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February 25, 2013 at 4:23 pm #44868
The Good Life was phrase made popular by a TV show starring my old acquaintance Richard Briers who went off the grid and on the cloud last week.
Richard played Tom Good – back in the day when “Good” had similar connotations to “green” now
– Here is a Sunday Times article about the effect the show had
Fork, fowl and smartphone – this is the good life; TV’s Tom and Barbara Good overturned the hippie image of self-sufficiency but it was still a hard, lonely existence. How things have changed, finds Josh Glancy
24 February 2013
The Sunday Times
‘All of our friends thought we were barking mad when we went off to try and live the good life,” says Carrie Winger, who left the urban rat race behind more than 20 years ago to run a bakery and live off a smallholding with her husband Larry in Northumberland.
“We’ve often wondered what on earth we are doing and thought we’re too old to be trudging through the snowdrifts at 5am to start baking. We didn’t know the first thing about living sustainably when we started, our new house was in a terrible state and we quickly realised that we had to place our attempts to live the good life on hold if we were going to put our kids through school.”
The Wingers were inspired by The Good Life, which when they arrived in London from Canada in the late 1970s was at the height of its popularity and heading into its fourth and final series. By then Tom and Barbara Good, played by Richard Briers, the much-loved comic actor who died last week, and Felicity Kendal, were national sweethearts — more than 21m Brits watched the 1977 Christmas special.
In many ways The Good Life was more than just a television show. It captured the hopes and aspirations of millions who were fed up with office work and longed, like Tom, to “just get it right”. For most viewers this was a fanciful and far-fetched dream, but some took the show’s message more seriously and sought the good life themselves.
“I used to watch the show when I first came to London,” says Larry Winger. “We were working as researchers at Imperial College, but we often used to wonder about doing something different. Whenever we did, The Good Life always came up. When we eventually moved north I was 40, the same age as Tom Good in the show. Everyone knew why we were going.”
“It was incredibly tough at times,” says Carrie, “but now that our kids have gone to university we’re finally coming close to the good life idyll, developing our vegetable garden, luxuriating in our wood-fired hot tub and enjoying our chickens and ducks.”
The Wingers were not the only ones to be inspired by the Goods’ (often hapless) attempts to live a sustainable lifestyle. The National Allotment Society welcomed 8,230 new members in 1977, as the show’s popularity reached its peak.
As well as providing encouragement to many would-be Toms and Barbaras, the programme also reflected a broader cultural trend. Books such as Complete Urban Farmer by David Wickers, the Sunday Times travel writer, and The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour became bibles for those who sought to reconnect with the land.
“This was the beginning of supermarkets and the mass production of food,” says Wickers. “We were the first postwar generation; many of us came through university, emerged into the real world and thought, sod it, there must be something better.”
The original pioneers of the back-to-the-land movement were mostly anti-corporate hippies, many of whom moved to smallholdings in Wales to live a self-sufficient lifestyle. But the movement soon outgrew its socialist origins.
“The most important effect of The Good Life was to humanise the idea of living off the land,” says Nick Rosen, the editor of http://www.off-grid.net, a website that offers advice to today’s good-lifers. “It turned it from something angry and negative into something soft and cuddly. It took the threat of hippie anarchist types and turned it into something anybody could imagine themselves doing.”
It was Seymour’s book that inspired Andrew Whitley to start living the good life. “I was working for the BBC’s Russian service in the 1970s,” he says. “One day I was standing in Foyle’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road [in London] when somebody dropped a big pile of books and I helped pick them up. One of them was Self-Sufficiency.”
Whitley, who was living with his wife in Stoke Newington, north London, at the time, started growing his own food and making his own clothes: “I had a window-box in my office growing carrots and I made my own clothes, though I never used stinging nettle dye like Tom. I had long hair and unusual clothes. But no one criticised me about it, there were other far more eccentric people in the [BBC] building at that time.”
Tom and Barbara Good’s neighbours, Margo and Jerry Leadbetter (played by Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington), were puzzled and occasionally horrified by their antics. Whitley recalls similar clashes: “I started by getting an allotment on Clifford Park and growing some wheat. The guys on the allotment had all dug for victory and they used to sit and rest themselves on their spades and tell me about life during the war.
“It was perfectly amicable but they obviously regarded us as alien beings. We tried not to impose what we regarded as our radical views on them, but it all broke down when we entered the five best vegetables category in the annual produce show.
“When it came to the results we couldn’t find our basket anywhere. So we asked somebody and they said the judges couldn’t judge it because they didn’t have a clue what any of the vegetables were. We’d used sea kale, a bit of swiss chard and some salsify. You couldn’t have bought any of that stuff in a shop in the 1970s; we might as well have imported them from Mars. That was our Tom and Barbara moment.”
Thirty-five years after Tom Good hung up his garden fork, the back-to-the-land movement is still thriving. Many couples who take up the good life have been edged out of the housing market by soaring prices, but others are wealthy professionals who want a break from the rat race.
“Modern technology makes living off the land a very different experience now, so it’s become a more appealing activity for bourgeois types,” says Rosen.
“In the 1970s it was a miserable, lonely and gruelling existence; you really were dropping out, though you never saw that squalor in the TV show. These days you’ve got your smartphones and solar panels, there’s a whole panoply of technology which makes going back to the land a comfortable and pleasurable experience.”
The biggest barrier facing good-lifers today is not neighbours or failing crops, but red tape. In 2010 Giles Coren, The Times’s food critic, with Sue Perkins, attempted to recreate Tom and Barbara’s dream in a BBC television show, Giles and Sue Live the Good Life. “If you wanted to do that in London now you’d have a bureaucratic nightmare,” Coren says.
“Because of [environment department] regulations, we weren’t allowed to feed slops to the pigs. When we went to take the goats for a walk on Wembley common we had to have a runner to shuffle along behind us just out of shot shovelling up every little goat dropping and putting it in a bag, because one tiny goat pellet couldn’t be allowed to remain on the common, despite the fact we live in a filthy, poisonous city.”
The modern good life may look very different, but smallholders still acknowledge the debt they owe to the show. “We might not do things exactly the same way now,” says Carrie Winger, “but we were all inspired by The Good Life in one way or another.”February 25, 2013 at 9:47 pm #44869
I used to love that showFebruary 26, 2013 at 3:01 am #44871
I never saw the show. PV was not available then, no low power use TVs, lights or other appliances. Back to having enough land decent enough and large enough to grow more crops on, was more feasible before humanity started using multiple Earths of resources and pollution dumps. Well before that show.
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