T.S. Eliot said 'A great writer writes his time.' Can a TV comedy writer write his time? Bob Larbey, responsible with John Esmonde for many of this country's finest TV sitcoms from the mid-sixties to the late eighties, certainly did. No one captured the strange paralysing love-hate angst of English post-war suburbia more exquisitely than he.
There've been many wonderful eulogies to Larbey over the last few days including a fine portrait of a late meeting with the man himself by Jason Hazeley, who lunched with him in his dotage - http://sitcomgeek.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/lunch-with-bob-larbey.html?m=1 But what of Larbey's creative achievement? How did it reflect the times? And how did it fit in with that extraordinary period in British culture when the half hour TV audience comedy became, truly, the National Theatre of Britain?
Acres of pontificatory print have been devoted to how the British Sitcom reached a 'Golden Age,' variously located in the sixties, seventies, or eighties. It's a dangerous analysis that can be disproved by several Achilles heels - excessive nostalgia, great sitcoms undoubtedly occurring before and since, dross continuing to be made throughout the same period, etc etc...
But...unquestionably there was a time when the practitioners of the half-hour television comedy - writers, performers, producers - appeared to be at the peak of their powers, and the genre of the mainstream audience sitcom became the most dominant and powerful form of popular art. At any one time in the 70's and 80's one could turn on the television and watch Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, Rising Damp, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, The Good Life, Porridge, Only Fools and Horses. The audience was a crucial ingredient of that renaissance - these shows would reach 20 million people a week. David Hare, Howard Brenton, Steven Berkoff - these writers were not 'speaking to the nation' - Galton & Simpson, Clement & La Frenais, Carla Lane, John Sullivan, and Esmonde & Larbey were. It was the 1590's all over again. Sure, there were great plays written in the 1620's, but not many. For an art or genre to reach huge success you have to have an audience for it. And Larbey's work reached many millions weekly.
And what was that work? His most famous creations, The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles, were startlingly brilliant departures from his previous hits. While Please Sir & The Fenn Street Gang mined the writers' childhoods in south London and the world of the Secondary Modern school, in mid-life Larbey took on that delicious prison, English suburbia - that hinterland of neither-town-nor-country that psycho-geographer Iain Sinclair circumnavigates in his journey into nothingness, Orbital - a region of golf-courses, lunatic asylums, badminton clubs, churches of obscure denominations. Freedom from the city, yet still a prison.
In the Good Life Tom Good is the engine of the angst, escaping from society into his garden. But in Ever Decreasing Circles, even though Martin Bryce is the prime mover, it is his wife Anne's comedy. Like no other sitcom before or since, it is a portrait of the state of women in her times.
And it is a deeply melancholy portrait. Like Wendy Craig's character in Butterflies Anne is trapped in a world of her husband's making, living in an Ibsen's Doll's House of societies, clubs, committee meetings and leaflets. She drifts throughout each series in a state of melancholia, occasionally making desperate attempts at escape - an impulsive trip to Belgium, an Open University Degree... But she never escapes. She is bound by her love for Martin. An exquisite prison. Ever Decreasing Circles is the death rattle of English married life.
Of course Bob Larbey wrote his time. And he used one of the greatest literary genres yet invented: the half-hour comedy, during - yes - its Golden Age.
Because something happened to the sitcom after that... A cynicism crept in. We began to sneer at audience laughter - 'why's there an audience watching a TV comedy? - that's not real!' So we made Human Remains, Monkey Dust... Then: actors are just pretending, let's make sitcoms look like documentaries, that'll make them seem real! We made People Like Us, Operation Good Guys, The Office. All great - but a different, more knowing genre, a genre with side rather than love and empathetic reflectiveness. The BBC1 mainstream sitcom was dead. Every now and then we keep the corpse twitching with deconstruction - showing audiences the cameras in Mrs. Brown's Boys, breaking the fourth wall in Miranda: but who are we trying to kid? We've all grown up, and the un-cynical self-reflective audience comedy drama has aged with us. Love has gone from the sitcom. Comedy writers today don't seem to love their characters - it seems funnier now to mock our creations.
I was going to say that Bob Larbey was the last of the great practitioners of the big mainstream audience TV sitcom, but amazingly, by the grace of God, the old pioneers themselves are still alive - Galton and Simpson, the Lennon & McCartney of the half-hour comedy. They still meet every day in each other's houses in Twickenham, organise book-signings, attend screenings (they even have a new radio series forthcoming - 'The Missing Hancocks,' due to be broadcast on BBC R4). No doubt they will be raising a glass to Mr. Larbey.
Of course Bob Larbey wrote his time. As a chronicler of the human condition he was a leading member of that great pantheon of 'light entertainment' writers who - during an extraordinary period - created a true National Theatre of Britain.
Julian Dutton is the co-creator & co-writer of the forthcoming BBC1 TV series Pompidou, starring Matt Lucas.
His book, Keeping Quiet: the Story of Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound, will be published later this year.
Photo courtesy of Iowa Public Television/BBC Worldwide Americas