Date of Birth: 24 June 1934, Clapham, London, UK
Birth Name: Robert Edward John Larbey
Nicknames: Bob Larbey
Bob Larbey was a scriptwriter who mined the comic potential of suburbia in The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles
With a first major television breakthrough in 1968 with Please, Sir!, a series for ITV set in a tough south London secondary modern school; it would generate a feature film and a television sequel, The Fenn Street Gang. Frank Muir, then head of entertainment at LWT, cast John Alderton as the idealistic young teacher Bernard “Privet” Hedges who struggled to keep the unruly pupils of Class 5C in order.
As Larbey celebrated his 40th birthday, he and co writer John Esmonde devised their most popular and successful series, The Good Life. In the first episode, screened in 1975, Tom Good, a draughtsman for a plastics company (played by Richard Briers), himself turned 40, seizing this occasion to drop out of the rat-race by jacking in his job in favour of suburban self-sufficiency with his wife Barbara (Felicity Kendal).
Rather than give up their comfortable, semi-detached home in Surbiton, the Goods turned their garden into a smallholding, with pigs, a goat, chickens and assorted fruit and vegetables.
Although the couple’s lifestyle baffled and often appalled their social-climbing neighbours, Margo (Penelope Keith) and Jerry Leadbetter (Paul Eddington), the foursome always remained friends, and it was this rapprochement that commended the series to the middle classes, at whom it was poking fun. (Larbey himself confessed that he was too impractical to embrace self-sufficiency, but its general philosophy appealed to him.)
While The Good Life was attracting some 15 million viewers a week on the BBC, Larbey and Esmonde were enjoying further success on ITV with their RAF sitcom Get Some In! (1975-78). Starring Robert Lindsay in his first important television role, and featuring Tony Selby as the drill instructor barking orders at 1950s National Service “erks”, the series drew on the writers’ own experiences (Larbey had been in the Army, and Esmonde in the RAF).
After The Good Life, Larbey and Esmonde wrote three further series for Richard Briers, starting with The Other One (1977-79), in which the central character could not have been more different. Perhaps because Briers was cast as a compulsive and unscrupulous liar, the show failed to generate any of the affection viewers had felt for the wholesome Goods, and it was cancelled after only two series.
Larbey struck out on his own with A Fine Romance (1981-84), starring Judi Dench in her first television sitcom, alongside her real-life husband, Michael Williams. “From first to last,” one critic noted, “Bob Larbey’s scripts were well-written, providing not only laughs but also an underlying intelligence.”
He rejoined Esmonde to create another popular and long-running vehicle for Richard Briers in Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-89), in which the star returned to suburbia as Martin Bryce, an anally-retentive fusspot and do-gooder, with Penelope Wilton as his long-suffering wife, Ann.
In Larbey and Esmonde’s last series together, Down To Earth (1995), Briers played Tony Fairfax, an expatriate struggling to adapt after returning to Britain from South America; but once again viewers did not warm to his character, and it ran for just seven episodes.
The youngest son of a carpenter, Robert Edward John Larbey was born on June 24 1934 in Lambeth, south London, and educated at the Henry Thornton School in Clapham, where he was captain of tennis and became friends with John Esmonde, two years his junior.
On leaving school Larbey took a job in an insurance office in Soho, then did National Service with the Army, stationed in Germany with the Education Corps.
When he and Esmonde started writing sketches, working together at nights and weekends, they submitted a few to the BBC, which eventually accepted one for a programme starring the comedian Cyril Fletcher, earning them a joint fee of two guineas. Having saved money from their day jobs, they gave themselves three months to make a go of writing full-time.
Their first radio sitcom was Spare a Copper (1965-66), featuring the Carry On film star Kenneth Connor as a bungling policeman. The pair followed this with two further radio series, You’re Only Old Once (1969), with Clive Dunn as a spry pensioner, and Just Perfick (1969-71), adapted from the Larkin family stories of HE Bates.
Meanwhile, Larbey and Esmonde had established a toehold in television, starting with sketches for The Dick Emery Show in 1963. Their first full-scale television sitcom, Room At The Bottom (1967), for the BBC, was about a gang of factory maintenance men . It made little impact, but the following year the success of Please, Sir! (1968-72) propelled them into the front rank of television comedy writers. Turned down by the BBC, the show was snapped up by ITV, attracting a weekly audience of 20 million viewers .
As their careers prospered, the pair worked business hours in an office in the centre of Dorking, midway between their respective homes, often acting out scenes together and noting down spontaneous bursts of dialogue. Distractions were confined to occasional glances at televised cricket.
In the 1980s they created Brush Strokes (1986-91), in which Karl Howman starred as a womanising painter and decorator, with Gary Waldhorn as his boss. They wrote a second sitcom for Howman called Mulberry (1992-93), in which he played the manservant of a cantankerous old spinster Miss Farnaby (Geraldine McEwan).
Although in The Good Life Larbey helped to make Surbiton synonymous with suburbia, he never visited the town he made famous. “To be honest, we were just looking for something that sounded like suburbia in big capital letters,” he explained. “We just picked it at random.” The series was actually filmed in Northwood, north London.
In 2004, 30 years after its original screening, The Good Life was ranked ninth in a BBC poll of viewers’ favourite sitcoms.