ve put old Bridport in the shade.
HOWARD: Martin, you are talking to those bits of paper.
MARTIN: You know, I used to do this for my Auntie Alice. She was a very nice lady. She made a lovely chocolate spread, I seem to remember. I often wonder if I was responsible for her phlebitis.
These lines aren’t from Ever Decreasing Circles. But they easily could have been.
Before the success of Brush Strokes (1986-1991), Esmonde and Larbey’s two biggest BBC series were The Good Life (1975-1978) and Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-89). Both starred Richard Briers, and there’s a clear line to be traced from Tom Good to Martin Bryce.
As The Good Life begins, Tom Good is a frustrated industrial designer, turning forty and wondering what more there is to life. His solution is to apply his skills and enthusiasm to something new: self-sufficiency. Four series later, he has morphed into a forthright bully, not listening to his wife or (pretty much) anyone else, and going largely unchallenged. Neither the writers nor the actor liked the character.
Ever Decreasing Circles introduces a man who tries to control everything, doesn’t listen, and has gone unchallenged for rather too long. But now – unlike Tom Good – he has an antagonist, and the two are a mere driveway apart.
Between these two sitcoms there was another, penned by Esmonde and Larbey for the BBC and starring Richard Briers. And it wasn’t a success.
The Other One has slightly faded from view. There were two series, in 1977 and 1979. The first was released on DVD in 2007 to little fanfare, and the second is yet to be commercially available. It is that rare confection: a sitcom that’s neither domestic nor workplace.
Ralph Tanner (Richard Briers) is ‘the most bumptious, pushy, ghastly man in the world’. At an airport bar, he bumps into Brian Bryant, ‘the most boring man in the world’. (See Dan and Diana Danby in Ever Decreasing Circles: character names with built-in echoes are Esmonde and Larbey shorthand for ‘boring’.) The pair are spectacularly mismatched.
Ralph is an appalling, cocky, oily, boorish, charmless know-it-all and self-proclaimed ‘lone wolf’.
RALPH: You put any door in front of my knuckles and I’ll knock on it, whether it wants to be knocked on or not.
Brian is nervous, divorced, well meaning, gutless and an outright passenger, musclebound by minutiae.
BRIAN: Take me, for example: I count. Railings, stairs, bricks and so forth. Well, that’s not really right, is it?
Both have moustaches. Both are on their way to Spain. Both are clearly bachelors. And, as will become evident, both are lonely.
Brian is immediately impressed by Ralph, who (unlike him) can get the barman’s attention at a stroke (see Paul Ryman at The Egremont Club – ‘Steward!’), and he hesitantly follows Ralph’s lead in being markedly relaxed about boarding the plane.
RALPH: I don’t scrum, I don’t jostle, I don’t race. I stroll. I’d sooner miss a plane my way than catch it your way.
As a result, they do miss their flight, arrive at their Costa del Sol hotel nine hours late and find themselves having to share a (non-guest) room together. So is this a holiday sitcom, like Duty Free or Benidorm? To begin with, yes.
Ralph and Brian are well written characters. But they are also, perhaps, works in progress. Ralph has a lot in common with Martin.
Don’t quote Shakespeare at me, Brian. Particularly when he’s in one of his cockier moods.
Look, I’m not being old-fashioned about timekeeping. I’m just saying it’s your fault.
Brian, am I allowed to get to my crux?
I am a difficult sort of chap to get on one postcard.
I don’t like satire, Brian. Doesn’t ring bells with me.
Would you kindly put all these little birds in your head into their respective cages and listen to what I’m saying?
Nail on the head, Brian. Nail on the head.
And some (though far fewer) of Brian’s lines could have been Howard’s.
I should be home in time for Nationwide.
I, personally, am my weakest point.
That’s why I don’t talk about myself. I’m not vital.
Everything I deal with is totally useless.
Together, Ralph and Brian contain the seeds of Martin and Howard’s double act.
RALPH: Look, Brian, I am trying to scull here. Would you kindly stop dragging the anchor in the water?
BRIAN: Sculls don’t have anchors.
RALPH: All right, Brian, all right. What’s the matter? Have you gone mad? Are you having a spasm or something?
BRIAN: Well, you did ask.
RALPH: Oh yes. He asked. Ralph asked. And he got, didn’t he? The old death by a thousand cuts, eh?
Ralph is irritated by Brian’s little habits.
RALPH: The one that comes at the top of my list is when you say, every single day that we are out in the country, ‘Hello, hello: first cow of the day.’
BRIAN: Oh, well, I can explain that. It’s connected with Swiss roll.
This is very typically Esmonde and Larbey. Compare:
ANN: Hilda, why do you call your spare room ‘The Polly Wolly Doodle Room’?
