Monday, 12 January 2015

Seventies TV: The Good Life (US: Good Neighbors)

My viewing of 1970s TV shows has so far completely missed the remarkable phenomenon of self-sufficiency & the allied desire to escape from the 'rat race'. This show perhaps both displays it & is also phenomenally popular:
'The Good Life is a British sitcom, produced by BBC television. It ran from 1975 to 1978 and was written by Bob Larbey and John Esmonde. Opening with the midlife crisis faced by Tom Good, a 40-year-old London plastics designer, it relates the joys and miseries he and his wife Barbara experience when they attempt to escape modern commercial living by "becoming totally self-sufficient" in their home in Surbiton. In 2004, it came 9th in Britain's Best Sitcom. In the United States, it aired on various PBS stations under the title Good Neighbors.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_Life_(1975_TV_series))
As a sit-com the show reflected a part of the culture of the time, another strange thing about the 1970s. On the one hand - until the oil crisis - energy was cheap & there for the taking. One of my colleagues lives in a 1970s house, with the fashionable, yet fabulously expensive to run, underfloor heating the time. She 'retired' years ago, but has to do some work to afford even to turn the heating on at all when their grandchildren stay. The rest of the time she & her husband bundle up in woolies. Of course she won't listen to my advice either to have gas heating installed or ffor less disruption, storage heaters. And I can see why - there is something fabulously luxuriousness about underfloor heating. Of course it isn't installed in houses often now - nobody can afford to run it, apart from anything else. Everything else about the 1970s was over the top & consumerist - shag pile carpet that you had to rake, the fashions of the time required endless fabric, & so on. As tends to happen when an extreme arrives, its opposite comes with it, & The Good Life represented a whole movement with deeper historic roots, & indeed influenced that movement:

'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.
[...]
'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.
[...]
'"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."' (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21517375).
Like all such movements, it generated a literature that was often inspirational for dreamers of 'the good life'. I remember we had John Seymour's book on self-sufficiency when I was a child (his wikipedia page interestingly connects the publication of this both to Small is Beautiful, mentioned above, & The Good Life), & Elizabeth West's Hovel in the Hills. Ironically this literature has been criticised for its actual effects (this is a quote from a review of a text about American books, but illustrates the point I'm making perfectly):
'The square world, as has often been declared, is the world of the expert, the four-eyed technician (whether conducting laboratory experiments or pushing paper in a bureaucracy) who's presumed to have all the answers and who dispassionately administers the rules. The apparent breakdown of the modern welfare state in the 1970s brought with it profound skepticism toward the square expert. Hip culture soon filled the gap with a new form of authority, Binkley observes, someone whose credentials weren't institutionally certified but who claimed his or her status by virtue of innate capacity, a combination of inner spirit and personal experience.
'The sociologist's toolkit again serves Binkley as this new hip authority is essentially the charismatic leader described by Max Weber in the early 20th century. (In Weber's formulation, the charismatic individual is a usurper of power, one who says: "It is written but I say unto you ...") And as Weber sets forth, charismatic leaders need disciples to validate their authority. Besides the members of communes and participants in various encounter groups, in the 1970s the disciples of looseness included readers of alternative media—the newspapers, periodicals, and books that helped people imagine themselves as part of the hip community. Binkley searched out and read much of this archive to glean the data that's the basis of his book.
'As with the critique of the square expert, alternative-media looseness rejected the technocratic practices of mass-managerial society. Alternative media flourished mostly on the West Coast, far beyond the reach of the eastern-based publishing industry. Production values were virtually nonexistent, often using typewriter fonts and hand-drawn illustrations collaged together and printed on inexpensive papers. Authors typically wrote in the first-person instead of the anonymous voice of square authority. All of this signified "authenticity," a primary value of loose culture.
'Binkley discerns three major categories within what he terms the "caring texts" of 1970s alternative print culture. The first are those that reiterate the Transcendentalist back-to-nature call in the form of burgeoning ecological consciousness. The second are those that recast community into various kinds of tribalism. The third are concerned with unlocking the physical and mental potential of the renewed self-reliant individual. As these categories attracted larger audiences, they commanded the attention of more established social and economic power, redirecting liberationist desire into more conventional modes, most insidiously consumption. Thus "back-to-nature" morphed into a demand for organic food, diverse tribes clustered into demographic and psychographic market segments, and self-reliance became the pursuit of self-interest.' (http://www.popmatters.com/review/getting-loose-by-sam-binkley/)
The escape from the rat-race, therefore, merely leads to a different authority. The fact that Tom's old boss won't leave him alone in The Good Life is indicative of the ambivalent nature of the authority figures in the movement & in the show. Like every other aspect of the 1970s that comes up here, this movement is also wide open to criticism. The historical comment that the movement seems to have a resurgence every thirty years would suggest that it just happened to arise at the right time to be the theme of a TV programme - today's TV would feature more how-to programmes about allotments or self-sufficiency, the fictional shows are too glossy for the kind of grinding labour involved in working the land.
There is another unexpected effect that this show had, though. It made Felicity Kendal a sex symbol in her wellies - I see she won Rear of the Year in 1981 - & where else can you see Penelope Keith reclining smoking a cigarette in such a 1970s outfit? The decade did give us Jason King as well, of course!
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2 comments:

Lisa said...

It's one of my favorite British comedy series -- haven't seen it in a LONG time but loved it! Great to see you covering it!

Cult TV Blog said...

Thank you, Lisa! And thank you for leaving a comment.