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Richard Briers as Martin
Peter Egan as Paul
Penelope Wilton as Ann
Stanley Lebor as Howard
Geraldine Newman as Hilda
Ever Decreasing Circles in its day was a popular sitcom, shown for the first time on British TV in 1984 and continued through until 1987, with a one-off finale episode being screened in 1989.
Written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, this gentle comedy is situated in a small suburban residential close.
Martin is a very precise man, obsessive, fussy and deep down rather inadequate. His self-esteem comes from being a passive control-freak, whereby he relishes in organising the neighbourhood's activities, such as sports events, committee meetings, and anything else community-related he can push himself forward into. Martin is a kind and well-meaning individual, but his terribly outdated views on life, the universe and everything, particularly the role of women in society, often land him in trouble. Deep down he realises how very mediocre the total sum of his personality is, hence him constantly striving to prove himself to be interesting. The harder he tries, the more boring he becomes.
Martin's wife, Ann, is an intelligent, attractive but long-suffering lady who although she loves super-bore Martin, is driven crazy by his obsessive and controlling behaviour, but she also realises it is only these things which serve to hold him together as a person. Resigned to her lot in life, Ann frequently displays little outbursts of anger towards Martin, which he always dismisses, completely misunderstanding where she is coming from as a person. Martin wants Ann to be a good wife, a good cook and bottle washer, obedient, servile and 'the little woman at home', whereas she is deeply unfulfilled. Martin thinks that he is Ann's foundation, her rock, and that she would crumple into little pieces without what he believes is his stabilising influence; however, the opposite is actually true. Without Ann, Martin would completely disintegrate....without Martin, there is no doubt that Ann would at worst survive, and at best, create a new and much more fulfilling life for herself.
Hilda and Howard Hughes are good friends with Martin and Ann, and very active in Martin's organised events, yet always take second place underneath his perceived authority, fully comprehending and approving of that is how it must be so as to stay in Martin's good books. Hilda and Howard are a rather naïve, pleasantly loopy pair of individuals, who are very similar to one another and ideally suited as a couple. Madly in love, they blissfully reside in their own little, rather childlike world, understanding one another perfectly whereas their wide-eyed innocence and strange observations/remarks baffle other people. They live their lives by repeatedly - yet affectionately - uttering silly catchphrases to one another, and they can often be seen wearing matching intricately patterned sweaters, which Hilda lovingly knits. By profession, Howard is an insurance salesman and Hilda is a stay at home housewife who blissfully and very efficiently immerses herself in her domestic duties. Neither one expects any more or less from the other, as they have a deep and perfect mutual understanding, being true soulmates.
One day (this happens in the first episode of the first series), a new neighbour moves into the empty house next door to Ann and Martin. This new neighbour introduces himself as Paul Ryman. Paul is a suave, sophisticated individual who immediately takes a shine to Ann, although he is sensible enough to merely flirt with her rather than come on too strongly, By and by, the exceedingly pleasant but rather greaseball character of Paul shows himself to be perfect at everything, joining in all of Martin's community events, outshining him each time, but by chance rather than design. Paul instantly becomes very popular in the immediate neighbourhood, fuelling Martin's jealousy up to almost lunatic levels.
When I first saw Ever Decreasing Circles back in the 1980s, I wasn't in a very good place inside of my head. I was a bit reluctant to watch this new sitcom, as I hadn't really been a great fan of The Good Life, which also starred Richard Briers and was written by John Esdmonde and Bob Larbey. However, the opening music and credits fascinated me, so I watched with interest. The music to Ever Decreasing Circles is played on a solo piano, and although light and airy, it has a tinge of an agitated mood to it. This music is played to the opening screenshot of a golden pool of water, with circular ripples moving inwards rather than outwards....in my view, a very apt and clever visual depiction of the title of this sitcom.
Whilst watching this first episode, I found myself quickly drawn into Ann and Martin's world (perhaps what was happening in my own life wasn't dissimilar to Ann's situation), then as soon as I clapped eyes on new neighbour Paul Ryman, I couldn't tear my attention away. Every week from then onwards, I'd eagerly anticipate the next instalment....not at that time necessarily finding it hilariously funny, but the whole situation was something I could strongly relate to and it made me feel as though I wasn't alone, despite the programme being entirely fictional.
