How much did The Good Life influence the good life?
- 20 February 2013
- From the section Magazine
Richard Briers, who died on Sunday, became a household name in the 1970s in The Good Life. But how many people followed the example of his character and tried to grow all their own food?
In The Good Life's first episode, Tom Good quits his job on his 40th birthday. Frustrated by office life, he decides to live a completely self-sufficient existence with his wife.
They transform their suburban garden into an allotment. They make their own electricity and wine. They have chickens, pigs, and even a goat.
The immense popularity of The Good Life's four series from 1975 -1978 led the sitcom to be voted the 9th best British sitcom of all time in a 2004 BBC poll.
But were viewers inspired by the often humorous attempts at making self-sufficiency work?
Allotment gardening had a boost, says Georgie Willock, spokeswoman for The National Allotment Society. In 1977 the society welcomed 8,230 new members.
Willock credits the show with "making it more acceptable" to live a self-sufficient life.
"It showed that allotment gardening can be dealt with by people of all backgrounds… [and so] made it more accessible."
But rather than sparking a boom out of nothing, the show was part of a wider cultural trend.
David Thear, who founded Practical Self-Sufficiency magazine, believes the show "reflected the back-to-land movement during the 1970s". Thear and his wife moved to a farm in Essex in 1975 to live self-sufficiently.
There was one "deleterious effect" of the show, says Thear. "We had to change the name of Practical Self-Sufficiency because the term 'self-sufficiency' had become associated with a joke."
He found the show "very enjoyable but not very practical", and recalls frequently fielding calls to "disabuse" people of the more unrealistic aspects of the show - such as keeping farm animals in a suburban garden.
"I mentioned this to Richard Briers when I met him but of course he knew that," says Thear.
One man who did manage to make urban farming work - albeit without animals - was David Wickers, author of Complete Urban Farmer: Growing Your Own Fruit and Vegetables in Town.
He remembers having "beans growing in a sunny bay window and mushrooms under my bed".
A 1977 Times article about Wickers' living "experiment" in inner London suggested that "Londoners may be encouraged to turn themselves into a race of peasant farmers… banishing the traffic from Oxford Street with their potato patches".
But Wickers agrees that The Good Life's success, as well as his own book's, primarily reflected rather than inspired a wider movement.
They "struck a chord at that time" and that the movement has since gone through an almost "30-year cycle", with a resurgence in recent years.
Earlier precedents had been set. The Dig for Victory campaign during World War II encouraged the whole country to grow their own food - with a national peak of 1.4 million allotments in 1943, according to Allotment.org.uk.
But this was necessitated by wartime shortages and naval blockades.
When Tom Good quits his job, there is more a sense of escapism and ideology.
"The Good Life aired when public interest in green issues - biological diversity, sustainability, and pro-environmental lifestyles - was fast-increasing," says Dr Stephen Mosley, an environmental history lecturer at Leeds Met.
"Books like EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful [first published in 1973] encouraged many of those disaffected by the rat-race… to adopt alternative lifestyles.
"Small is Beautiful became a counter-cultural tenet of the time, and The Good Life poked fun, in a good natured way, at those who went 'back-to-the-land' to pursue more sustainable lifestyles."
But The Good Life did not only poke fun at Tom and Barbara Good. It could be said that their snobbish, conventional neighbours were equally the butt of the jokes.
Thear recalls there being many such people in his village, who "couldn't understand" what he and his wife were doing, or why, and would look at them "bemused".
Willock adds that The Good Life helped shift the image most associated with allotment gardening, one of working class men.
"Today allotments are gardened by everyone from retired couples through to families with young children, from all walks of life. It is a much more open activity than it was 40 years ago, and in part that shift in perceptions is due to The Good Life and the characters of Tom and Barbara.
"The fact that the characters were middle class and lived in suburbia did help to change people's image of what growing your own veg is all about, as it showed a lifestyle which was attractive and attainable… full of hard work but also humour and camaraderie."