At first sight, 'Ever Decreasing Circles' might seem the archetypal cosy family sitcom. Broadcast on a Sunday evening, hugely popular (it ran to four series) and focusing on the unextraordinary adventures of middle class, middle aged people in suburbia. It's gentle and wry, but its main protagonist is completely insane, and the supporting characters all have their own bizarre character flaws, creating a strange psychodrama where a suburban close occasionally seems more like the compound of the Jim Jones Temple.
Martin Bryce (Richard Briers, of course) is a lunatic. An obsessive compulsive who suffered an unhappy childhood, Martin has found balance and happiness in controlling the lives of his neighbours, essentially becoming their guru, boss, social secretary and bully all at the same time.
|Ann puts up with.|
Martin’s wife Ann (Penelope Wilton) loves him, but is permanently suppressing the urge to scream. For the most part, she lets him get on with it; at least his numerous activities keep him out of the house and out of her hair. Anyway, there are consequences for those who dare cross Martin – he can be a sullen, petulant child and a dangerous enemy. His usual tactic is to simply withdraw his labour and wait for his dependents to come back to him with an apology and a desperate plea for help.
|Howard & Hilda, looking good.|
Martin and Ann’s best friends and neighbours are Howard Hughes and his wife Hilda (Stanley Lebor and Geraldine Newman), a naïve, deeply nice couple who dress in the same horrible jumpers. They are part of the grinding routine of the Bryce’s life – the couples go on holiday to Austria, staying at the same place at the same time and doing the same thing every year – and are usually willing acolytes and supporters of Martin’s plans. An unusually loving couple, the meek Howard will threaten physical violence to anyone insulting Hilda, including Martin. I always assumed they had a fantastic sex life.
Into this bizarre fiefdom comes a threat to Martin’s reign of terror in the suave, beige shape of hairdresser Paul (Peter Egan). Paul is good looking, stylish, wealthy, single and well-connected. He and Ann are attracted to each other and, dangerously, both realise just how ridiculous Martin is, something that threatens to pull the tedium and cosiness of everyone’s dull, repetitive, self-centred lives apart.
Martin recognises this and fears Paul, suspecting that he wants both Ann and Martin’s position as alpha male / chief organiser. Paul is uncertain about the first, and totally indifferent to the second: he doesn’t want power, he just wants glory. Anyway, Paul doesn’t dislike Martin, he just thinks he’s a nutter; Martin despises Paul and all he stands for, not least his casual, laid back approach to life, a state of mind that Martin finds impossible to achieve.
|Choose your weapons.|
Most episodes of the show detail the ongoing war between Martin and Paul, a series of skirmishes fought over many years. Paul always outdoes Martin, and does so effortlessly, whereas Martin puts every ounce of his strength and knowhow into simply keeping pace with him. Yet Paul never wins outright, and Martin is never totally defeated, simply because Martin has Ann, the prize that the war is really about.
|Kevlar Leather Blouson.|
I have often wondered why Paul (Peter Egan) with all his money and dolly birds and famous mates, bothers to stay in the Close when, clearly, the world is his oyster. In many ways, his reluctance to leave shows him in a less favourable light – this is the nearest he has to a home, to a family. For all his easy charm, Paul is almost as troubled as Martin: his life is empty and meaningless.
Martin is an amazingly contrary character brilliantly essayed by Briers: kind and cruel, loyal and despotic, moral and underhanded, rigid in his beliefs and desperately insecure. His OCD asserts itself in his clipboards and graphs and wall charts, and wiping his feet twenty times before he enters the house. A running joke is his inability to leave the telephone receiver facing the ‘wrong way’. It always gets a laugh, but there’s something deep seated and slightly disturbing about the desire for that level of control.
Penelope Wilton has the most difficult role as Ann, and gives a subtle, good humoured performance shot through with wry disbelief at having found herself inadvertently part of a love triangle. Ann lacks confidence, and Martin isn’t very good at instilling it. Paul, of course, is a flatterer and motivator, and Ann knows this, so although she enjoys his attentions she rarely shows any sign of genuinely wanting to leave Martin: she just wishes he could stop being such a pain in the arse and they could live a little bit.
There are no children in ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’, just child like adults. Tellingly, the series finale has Ann becoming pregnant, and the Bryces moving away to the prospect of a new grown up life and a family of their own: the circle is broken.
Brilliantly written by Esmonde and Larbey, the show’s comedy is very much character based, and it is able to do that most difficult of tricks, to inject poignancy and awkwardness into the proceedings without fatally damaging the tone. There are an awful lot of uncomfortable moments, and some of the episodes aren’t really funny at all, but the mix of humour and drama makes for compelling, occasionally very dark viewing - not ‘cosy’ in the slightest.