HILDA: Because of the gramophone record.
But the big difference between Ralph and Martin is that Ralph is, by any measure, impossible to like. Tom Good is remembered with affection, and he’s unbearable. Ralph is awful – for solid, comic reasons – but something drives a wedge between the character and the audience. What?
There is a virus in TV comedy that occasionally flares up, and it comes in the form of the note (to writers) that the character must be likeable.
This is horseshit.
Tom Good is a bully. Basil Fawlty is a snob. David Brent is a twat. Edina and Patsy are monsters. Brian Potter is a martinet. Literally everyone in Spaced, Girls and The Young Ones is a bellend. But they’re all VERY FUNNY. ‘Like that. All in capitals,’ to quote Georgette Heyer. And that gets the audience past the characters’ shortcomings. Likeable isn’t necessary: they need to be sympathetic. The viewer can sympathise with Basil’s snobbery: running a small hotel must be like nursing a never-ending stream of picky infants, each with its own demands and sore points.
But in The Other One, something didn’t land. Bob Larbey spotted something was up at the first recording in December 1976:
You could feel the studio audience recoil when Richard came forward with the moustache and the smarmy kind of look about him. And the look said, ‘No. That’s not Our Richard.’
‘Not our Richard?’ Briers could play unlikeable (Tom, Martin) with enormous charm. Here, Ralph is characterised by his total lack of charm. He’s sexist, twitchy, selfish, egotistical, meretricious, brutish, a coward and an inveterate liar. A toxic blend of Martin’s twitch and Paul’s Teflon coating.
Brian (Michael Gambon), on the other hand, is solicitous, gauche, proper, credulous, foolish, awkward and – also – a coward.
Gambon’s background was in theatre, and he was relatively unknown to TV in 1977. When he came into his own, most notably as writer/victim Philip Marlow in Dennis Potter’s peerless The Singing Detective, it became clear that he was an actor of astonishing chops. But in The Other One, he’s a lot less sure of himself in front of the camera. He even fluffs his lines, quite noticeably.
Was the casting upside down? It’s tempting to flip the actors, and imagine Gambon as an irritating medallion-chested know-it-all with brilliantined hair and Briers as his faffing acolyte. That might work: Gambon with his anatine tenor, Briers with his desperation to please. But it’s simplistic.
The problem isn’t so much that one of the two leads isn’t likeable, but that he doesn’t meet enough resistance. There’s no counterpoint. There’s no Paul Ryman. The Other One clearly has Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (aim high – why not?) in its sights: what might now be termed a ‘road trip’ or ‘buddy’ story. But these are very fussy buddies. Resistance, had it been there, may have fostered sympathy.
The writers even seem at pains, in the scripts, to shore up ‘these two pariahs’. Typically, Esmonde and Larbey wrote short stage directions. Their typical half-hour amounts to around 50 pages. The first script of The Other One runs to a lardy 77 pages. It includes lots of what might be read as justification.
Brian ‘feels guilty,’ ‘is used to being unnoticed,’ ‘is obviously wearing his best Hepworth’s suit,’ ‘tenses like a greyhound in the traps,’ and ‘accepts this as his usual fate’. Ralph ‘smiles patronizingly,’ ‘makes Brian do the hard work by volunteering nothing,’ ‘chuckles a “thereby hangs a tale” chuckle,’ ‘preens in his innocence’ and ‘doesn’t have the faintest idea what’s going on, but compensates by doing a running commentary’.
Perhaps the other significant weakness of The Other One is its overall story arc. The trouble with holiday sitcoms is that they rely on a cow of a lot of suspension of disbelief – the audience has to deliberately avoid questions like ‘why are these people still here?’ or ‘do they always come to the same place?’ or ‘when are they going home?’ Esmonde and Larbey tackled that: in the fifth episode of the first series, Ralph and Brian go home.
Episode six opens, and the title sequence has changed. The sunglasses, cocktail and cigarilloed ashtray in the opening cameos have been replaced with two briefcases – Ralph’s smart 1970s aluminium attaché, and Brian’s battered old leather Wexford. Back to life.
(This is noteworthy. Sitcoms that change their ‘sit’ are rare. It’s difficult to pull off. And it doesn’t quite succeed here. The pair go from holiday pals to work colleagues, on the road, repping together. It leaves a credibility itch in the audience’s nerve endings, which doesn’t help.)
The remaining eight episodes see the pair travelling around the west country in Ralph’s crimson Ford Capri trying to sell packaging.
In Ever Decreasing Circles, the writers were prompted to explain why someone as lovely as Ann (Penelope Wilton) married a skyscraping buffoon like Martin. They addressed this in the second series.
