Peter Egan, who co-starred with Richard Briers in Ever Decreasing Circles, tweeted that he felt “devastated” by his friend’s death on 17 February. He’s not the only one.
It’s rare nowadays for deaths of public figures to trigger sincere feelings of loss and sadness by almost everyone; Briers’s death – like that of his fellow actor Clive Dunn last November –was one instance of this. His genius for comedy was such that he was able to play two very different characters – the ever-optimistic Tom Good from The Good Life and the neurotic worrier Martin Bryce from Ever Decreasing Circles – equally convincingly.
On top of those, there were his other roles, including fine performances in Shakespeare productions for Kenneth Branagh. Yet I don’t think it’s just the memory of his great acting that made so many feel so sad this past week, nor was it that Briers was such a lovely and unassuming man: sociological factors are at work, too.
Briers, like Dunn, reminds us of a gentler, pre-neoliberal era, when we enjoyed our pleasures collectively and our society was less atomised. In April 1975, when The Good Life first appeared on our television screens, there were only three channels. As most households owned only one television, we often watched the same programmes together. Consequently, sitcoms were aimed at everyone, young and old alike.
This “collectivist” television experience mirrored the economic collectivism of the time. In 1975, the top rate of tax on earned income stood at 83 per cent. The gap between rich and poor was at a historically low level. A large section of the economy was in public ownership. In the dominant narrative, Britain was a terrible place to be in the mid-1970s, when unions ruled and “punitive” taxation forced the rich to leave the country. The reality is that most people were having a whale of a time. In 2004, a report by the New Economics Foundation found that 1976 was the year when our quality of life was at its highest.
We certainly had plenty to laugh at, because the high-water mark of postwar collectivism coincided with the golden age of the sitcom. In addition to The Good Life, we had Rising Damp, Fawlty Towers, Porridge, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Man About the House and the two Perry and Croft army ensemble pieces, Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
It is nostalgia for this pre- Thatcherite world – one in which we shared our pleasures in the same way we shared our national wealth and where we laughed joyfully and without malice at the mishaps of the same sweet sitcom characters and talked about them at work or school the following day – that I believe makes us feel the death of its cultural icons such as Briers so keenly.
It’s also this deep yearning for a warmer, friendlier and more secure age that explains why about two million of us tune in each Saturday night to watch repeats of Dad’s Army on BBC2, even though we’ve watched the episodes many times before, and why ITV3, which regularly shows old series from the 1970s, is the most popular digital channel.
Comedy, like our society, has become a lot less cosy since the 1970s, reflecting the harsher economic system. “The whole climate has changed now and it’s a more hard-hitting style. Charm seems to have gone out of the window,” bemoaned Briers in an interview he gave about the decline of the sitcom. His death reminds us that we weren’t just watching The Good Life in the 1970s – we were also living it.