Ever Decreasing Circles

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Ever Decreasing Circles
Everdecreasing.jpg
Opening titles of Ever Decreasing Circles
Format Sitcom
Created by John Esmonde
Bob Larbey
Starring Richard Briers
Penelope Wilton
Peter Egan
Stanley Lebor
Geraldine Newman
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 4
No. of episodes 27
Production
Producer(s) Sydney Lotterby
Harold Snoad
Running time 30 minutes
Production company(s) BBC
Broadcast
Original channel BBC1
Original run 29 January 1984 (1984-01-29) – 24 December 1989 (1989-12-24)

Ever Decreasing Circles is a British situation comedy which ran on BBC1 for four series from 1984 to 1989. It was written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, and reunited them with Richard Briers, the star of their previous hit show, The Good Life. It was much less brash than most situation comedies, and was more like a comedy-drama in places.[1] This move into darker areas of comedy was continued with Briers's later series If You See God, Tell Him.

Characters and plot[edit]

Briers plays Martin Bryce, an obsessive middle-aged man at the centre of his local suburban community in East Surrey.[2] This relatively unsympathetic character was the antithesis of Tom Good,[3] yet Briers said that it was his favourite sitcom role.

Martin is married to the motherly and patient Ann (Penelope Wilton), and has a settled, orderly lifestyle until he encounters their new next-door neighbour, ex-British Army officer and Cambridge Blue, Paul Ryman (Peter Egan). Paul is everything Martin is not – adventurous, laissez-faire, flippant, witty, handsome and charming; in the words of Martin, a "couldn't care less, come on life ... amuse me, merchant". He attempts to join in with the activities of Martin and his friends, but his fresh thinking causes Martin to see him as a rival, who might want to "take over" Martin's self-appointed role as organiser. Martin's obsession with order and stability also leads him to get upset at Paul's minor changes to routine, such as sitting at a different table in the local public house. Paul runs his own business, a hair salon, and later, a health studio.

An undercurrent running throughout the series was the unresolved sexual tension and flirting between Paul and Ann. This never resolved itself into an affair, in spite of many opportunities and the obvious mutual attraction. Despite Martin's foibles, he clearly adores Ann, and although Ann is often infuriated by him, she obviously loves him, allowing the couple to ride out even their most difficult disagreements. A chance meeting with Paul's estranged wife contributes to her realisation that, although Paul may appear exciting, Martin makes a better husband.

It is suggested that the rather incongruous marriage between the Bryces came about because Martin went to great lengths to help Ann through a difficult period in her earlier life, and that she still feels indebted to him for this. Martin sometimes seems oblivious to the attraction between Ann and Paul, but shows that he is aware of the danger when, in one episode, he wrongly believes that they have run off together, and leaves home, leaving Ann a note wishing her happiness, and stating that he will always love her. Martin's relationship with Paul is double-edged. Paul is always friendly to Martin, who veers between thinly disguised hatred and grudging admiration. Paul is also loyal to Martin as a gesture towards the more amicable and blameless Ann, solving a marital crisis in one episode when Martin is tricked by a work colleague into believing he'd had a drunken one-night stand while away on business, and admitting to Ann his infidelity. Paul cons the colleague into an admission of the trick in front of Ann, restoring her faith in Martin.

Central to the show is Martin's jealousy of Paul. Although he rarely admits it, Martin would clearly like to be more like him in many respects, particularly in the ease with which he is able to make friends and get jobs done with a minimum of fuss. Paul is shown to be significantly better than Martin at many things, notably cricket, where Paul joins the local team and promptly smashes all the records that Martin proudly holds. A notable event comes when the two have to play in a snooker tournament, where Martin is delighted to find that Paul is useless (the tragedy being that the tournament coincides with Howard's anger at being seen as "a loser" causing him to defeat Martin in the final). A parallel is drawn to a story of Martin's childhood, where his own "gang" was taken over by a new boy, implying that he is scared that Paul's arrival will cause him to lose his friends and his status to the new arrival (this story is recounted by Martin himself in Series 1 and by Mrs Beardsmore in Series 2).

Although it in many ways retained the dynamics and atmosphere of earlier "sofa sitcoms" like Terry and June, the studies of Martin's obsessiveness and the unconsummated romance between Ann and Paul gave it a darker tone than much of what had gone before. Ann's frustration at being trapped in a dull routine and looking for ways out had resonances of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Unlike Perrin, however, Ann lives out her escape fantasies only in very minor ways, such as spontaneously taking a trip to Boulogne-sur-Mer, to Martin's horror ("Nothing French has happened to you, has it?" screams an appalled Martin over the phone).

