Ever Decreasing Circles - The Nutter of Suburbia
by Tanya Jones
The BBC used to be terribly good at churning out odd sitcoms that, while looking inoffensive enough, were actually rather subversive and cerebral. Ever Decreasing Circles ran for a compelling four series, and served as a reminder of how fragile marriage and friendship are, especially if you’re taking your loved ones for granted.
Written by Esmonde and Larbey, the partnership that brought you the ultimate suburban sitcom, The Good Life, the programme focuses on Martin Bryce, a obsessive and uptight man who organised just about every activity bar orgies in his part (in more ways than one) of Horsham. Running the lives of the inhabitants of “the Close” dominates Martin’s life to the point of having his box room as an office, and owning a duplicating machine. This sort of drive to be invaluable to the community, while laudable in its own way, does seem to be symbolic of something missing. In the first series (1984) Richard Briers certainly plays Martin in a manner that almost suggests autism.
The theme tune, an ostensibly twee piano piece, has a curious rhythm about it, as if the pianist is spiralling into quiet mania.
Martin has a hopelessly rigid and old-fashioned moral code, describing Les Dawson as an alternative comedian. As his wife Ann says, “I don’t think Martin entirely approves of the 20th Century.” Obviously, Martin cannot hold together the community and his marriage at the same time, and Ann Bryce (Penelope Wilton) epitomises the phrase “long-suffering”, as she tries to grab back her husband from his obsession. Ann herself is an unlikely wife for Martin; she is sociable, kind, thoughtful and open-minded. This marriage of opposites is highlighted by the arrival in the first episode of their new next-door neighbour, Paul Ryman (Peter Egan).
Paul runs a hairdressing salon, and is totally at his ease with women, with a naughty glint in his eye. Paul is instantly popular with people, has no respect whatsoever for Martin’s reverence for tradition, and seems to master anything he puts his mind to, and Martin is fearsomely jealous and scared of him. In some respects, he has cause to be scared, as Paul and Ann instantly hit it off, and the saga of whether Ann will give in to Paul’s shameless flirting carries on throughout the four series.
Martin and Ann’s friends (and cohorts), Howard and Hilda, are a blissfully married couple whose contentment lies in wearing the same clothes, and going through the same twee verbal exchanges every day. However, Howard and Hilda should not be underestimated. Hilda particularly shows a passionate soul at times, and clearly fancies Paul rotten, although she adores Howard far too much to ever be tempted. Howard is often browbeaten by Martin into joining in his “community” schemes, but can stand up to Martin if he feels that his own set of values are being threatened, and will not tolerate Martin’s occasional bursts of temper. Although they are essentially as closed-minded as Martin, Howard and Hilda are really quite fond of Paul, and often find themselves in awkward positions because of Martin’s inferiority complex.
Martin’s mindset comes from a life lived as an outsider. His great goal is to become someone who is needed and respected, creating his own world when the real one doesn’t come up to scratch. To hear him talk about his job (a stock control manager), you would be forgiven for assuming that he played an important role in his organisation, but his real lack of status is shown when his office is reduced in size. Martin is forced to stand up for himself, and we get an idea of what has made Martin the person he is as he recalls past humiliations.
Paul is effortlessly popular, which drives Martin to distraction. But what Martin is too angry to realise is that Paul has his own need to be loved. There isn’t an activity Paul can’t sort out by calling on one of his friends, and although his generosity of spirit and charm has clearly served him well throughout his life, it seems obvious to the viewer that he has mainly bought friendship. It is undeniable that he has exceptional talent; he played cricket for Cambridge University, and, as his estranged wife explains, took up ladies’ hairdressing on a whim and quickly became better than her.
Martin feels the apparent injustice of this acutely. He is particularly wounded in the local cricket match in series two (also in1984), where he reluctantly lets Paul play. He has to face an angry captain of the losing team, who accuses him of cheating, as the two teams are made up of enthusiastic amateurs rather than skilled players. All Paul really does in the early days is show just how boring Martin’s efforts to organise things his way are to others, and injects a bit of fun into proceedings.
Even in series three (1986), when Paul saves Martin’s marriage following the actions of a truly contemptible colleague, Martin still can’t accept that Paul is capable of helping him. While Martin follows his own moral code to its often destructive conclusion, Paul’s more flexible approach means that he is a lot less naïve than Martin, and manages to save Martin’s Neighbourhood Watch group from disaster in series four (1987). This series also includes the best example of how frighteningly inflexible Martin can be when he is legally, but not necessarily morally, in the right. His campaign to secure public footpaths uncovers one running right through his back garden. He justifies himself to Ann thus: “I hate the thought [of strangers walking through their garden], love, but right is right. Now if you’ll excuse me for a couple of hours, I have to make a stile.” To the relief of both Martin and Ann, a man from the council comes round and tells them that the council and developers redrew the map when the Close was built.
The Christmas special of the second series presents Martin with a challenge when, while he is in bed, Ann and Paul use both houses to house all of Paul’s guests for Christmas. To Martin’s horror, even Howard and Hilda are having a good time. However, in a very clever piece of reverse psychology, Paul gives Martin the job of organising accommodation and rotas, which Martin throws himself into with glee. “You know, I’ve worn out three biros already!”
Given that Ann and Martin are often quite different, the viewer could be forgiven for asking why they ever got married in the first place. Esmonde and Larbey show their talent for character development throughout the show’s run, giving us scenes suggesting that Martin wasn’t always putting community before Ann, with Ann always bringing up the memory of a weekend in Kidderminster to get Martin in the mood. The sight of an aroused Martin is intriguing, and lets us see the man Ann fell in love with.
But this is not the whole story. Despite Martin’s old-fashioned ways and obsessions that often result in her exclusion, the storyline with Paul demonstrates just how much Ann really loves Martin, and that her love goes deeper than a dirty weekend in the West Midlands. As she tells Martin later in the series’ run, she loves him because of his belief in honesty and integrity, which is under threat due to his unreasonable loathing of Paul.
The depth of his despair is shown in a scene from the fourth series, where a curious sequence of events leads him to believe that Ann has finally left him for Paul. When he breaks down in tears it is impossible not to be moved, even when you’ve been infuriated by his earlier behaviour. He shows how much he really loves Ann by leaving the martial home, leaving Ann a note to wish her luck with Paul, bringing meaning to the phrase “If you love someone, set them free”. Their reconciliation, rather aptly in the library when Martin is taking his books back, brings a much-needed openness to their relationship, and sets the scene for the final feature length episode broadcast in 1989, New Horizons.
The last episode features a newly promoted Martin, content with his life for the first time, when he is given the news that the company is relocating to Oswestery, and he has the option of earning a great deal more money if he moves with the company. Martin tells everyone he knows that he couldn’t possibly move, as he feels part of the Close, and the whole episode then shows us, and Martin, that while people may have appreciated his efforts, he is not irreplaceable. It takes an argument with Ann for her to tell him that part of the reason she wants to move is that she is pregnant with their first baby, and the possibility of Martin getting a different job at his age is remote. We see the organisation of the local fête, where Martin recognises that he no longer has the time to devote to it, and finds himself handing over the organisation to Paul, who, with the help of his contacts, does a better job.
Ever Decreasing Circles seems to be one of the forgotten jewels in BBC Light Entertainment history, as it is hilarious, witty, touching and intelligent. It is a wonderfully watchable masterpiece.
This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in Kettering 5.