About ten years later, I caught Ever Decreasing Circles a second time around, when the whole set of the series was shown on the UK Gold channel. This time around, I found the programme much more amusing than I had back in the 1980s. I've recently been giving myself a third helping of Ever Decreasing Circles, and am finding it even more humorous than ever before.
It is very difficult to pick one favourite main character from Ever Decreasing Circles, as they all have something strong to offer. On some days I'll delight in the rosy pink cloud of pleasant innocence that Hilda and Howard live their lives in, plus have a chuckle at their almost baby-ish style of conversation, and on some days I'll warm to the neurotically hapless Martin, who if I had to live with him, I'd probably throttle him in cold blood, but from a distance and through a screen monitor, I can laugh at him frantically working at his duplicating machine, tut and raise my eyebrows when he goes through one of his Paul-induced sulks, yet at the same time warm to who at heart is a big softie and a very caring but misappropriated man. On other occasions, I'll marvel at Ann's grit and determination for not always happily or contentedly, but most of the time respectfully tolerating her husbands shortcomings. Equally, sometimes I can find myself ogling the rather attractive Paul, who despite being a real lounge lizard in the worst possible way, is actually a very nice guy who although he enjoys sending Martin up, it's all good-natured and he means no harm.
At points during some of the episodes of Ever Decreasing Circles, you can almost taste the borderline erotic attraction that Ann and Paul have for one another. I've always wanted to shout at the TV screen to Ann that she and Paul are ideally suited and should elope together to the Australian outback or somewhere similar, but I also realise that if they did, their relationship probably would fizzle out in a very short time. Paul has a roving eye, and Ann is committed to Martin, even with all his blithering faults.
I often get the impression that Ann and Martin did, during the early days of their relationship, have a lot more fun than they do as a well and truly hitched childless couple living in semi-detached suburbia. A few scattered references throughout various episodes of Ever Decreasing Circles are made to a good time once had in Kidderminster, and my mind always boggles as to what could have happened....was Martin ever attractive, sexy and alluring? Didn't Ann realise what Martin was like before she married him, or perhaps she did and thought she could hack it? In one of the programmes whilst having a rare serious conversation with Paul, Ann does let slip that when she first met Martin, she was in a bit of a mess and he was her saviour. How sad and how often true that is of many married couples!
I love the way that Howard and Hilda seem so very passive, almost dippy, yet whenever the situation calls for it, each one is - in their usual childlike way - capable of asserting his or herself, pressing a point home in self-defense which makes the viewer realise that perhaps there's more than meets the eye to this apparently blissfully unaware couple. Full of dutiful kindness, Howard and Hilda wouldn't hurt a fly and are always there to help anybody. I do love Hilda's girlish, modest, yet slightly saucy protestations if she catches herself out having inadvertently emitted a double-entendre, or if a cheeky little secret from her and Howard's younger life peeps out from under the surface.
I have many favourite little scenes and moments from Ever Decreasing Circles as a whole, but my overall number one (at least for the moment, as it can change from day to day) is during one episode when Ann has to go into hospital for a couple of days to have a minor operation. Martin mistakes Ann's relief at having some time away from him as worry about her condition, and the pair have a very at cross purposes verbal exchange. Whilst Ann is in hospital, Martin sets his heart and ambitions on giving the house a spring-clean, plus refusing Howard's, Hilda's and Paul's offers of help and support, believing he will more than adequately cope alone. However, Martin is in for an unpleasant shock as it soon becomes apparent to him that housework isn't the doddle that he believes. The most humorous part of that episode for me is once he has turned the house into a disaster zone, Martin has a neurotic outburst of monumental proportions, which is witnessed by an amused and smiling Paul, who has unbeknown to Martin crept in through the back door.
I don't watch TV these days, so am unable to say if there are any true quality sitcoms around, out of the same bag as gems like Ever Decreasing Circles. This is an intelligent, gentle comedy which although the issue of Ann being the little woman at home and Martin's perception of such may be a tad outdated, I do accept it was made in a different era to that in which we now find ourselves, and I'm happy to historically take it for what it is....or should I say was!
Interestingly, there is absolutely no crudity, swearing or anything blatant about Ever Decreasing Circles at all. It is an intelligent comedy where some of the humour is subtle. It does contain a small smattering of hokey laugh lines, but for the most part it is something which I personally find incredibly amusing. Each of the main characters is very strong, all having an equal role to play helping to create...along with the writers of course...a classy, high quality, classic comedy which I feel perhaps hasn't quite received as much praise as it should have done. The only little niggle I have, is the canned laughter, which I find intrusive and irritating. I don't like being told when and where I should laugh!
