The beginning of last month a whole was left in the world of sitcom, Bob Larbey, who co-wrote many of Britain’s best loved situation comedies died at the age of 79. Of course tributes came rushing in honouring the man who co-wrote and co-created those fine gems such as Please Sir! Ever Decreasing Circles and my own personal favourite sitcom, the Good Life.
Of course, I could take this opportunity to bang on about how much I adore the Good Life (Good Neighbours to our American cousins) and how happy it always makes me feel whenever I feel the lowest and can’t bear to force out even the tiniest of smiles. I could say how even when I feel my smile cannot get any bigger, thirty seconds into watching the self-sufficiency sitcom, an enormous smile is painted across the whole of my face. There I’ve said it. Thank you sir for giving us all these wonderful comedies, especially the Good Life and never seeing me without a smile.
I thought I would instead spend the time away from my exams and endless revision exploring the underrated gems Esmonde and Larbey gave us, some of which have recently been repeated such as Brush Strokes on the Drama Channel. Then my good friends at the Sitcom Club reminded me of Mr. Larbey’ solo sitcom; A Fine Romance.
For those of you who haven’t heard of it or gotten a chance to see this charming programme starring husband and wife team Dame Judi Dench and Michael Williams (who Larbey insisted on for the roles), it ran from 1981-1984 and lasted for four series. The focus was on Laura (Dench), a translator who is somewhat envious of her sister’s ‘happily ever after’ style marriage. The first episode sees Laura being set up by her sister, Helen (Susan Penhaligon) and brother-in-law Phil (Richard Warwick) at a party to Mike (Williams). The series follows Laura and Mike’s relationship try and get off the ground as it finds it feet.
Just like any Larbey (with or without Esmonde) comedy, A Fine Romance boasts three dimensional characters that are charming at times, prone to flying off the handle (I’m thinking more of Laura here), not afraid to show their emotion when things don’t go to plan and pumped with an infectious joy when the occasion calls for it.
As this is a tribute to the wonderful gentleman that penned a show that I find very underrated and comforting I shan’t be undergoing an episode-by-episode guide, I will leave you wonderful blog readers to go and check it out for yourself (it’s on DVD thanks to Network, as well as the entire series on youtube). No, instead I am going use this blog space to celebrate the man who had this wonderful talent of making his characters jump off the script and onto are screens in a way that budding sitcom writers could only dream of doing. Yes of course the wonderful cast do deserve recognition for their flawless part in bringing the characters to life, but of course how could they do it without the carefully crafted characters Larbey provides?
A Fine Romance does touch on widely debated topics that are personal to us all, such as ageism, jealousy, trying for a baby, the stresses of being pregnant and subsequently a parent, the fear of the unknown and trying something new and of course love. But it is the small day-to-day interactions we human beings encounter that make Bob Larbey a worthy contender for the title of ‘Sitcom King.’
It’s the way he has clearly and cleverly observed how we act when we meet someone new or have something important to tell loved ones, or how we try and figure out what we want out of life and how we plan to go about getting it. My favourite example comes right from the start of Mike and Laura’s journey, when they meet. Here Larbey insightfully scripts the perfect awkward introduction of the two main characters, where after the ‘hellos’ are said they struggle to make conversation without their matchmakers Helen and Phil. Being “quite nervous, short and shy” as Laura puts it, when describing them both is something we can all relate to in uncomfortable situations, especially when new people are involved. The same reluctance of talking to the person you have been set up with, out of sheer protest is how Larbey ensures the laughs, the stand-offish attitude driven by Laura and the honesty of Mike struggling to strike up a conversation, provides a relatable laugh, which is topped off with the wit Larbey throws in for good measure: “Well there is always sex….. To talk about I mean, that’s always common ground.”
Like many enjoyable sitcoms there is always that age old debate as to when to draw it to a close and tie up loose ends. For me, while it really isn’t enough, I think four series is a good place to leave a sitcom (of course there are exceptions to the rules) as you don’t want to run the risk of it going on too long and it not being the show it was. Personally, it is best to leave while it is on top. And by the time A Fine Romance came to a close it left me hungry for more. Like I said this blog is spoiler free but what makes this charming sitcom endearing is the nostalgia it brings, especially when being viewed now, of a good old fashioned romance and courtship. The programme doesn’t run in a straight line, it isn’t like a fairy story where they meet, fall in love, have a big lavish wedding and 12 kids and live happily ever after. Like I said it oozes with realism, highlighting the ups and downs, the backwards and forwards one may experience when in love and accommodating everyone from family to your lover.
What makes it even more endearing is the fact even at the very end of the last episode there is still a sense of ‘will they, wont they’ be able have the ‘fairytale’ romance Laura secretly craves, leaving you hungry for more.
So once again Bob Larbey did it again, being the master of observation he has given the world some of the best sitcoms going, and this underrated gem which really is a joy to watch is one of them. The not so secret to his success is the realism he brings to the table and his characters, of course they can be over the top in their reactions at times, but even that is relatable to audiences, it is something that helps keep us sane and he knew it. He knew what makes us tick and that we need to have a good laugh at ourselves every now and again, which is why he created (and co-created) these wonderful characters. So if you know or are a Laura, Margo Leadbetter, a Jacko from Brush Stokes or even a Martin Bryce, it’s okay because they are (in some cases deep down) every bit as human and relatable as you. He also knew that the great British public is a sucker for a bit of a romance, especially if there is any inkling of a doubt they won’t finally get together.
He also knew how to write the ‘comfort food’ of comedy as all of his solo and joint projects are something you can watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon, as a distraction from the hassle life is currently throwing at you or when you just need a laugh. Stick something with Larbey’s name in the title and you are guaranteed to be feeling warm on the inside in no time.
So ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I hope you will join me in saying a huge thank you to the one and only Mr. Bob Larbey for everything he has given to the sitcom universe. Thank sir, and may you rest in peace.