Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ever Decreasing Circles

Number 11, 1952

Written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, Ever Decreasing Circles was a popular BBC situation comedy running through four series from 1984 to 1989.

The main character is Martin Bryce, an obsessive middle class suburban fusspot married to Ann, his loyal stay at home wife. Martin’s orderly existence is continually threatened by Paul Ryman, the witty, charming and effortlessly capable next door neighbour.

To my mind Martin says something about the modern world, but I can’t tell if it is what Esmonde and Larbey intended. He is a figure of fun, a caricature of the domestic control freak nobody ought to like. Yet Martin is also a decent and honourable man, painfully so in many episodes because he is not unaware of his oddities and failures.

So why would anyone set out to make fun of a decent and honourable man, especially as his controlling behaviour is so risible and so often unsuccessful? Martin may be silly, but he is no bully and no threat to anyone.

For example.

In one episode (Jumping to Conclusions) Ann has to write an essay on Jackson Pollock for her Open University course. Martin decides to help her – it’s his contribution to steering her towards a more fulfilling life. True to his character, Martin has a rock solid faith in his wife’s intellectual abilities in spite of his equally firm faith in his capacity to direct those abilities.

After about a second’s consideration, Martin’s contribution is that Jackson Pollock couldn’t paint. He airily assumes Ann will follow this line in her essay simply because it’s so obvious to him that Jackson Pollock couldn’t paint. Ann, being more modern, is bemused by Martin’s dismissal of Pollock and her bemusement is later shared by neighbour Paul who offers clandestine help in writing the essay.

Martin finds out about the clandestine help and assumes Ann is having a fling with Paul. He packs his bag and leaves her a note saying he has gone for good and hopes she will be happy with Paul. The point here is that true to Martin’s character, he genuinely hopes Ann will be happy. His love for her is essentially selfless and in its bottomless decency probably beyond most of us.

Not only that, but in the grand scheme of things it is by no means obvious that Jackson Pollock’s work was anything more than a series of worthless daubs. Martin has a point, but not one suited to the world of Ann, Paul and presumably those who made the programme.

It’s a fascinating contrast. The unsympathetic yet thoroughly decent Martin isn’t allowed to add a single atom of cultural value to the modern world. He belongs to a narrow, blinkered and culturally impoverished past and it is no surprise that he fails so dismally to see Pollock's artistic merits.

Of course situation comedy characters are two dimensional and bolted together for the laughs so we shouldn’t read too much into their construction. It’s not as if decent characters haven’t been used for their comic potential either. 

Even so, there is a dark side to our willingness to laugh at Martin Bryce.


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Paddington said...

I don't know that series, but I thought of Tom Sharpe's Wilt series.

Sackerson said...

Nicely written, AK. I think the scriptwriters understood that you need contrasting flawed (non-white) lights for the drama. Think of "Citizen Smith" also. On stage you use red light from one side and blue from the other.

A K Haart said...

Paddington - I enjoyed Wilt, although I haven't read one for quite a while.

Sackers - Citizen Smith takes me back. I don't remember it being repeated. Very much of its time I suppose.