ANN: When I first met Martin, quite frankly I was a bit of a mess. I’d picked the wrong bloke, and the wrong job. Left both. I wasn’t really coping with anything. And then suddenly there was Martin who said, “Don’t try to cope. Leave it all to me.” So I did. He brought back some order into my life – some security. And he was always kind. He drives me mad sometimes, but I love him.
In The Other One, Esmonde and Larbey went to greater dramatic lengths to apologise for Ralph. Why is he single? Was he never tempted to get hitched?
RALPH: Married? No. Only once. I was on time all right, standing there like a lemon with a rose in my buttonhole, making jokes about the bride always being late. She wasn’t late. She was on the Dover ferry with my brother.
This is a moment of candour and possibility. The awful mask slips, revealing the human beyond. A chink of redemption. Yet, in the next scene, the following morning, Ralph is back to usual dreadful self. Reset. A dead end.
The canniest decision Esmonde and Larbey made (possibly in their whole career) was in the early execution of The Good Life. They had their forty-year-old central character and his wife espouse self-efficiency, Rotovating their garden to muddy hell; and they had the upper-middle neighbours (the Leadbeatters – ‘better’ versus ‘good’) looking down their sitcom noses at the Goods. Then they threw in a masterstroke: what if these two couples like each other? Wallop.
Putting animosity to one side left them with rich characterisations and acres of canvas. In Ever Decreasing Circles, Paul was the nice enemy. In The Other One, the two characters were cross with each other. They had stand-up rows. Ralph bullied and took advantage of Brian. That seems, if there were one, to have been a mistake.
Was The Other One, then, ‘a flop,’ as Richard Briers called it, and ‘a glorious failure,’ as Bob Larbey said? It wasn’t the radiant success that its neighbour series were. (There were nearly others too: Now And Then, commissioned by the BBC in spring 1980 but which John Howard Davies nixed and eventually appeared on ITV three years later, and Arthur’s Kingdom, seven episodes of which were ordered in October 1979 but which didn’t happen – why and what it was remain unclear.)
The Other One was, though, a stepping-stone. It had the bones of Martin Bryce and Paul Ryman in it, but unfortunately it also contained the bile of Ralph and the shrivelled balls of Brian. (The series was originally titled Ralph And Brian – is it too much to read a ‘R&B’ reference into this? Probably.) The show is vinegary, and lacks much of the writers’ typical warmth.
Usually, Esmonde and Larbey deployed ghastliness in careful measure. In The Other One, they put it front and centre, and built an entire series around it. Esmonde and Larbey’s work tends to glow with charm. Here, they tried something else. And not all experiments yield success.
It’s hardly surprising that two male writers wrote a lot of male double acts (Ben and Walter in You’re Only Old Once, Jacko and Eric in Brush Strokes, Harry and Dennis in Hope It Rains) but it is unusual for one of Esmonde and Larbey’s to have backfired.
However, writers are proficient recyclers, and Ralph Tanner had one more (wholly successful) outing – in the third series of Ever Decreasing Circles, as swaggering creep Rex Tynan (played with oiky unction by Peter Blake of Kirk St Moritz fame).
Rex T (a dinosaur, as his name suggests) doesn’t just share his initials with Ralph Tanner. He is also a rep. He’s also a womaniser. He also drives a red Ford Capri. And he is a liar. He hoodwinks Martin into thinking that he has been unfaithful to Ann on a two-day business trip to Bruges. Rex Tynan is Ralph Tanner.
What Ever Decreasing Circles got right – sidelining a horrible character and confining him to one episode (two, if you count Rex’s off-stage appearance as the man who stamps ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ all over Martin’s face at the Christmas party) – The Other One arguably got wrong.
Rex gets punched on the nose at the end of his story. Ralph’s finale is something quite definitely else. The closing scenes of The Other One are a bizarre, awkward cadence in which the writers bolt headlong for the fire exit: the lead characters get into Ralph’s car and drive off. They actually drive off together into the future. It’s hella odd. It is an example (a bit like the slightly overstaged finale of Ever Decreasing Circles) of an ending being all confection and no logic. Ralph and Brian haven’t been in love, as far as we the audience can tell, at any point: nor do they need each other. These two lonely men have found each other and bonded, though that bond is brittle and insubstantial and goes nowhere except into the distance. What is set up doesn’t pay off. It is an ending, yes: but adding Shave And A Haircut (Two Bits) to the end of Mozart’s Requiem is an ending, and adding ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ to Animal Farm is an ending. It just isn’t the the right one.
The likeable horror and the significant shadow are characters that the writers had fun with more than once, in varying shades of subtlety. Their best work was a blend of cuddle and needle. In The Other One, there may have been rather too much needle.
Pints this time to Ian Greaves and James Cary, for words of wisdom. Grats, amigos.