John Esmonde, the TV sitcom writer who in partnership with Bob Larbey created The Good Life, Please, Sir!, Ever Decreasing Circles and other comedy shows, died on 10 August 2008. He was 71.
None of the obituaries give much detail about his personal life; he seems to have been a relatively private person. The Times even manages to get his year of birth wrong in the main body of its obit, although the date given at the end matches the one given elsewhere.
The Guardian notes that although partnerships were common in the two decades between the mid-Sixties and the mid-Eighties
[Esmonde and Larbey] were not established writers who had teamed up because that was the best modus operandi for sitcom-writing. They had known each other since childhood, having both been born and raised in south London – Esmonde came from Battersea – and been schoolboy mates at Henry Thornton grammar school in Clapham.
The Independent gives the best account of how Esmonde and Larbey came to get into sitcom writing in the first place:
After National Service in the RAF, Esmonde worked in the offices of a paint company, then as a journalist writing about food processing and packaging, while Larbey had a job in a foundry. Still friends, they met regularly for lunch and chatted about local revues and their favourite radio shows. As a result, Esmonde and Larbey started writing sketches themselves and sent them to the BBC, which eventually accepted one for a programme that included Cyril Fletcher and paid them a joint fee of two guineas [£2.10 in decimal currency].
The Times describes their breakthrough in slightly different terms:
For three years their efforts produced little but rejection slips. However, in 1965 they were, at last, offered a radio series. This was Spare a Copper, which starred Kenneth Connor as a bungling policeman, with support from the veteran Deryck Guyler. It ran on and off for a year, and while it did not make Esmonde and Larbey rich, it gave them a foot on the ladder. As they had committed themselves to writing full-time this was just as well.
Although the duo had successes with Please, Sir! and various spin-offs (The Fenn Street Gang, Bowler), the series they’re most fondly remembered for was The Good Life. The Guardian sums up the series nicely:
Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal as a suburban couple resolved to practise self-sufficiency and live off the land without leaving Surbiton, much to the scorn of their neighbours, played by Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith. Again Esmonde and Larbey succeeded in sustaining genial life-like comedy without elaborate plot contrivances on the one hand or drifting into sitcharm, rather than sitcom, on the other.
The Independent (which, unlike the other two national dailies that carried an obituary, has some quotations from Esmonde himself) quotes Esmonde as saying that “Placing them [the Goods] in The Avenue, where a number of Margos and Jerrys lived up and down the road, not just next door, provided the abrasiveness”.
All the same, as The Times points out, the pair admitted that there was no magic formula:
because they wrote so much, there were inevitably flops. After the end of The Good Life in the late 1970s there was a particularly undistinguished crop of shows. Despite having Briers and Michael Gambon as leads, The Other One made little impact, and few now remember the football comedy, Feet First, or Now and Then, a child’s view of family life in the Second World War based on the writers’ own experiences.
Against this, however, they could show Get Some In!, which overlapped with The Good Life, and Ever Decreasing Circles, which The Times describes as “a return to form”.
The last word belongs to Esmonde himself, as quoted in The Independent:
Having decided that Down To Earth would be their last series together, Esmonde and Larbey went their separate ways. Esmonde retired to the coastal village of La Herradura, in the Granada province of Spain, and concentrated on writing novels. “I haven’t had one published yet, but being rejected makes me feel young again,” he said.
(John Gilbert Esmonde, born 21 March 1937 in Battersea, London, died 10 August 2008.)