The other regular characters were Howard and Hilda Hughes (Stanley Lebor and Geraldine Newman), another married couple who generally add lighter humour to the plots. They are long-standing friends and neighbours of Martin's, who share some of his obsessiveness whilst having plenty of quirks of their own (such as always wearing "his and hers" matching outfits), but are also attracted by Paul's personality. Although Howard and Hilda are often seen as being rather timid, they do have strong moral values, and can be very forthright in chastising other characters (usually Martin or Paul) when they believe them to have done something wrong. Various storylines saw them siding with both Martin and Paul on different issues, though usually being forced at the end of the day to side with Martin out of sheer loyalty if nothing else.

The show also featured guest appearances by Peter Blake, Ronnie Stevens, Victoria Burgoyne and Ray Winstone.

After four series, Ever Decreasing Circles ended on Christmas Eve 1989 with an 80-minute finale entitled "Moving On" (sometimes referred to by the name "New Horizons", as the DVD release titles it) in which Martin's employer, Mole Valley Valves, merges with another company (Lee Valley Valves) and moves to Oswestry. Ann discovers she is pregnant, and, despite Martin initially resenting the unborn child for forcing him to move away from The Close, the story ends on a high note with the couple bidding a fond farewell to their neighbours. The final scene sees Martin standing in his empty hallway, going over to the telephone (the only thing left from the Bryces' ownership), and turning the receiver around, suggesting that Martin's obsessiveness will live on.

Popularity[edit]

The show was voted number 52 in the BBC's Britain's Best Sitcom poll in 2003. At its peak it attracted television audiences of around 12 million.

Cast[edit]

Character Actor
Martin Bryce Richard Briers
Ann Bryce Penelope Wilton
Paul Ryman Peter Egan
Howard Hughes Stanley Lebor
Hilda Hughes Geraldine Newman

Music[edit]

The title music was not written specifically for the series, but was instead a witty piano piece, Shostakovich's Prelude No. 15 from his Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 34, played by Ronnie Lane.[4] It is a brisk staccato dance in 3/4 time in D flat major featuring running passages (some of them chromatic in nature) against a characteristic waltz-like background, which alternate between left and right hands. The final eight bars, marked pp, comprise long sustained chords and bring the piece to a quiet and subdued ending.

Episode list[edit]

Series One[edit]

Episode Number Episode Title Original Airdate
1 The New Neighbour 29 January 1984
2 Taking Over 5 February 1984
3 A Strange Woman 12 February 1984
4 Holiday Plans 19 February 1984
5 Vicars and Tarts 26 February 1984

Series Two[edit]

Episode Number Episode Title Original Airdate
1 The Tea Party 21 October 1984
2 The Cricket Match 28 October 1984
3 A Married Man 4 November 1984
4 Housework 11 November 1984
5 Snooker 18 November 1984
6 Boredom 2 December 1984
7 The Psychiatrist 9 December 1984
8 Special Episode
The Party
23 December 1984

Series Three[edit]

Episode Number Episode Title Original Airdate
1 Manure 31 August 1986
2 One Night Stand 7 September 1986
3 House to Let 14 September 1986
4 Local Hero 21 September 1986
5 The Campaign 28 September 1986
6 Cavaliers and Roundheads 5 October 1986

Series Four[edit]

Episode Number Episode Title Original Airdate
1 Relaxation 25 October 1987
2 Goodbye, Paul? 1 November 1987
3 Stuck in a Loft 8 November 1987
4 Neighbourhood Watch 15 November 1987
5 The Footpath 22 November 1987
6 Jumping to Conclusions 29 November 1987
7 Half an Office 6 December 1987
8 Special Episode
New Horizons
24 December 1989

DVD release[edit]

The complete series of Ever Decreasing Circles is available on Region 2 DVD from Cinema Club.

Notes[edit]

  • Although set in east Surrey, the external location scenes were filmed in Billingshurst West Sussex.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The cricket match in Ever Decreasing Circles", The Guardian, 19 March 2012. Accessed 18 February 2013
  2. ^ s2, e8; stated by Martin Bryce
  3. ^ BFI Screenonline: Richard Briers. Accessed 21 November 2012
  4. ^ Not the bass guitarist from The Small Faces, another musician called Ronnie Lane

External links[edit]