Richard Briers died on Monday. By way of a tribute, here is a repeat of Jon Hotten’s post about an episode of Ever Decreasing Circles and its “quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair”, which features, naturally enough, a game of cricket…
You might remember Ever Decreasing Circles, a British – make that English, because it could only be English – sitcom of the early 1980s, the fading final years of a genre that quite often looked at notions of class and aspiration and then gently took the piss out of them.
Ever Decreasing Circles, like Terry and June, The Good Life, Brush Strokes, Keeping Up Appearances and several others, featured the nascent middle classes, dwellers in the cul-de-sacs of the 70s boom-burbs; commuters, middle managers, golf club members, with their dreams of conservatories and souffles and the company dinner-dance. These pretensions were easily speared, but not often as darkly as they were in Ever Decreasing Circles.
It’s contextual, of course: the show is a thing of its time, written by John Esmonde not Chris Morris, but there’s a quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair to it that in retrospect seems quite daring. Richard Briers plays Martin, a pedantic, obsessive-compulsive valve salesman with a photocopier in his garage and moral code as inflexible as a periodic table. In 2012, he would reside somewhere on the autism spectrum; back then he was just funny, and not unrepresentative. Most people knew someone like him.
His neighbours were Howard and Hilda, a couple that seem weirder now than they ever did then, a middle-aged, guileless pair who wore matching jumpers and thought the same thoughts at the same time. In 2012 they would have been hounded to death by Jeremy Kyle kids or under the care of social services. The jeopardy came from Paul, a new arrival in the close who was handsome, urbane, funny, good at everything, and – most shockingly of all – the owner of a successful hair salon. Martin loathed Paul of course, not just for who he was, but for what he represented. There was a darker subtext, too. Martin’s wife obviously fancied Paul, to which Martin was oblivious (thus making any hint of betrayal all the more devastating).
Ennui, boredom, acceptance, resentment, disillusionment, loyalty – it was all there, just alluded to rather than highlighted. The other day I stumbled on an episode, in three parts, on Youtube (above, and continued below). It’s a about a cricket match. The set-up is classic; like all sitcoms, it telegraphs its ending while allowing it to be savoured. Martin is the team’s skipper. He has run the side for 14 years, dreaming of promotion to a division where they could play a club that has ‘under floor heating in the dressing rooms’ (another impossibly glamorous idyll of the 1970s). He is also the fixtures secretary and the man responsible for looking after the kit, which he has just whitened and varnished.
He’s desperate to stop Paul playing, of course, because he knows he’ll be better than everyone else. The rest of the team all want him in, even if it means they can’t play themselves. There is a tremendous little scene around this in Martin’s garage, where Paul arrives to confirm his availability (he’s told he’ll still have to fill in and return the postcard that Martin will send to him); Here Martin recalls Denis Compton, (‘I always get emotional when I think of him’), and Compton’s captain at Middlesex, FG Mann, ‘Not so great a player by many a long chalk,’ Martin says, ‘but nevertheless his captain. ‘Never ever did you see Denis question FG, slight FG or demean FG.’
‘What are you trying to say?’ Paul asks, disingenuously.
‘I’m not trying to say anything,’ says Martin. ‘I am saying it’.
It’s kind of funny, but kind of awkward too. It has heart, and it has another twist for the ’80s cricket fan in that the actor playing Paul is a dead ringer for Phil Edmonds, that most haughty of Middlesex players.
The story runs its inevitable course: Paul isn’t playing until a bloke called Curly (he’s bald of course, as all people in sitcoms called Curly are) is injured in the warm-up. The opposition bat first and rack up 200, partly because Martin won’t bowl Paul. In reply, they’re 46-7 when Martin is out in ridiculous circumstances, leaving Paul to bat with Howard, a man who, it’s revealed, proposed to his wife while stoned on endorphins after making his highest ever score of 11. Paul gets the runs.
There’s a sting, though, in the last scene. Martin is in the dressing room with his wife, avoiding the jollity of the bar, where Paul is holding court. The opposition skipper comes in and announces he won’t be accepting Martin’s offer of a jug for his lads. ‘That bloke who got the runs played for Cambridge University. If you want to win that much, we won’t be drinking with you’.
It could have ended there, with Martin proved right. Instead, his wife suggests they go into the bar, where Martin always plays the piano and everyone has a sing-song. Just as they go to open the door, the piano starts up. Martin’s wife looks through. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘it is him…’
It’s equivocal and bittersweet, and for the time, brilliantly done. The cricket match is equally well observed: it rings with scenes and characters familiar to any club player – bored wives on the boundary, no spikes in the pavilion, the crooked, unchallengable away umpire; even those distant and long-gone tropes the home-knitted jumper and the club kit bag. I’d say John Esmonde was a fan: alongside the Compton/Mann scene, Paul walks into bat with a Jumbo, which in the early 80s was the bat du jour. Martin makes do with a Fearnley.
The ‘action’ is badly filmed, another faded tradition. Cricket would appear quite often in shows like this, because it represented something, and how the characters reacted to it said something about them. No-one’s used the game in this way for a long time, and it would take a good writer to make it work in these more atomised days. Writers now might be more savage, funnier, but they don’t often have such lightness of touch.