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Larbey, Bob (1934-) and Esmonde, John (1937-2008)


Main image of Larbey, Bob (1934-) and Esmonde, John (1937-2008)

Friends since childhood, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey began writing comedy material together as a means of escape from the dull routine of their office jobs. Four years of effort and rejection ensued, but by 1965 a number of their jokes and sketches began to appear on BBC radio shows.

With a foot in the door, television work soon followed. Their first televised work, Room at the Bottom (BBC, tx. 14/06/1966), was featured in the long-running series Comedy Playhouse (BBC, 1961-74). Featuring a team of maintenance men working in an office block, it was considered at the time to be promising enough to warrant a full series. This duly emerged the following year, but it failed to live up to expectations and never progressed beyond a run of seven episodes.

Their next series, however, established them as a television writing partnership of note. Starring John Alderton as timid teacher Bernard Hedges, nominally in charge of the unruly and raucous Class 5C, Please, Sir! (ITV, 1968-72) proved enormously popular with viewers. It became one of ITV's most watched sitcoms of the period, spawning the inevitably weak feature film spin-off (d. Mark Stuart, 1971) and two television sequels, The Fenn Street Gang (ITV, 1971-73) and Bowler (ITV, 1973).

Unlike the relatively abrasive comedy to be found in these series (the writers' Get Some In! (ITV, 1975-78), based around the experiences of national servicemen in the 1950s, can also be bracketed among this group), the comedy of Esmonde and Larbey is popularly characterised as being good humoured, gentle and tasteful, populated by characters that generally match the same description. No series better embodies these characteristics than the one that saw their return to the BBC, The Good Life (1975-78).

Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal played suburban couple Tom and Barbara Good, who leave the rat race in an attempt to become self-sufficient. Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith played their neighbours and best friends, Jerry and Margo Leadbetter. The very gentleness of the humour in combination with its pronounced middle-class setting made it an unwarranted target for vilification in some quarters. However, the quality of the scripts and the faultless performances of the four leads have helped the series to remain relatively fresh while other contemporary comedy series characterised by a supposedly more cutting edge humour have dated badly.

Having built up a rapport with Briers on The Good Life, Esmonde and Larbey recombined with the actor on three further sitcoms: the underrated The Other One (BBC, 1977-79), with Briers and Michael Gambon as two loners dependent on each other's friendship; Ever Decreasing Circles (BBC, 1984-89), with Briers as the know-it-all do-gooder of his suburban neighbourhood; and Down to Earth (BBC, 1995), in which Briers played an expatriate returning to live in Britain and finding his new situation strange and bewildering.

Between The Good Life and Down to Earth (their last series together) Esmonde and Larbey created nine further sitcoms. Two of the most popular of these, Brush Strokes (BBC, 1986-91) and Mulberry (BBC, 1992-93), starred Karl Howman (who had also appeared in Get Some In!) - as a womanising house painter in the former, and as an assistant to the Grim Reaper, albeit with a sentimental streak, in the latter.

Larbey has also written a number of television series and stage plays alone, including the sitcoms A Fine Romance (ITV, 1981-84), a story of middle-aged romance with Judi Dench and Michael Williams, As Time Goes By (BBC, 1992-97), again based around a middle-aged romance, and again starring Judi Dench, this time partnered with Geoffrey Palmer, and the comedy-drama Ain't Misbehavin' (ITV, 1997), a story of dance band musicians set during World War Two, starring Robson Green and Jerome Flynn.

His stage play, A Month of Sundays, won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Comedy in 1987. Larbey himself adapted the play for a Canadian-produced film version in 1989, starring Hume Cronyn.

John Oliver

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Dick Emery Show, The (1963-81)Dick Emery Show, The (1963-81)

'Ooh you are awful...'. Skits and sketches from the cross-dressing comic

Thumbnail image of Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-87)Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-87)

Richard Briers-starring sitcom about an insufferable busybody

Thumbnail image of Fine Romance, A (1981-84)Fine Romance, A (1981-84)

Bittersweet sitcom starring real-life couple Judi Dench and Michael Williams

Thumbnail image of Good Life, The (1975-77)Good Life, The (1975-77)

Much-loved sitcom about a self-sufficient couple in Surbiton

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