Ever Decreasing Circles is a British television sitcom which ran on BBC1 between 1984 and 1989, consisting of four series and one feature-length special. It was written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, and it 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. This move into darker areas of comedy was continued with Briers’s later series If You See God, Tell Him.
Briers plays Martin Bryce, an narcistic obsessive, middle-aged man at the centre of his local suburban community in East Surrey. This relatively unsympathetic character was the antithesis of Tom Good. 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 is the unresolved sexual tension and flirting between Paul and Ann. Martin sometimes seems oblivious to the attraction between Ann and Paul but in one episode, he wrongly believes that they have run off together. Martin 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 also solves a marital crisis in one episode when Martin is tricked by a work colleague into believing he had 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. 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. The two later play in a snooker tournament, where Martin is delighted to find that Paul is useless (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 status to the new arrival (this story is recounted by Martin in Series 1 and by Mrs Beardsmore in Series 2).
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 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.
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 with the couple bidding 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.
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.
In 1986, similar to other popular BBC sitcoms such as Last of the Summer Wine, Hi-De-Hi and ‘Allo ‘Allo, all of which had successful stage show versions, plans for a touring stage show based on Ever Decreasing Circles were announced. This play, featuring the five characters and set entirely within the local cricket club hall, would have followed the concept of the television series, and played as a comedy-drama with elements of farce. However, the idea was eventually dropped when royalties rights between the BBC and creators John Esmonde and Bob Larbey could not be agreed upon. Several of the plot elements, which had already been mapped out, were later worked into episodes of the television series.
Although the show is set in east Surrey, the external location scenes were filmed in Billingshurst, West Sussex. This included the ‘Close’ featured in the show, along with the pub and Paul Ryman’s salon. The cricket ground used for one of the show’s best loved episodes, ‘The Cricket Match’, was filmed in Wisborough Green, West Sussex. Two series later, when Martin says ‘goodbye’ to his beloved cricket club in the final episode, ‘Moving On’ (renamed ‘New Horizons’ for the official BBC video release), the cricket ground at West Chiltington was used instead. The village of Warnham features in several episodes with ‘The Tea Party’ featuring the church and Old people’s home and other episodes featuring the Sussex Oak pub.
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. 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.