The legacy of The Good Life
Country Smallholding|November 2020
The Good Life captured the public’s imagination when it first aired in 1975. On Country Smallholding’s 45th birthday, Jeremy Hobson looks at this and other programmes with a self-sufficiency slant that have captivated urban and rural dwellers alike over nearly half a century
Jeremy Hobson

John Seymour’s books Self- Sufficiency and The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency were huge bestsellers during the 1970s, inspiring a new generation to down-shift to a different way of life. But, as popular as the idea of a smallholding enterprise was already proving to be, it was really the arrival in 1975 of the BBC’s The Good Life, starring Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington, that brought self-sufficiency to the attention of the masses. At its peak, the programme attracted 18 million viewers.

In part inspired by the increased interest in green issues, although it focused on the potential problems (and comedy element) of self-sufficiency, writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey also used The Good Life as a platform from which to poke fun at middle-class values — hence it is set in sunny Surbiton in southwest London rather than a rural idyll. In a 2011 interview, producer John Howard Davies stated that he believed one reason for the success of the series was because it featured “two people trying to practice self-sufficiency in a bad place”.

This “bad place” was actually Kewferry Road in the north London suburb of Northwood. The homeowners chosen for the location were the Mullins family who had no interest whatsoever in smallholding and, when filming first began and the scene was being set, looked — according to actor Richard Briers — “rather scared as big burly men came in and dug up their lawn”. Their property was apparently returned to its original state after the filming of each series. The goat, pigs and poultry that were the essential live props and which appeared in many scenes were taken away at the end of each day’s filming. As to who might have supplied the fourlegged and feathered stars of the show, Lucy Briers, Richard’s daughter, has no recollection whatsoever for, as she told me recently: “I was only eight at the time!”

ENDURING APPEAL

The early 1970s were hardly awash with farming/self-sufficiency programmes — at this point Countryfile wasn’t even a twinkle in its creator’s eye — although country-loving viewers were able to tune in to Out of Town, which featured the soft-talking, pipesmoking, bespectacled Jack Hargreaves exploring all aspects of traditional rural living. Jack would occasionally visit smallholdings for the show and those who lived the Good Life on them — and if their lives included vegetables, so much the better. Jack made no bones about the fact that he preferred a kitchen garden to a flower garden.

Out of Town kicked off in 1960 and ran for 25 years before morphing into Old Country. Chronologically it lasted far longer than The Good Life (which ran from 1975-1978), but while the latter was shown on the BBC and was available for all to see, Out of Town initially aired on Southern Television and could only be viewed in that catchment area. It was, however, later broadcast in other regions, and eventually nationwide on the newly-formed Channel 4 after founding chief executive Jeremy Isaacs admitted an interest.

Even though Jack is long gone, his programmes that capture a slower, more gentle time have enduring appeal. DVDs of Out of Town have remained available for purchase, while the Facebook group Out of Town with Jack Hargreaves has in excess of 4,000 followers. Earlier this year, a compilation of six episodes entitled Further Out of Town was released on DVD and Blu-ray. It contains archive film never seen before, and Jack’s stepson, Simon Baddeley, provides the introduction to each episode in true Jack Hargreaves style — from the shed of his own allotment.

Simon believes that Jack and his programmes have perennial appeal because “Jack’s gentle presentation was like a grandfather talking to his grandchild. Other than perhaps at a petting farm, few people from towns ever get to see how real farms work and, although more people now live in the countryside, fewer actually work in it and so seeing what happens there just makes good television”.

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