Richard Briers died last week at age 79.
Briers was a talented actor on the stage and screen, and enjoyed a long career, but my favorite memory of him is his portrayal of a man without a career.
Briers was the star of the 1975-78 British television comedy “The Good Life” (released as “Good Neighbors” in the US). He played Tom Good, a man who decided on his 40th birthday to abandon the rat race and become self sufficient.
He quit his job, and along with his wife, Barbara (played by Felicity Kendall) turned their home in a posh London suburb into a miniature farm, much to the horror of their friends and next-door neighbors, Jerry and Margo Leadbetter (played by Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith).
The Goods tilled their front and back yards and planted vegetables and fruit trees. They began keeping chickens, pigs, and a goat.
This setup provided ample opportunity for comedy, and the writers made fun of both sides of the social spectrum at once, from Margo’s snobbishness to Tom’s obsessive eccentricity.
Much of the appeal of the series came from the warm humor and the priceless chemistry between the brilliant actors.
Perhaps the biggest appeal, however, came from the show’s depiction of an alternative lifestyle about which many people have dreamed.
Tom summed it up in the first episode. As he contemplated his 40th birthday, he decided he didn’t want to get to the end of his life without accomplishing something. He tried to figure out how to break the circle of going to work to earn money to translate into things, which we use up, forcing us to go to work again to earn money to buy more things.
After a night of drinking flat champagne and sketching out ideas, he decided what he wanted was not a new job, but no job at all.
“What we should be doing,” Tom told Barbara, “is working at the job of life itself. It will be just us, doing it for us.”
From that point on, although Tom and Barbara worked harder then they ever had before, they spent their days working for themselves, enjoying each other’s company, and embracing a lifestyle that has been all but forgotten.
One concedes that some wives might not want their husbands home all day (or vice-versa). Even Barbara admitted Tom annoyed her from time to time, but given the choice, she said she would rather have him at home than not.
They owned their home, so they had no mortgage to pay. They had the phone disconnected and the power shut off, and produced their own electricity using a generator that ran on methane produced from the by-products of their animals.
They made or grew the things they needed, including notoriously potent homemade wine, and they traded for the things they couldn’t make by using the old-fashioned barter system.
Those who are involved in farming are no doubt familiar with some of the challenges the Goods faced in their new life. They got flooded out of their first harvest, and a drought nearly wiped out their second, but they didn’t give up.
Tom and Barbara had no office to go to, and there was no one telling them what to do or when to do it. It is that kind of freedom that was at the heart of the show’s appeal.
The show was (and is) one of the most popular British comedy series of all time, and it has enjoyed tremendous success in this country on public television.
Some say the show helped to spark self-sufficiency or back-to-the-land movements in Britain long before “going green” reached the mainstream.
It was a show of contrasts and of basic human values. Some of the material may be a bit dated, but the humor and the spirit that were at its core are as valid today as they were more than three decades ago when the show was in its prime.
It is sad to think Richard is no longer with us, but we can still visit him in that ratty old blue sweater anytime we want by popping in a DVD or firing up our computers.
Briers (or rather, Tom Good) was a hero for the common man.
Most of us will never quit our jobs and attempt to beat the system by trying our hands at self sufficiency, but it was fun to stand on the sidelines and cheer for someone who did.