I think I want to, periodically, spend time throughout the rest of my life re-watching the whole catalogue of Ever Decreasing Circles, as it never ceases to warm the cockles of my heart, and amuse me.
For anybody who has never seen Ever Decreasing Circles and would like to, or for those who wish they'd taped it onto VHS at the time yet didn't and want a re-run, you can buy DVDs on Amazon of each series separately, or the complete, whole collection via a box-set. The complete collection, at the time of writing, is priced as follows:-
New: from £14.79 to £77.90
Used: from £14.99 to £39.80
A delivery charge of £1.26 should be added to the above figures, and please note that as a programme, Ever Decreasing Circles has been issued with a 15 certificate on DVD.
On a final note, and in case anyone is interested, there's a lovely tiny little clip on YouTube of an outtake from Ever Decreasing Circles, where Peter Egan as Paul Ryman is trying to deliver a small scene where he is dressed as a country yokel and singing to Martin (Richard Briers). Peter Egan simply can't stop laughing whilst attempting to straight-facedly act the scene. This clip on YouTube only lasts about 50 or so seconds, but is well worth a watch.
Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
Martin, his wife Anne, plus neighbours Howard and Hilda are sitting in a pub. They are there for a snooker competition. Another neighbour, Paul Ryman, walks in, wearing the full monty - waistcoat, bow tie, and with a high quality cue case in his hand. Sitting down, he opens the box to reveal a lovely piece of wood. "This was given to me by my mate Tony" he says. "Tony Knowles I suppose" says Martin. "No, Tony Meo!" says Paul. Martin Brice - a man of massive insecurities, who has to organise everything in the Close where he lives, who has to be the best sports player, leading light of the quiz team and best bat in the cricket club, had once again become the victim of the suave Paul, a man who could do everything, pull anything remotely female, and amuse himself by winding up Bryce through playing on his weaknesses. Ever Decreasing Circles is a classic case of a comedy where the writers have deliberately chosen characters as neighbours who in many ways could not be more different; Martin, easily flustered, needs to be in control, and loved by his local community, to stop himself feeling insecure. Paul is just cool - he takes control through a natural charm and annoying ability to do everything well without any effort. Martin is getting on a bit, and not the man he once was to hs wife... but Paul is younger, intelligent, and attractive. When Martin has trouble organising the fete, Paul steps in and does a wonderful job - he even shows off his own motorcycle stunt riding skills, and gets a 'mate' to perform an aerobatic display in a full-size aircraft. And to really impress Anne and the close, he organises a horse and cart to take to take them there. In another episode, at a local cricket match, Martin makes Paul 12th man in an attempt to stop him playing, but when one team member injures a finger in the warm up, Martin has no choice but to select Paul. Whilst the smoo
thie, who turns out to be a former Cambride Blue, knocks up a big score, Martin's frustration complete itself when he hits the ball high into the outfield and gets caught for a duck in bizarre circumstances. To make matters worse, the opposing captain calls Martin a cheat for playing such a class player in a village game. To a proud man with such a fragile ego, this is almost unbearable. In the Bryce world, everything has to be done by the book. Who could forget the episode where Martin discovered an old right-of-way passed through the plot where his house had been built a few years ago - he insists that, for legal reasons, they should open it up again, and even builds a stile to allow hikers over his garden fence! To make matters worse, the only passage from front to back is through the house itself... One of the most moving moments came in a late episode where Martin, believing Anne has finally given in to Paul's charms, decides to run away. He leaves a note that says "Paul might as well have you - he always wins everything." Nobody knows where he's gone... but Paul has an idea. He drives Anne to the library - and there he is. "How did you know?" she says. "Martin's the only man I know who would take his library books back before running away!" I. like many other people, shed a tear when Martin and Anne left for Oswestry at the orders of his employers, the Mole Valley Valve Company. No more would we hear Howard's delightful laugh. And it was the end of Paul's smug grin. And, I still miss watching Martin's compulsive behaviour upon getting home from work, where he would wipe his feet for two minutes, then turn the receiver round on the phone. Even now, when passing through the lovely Wisborough Green in Sussex, I like to sit on a bench by the green and reminisce about the cricket episode filmed there. For sure, had Briers not decided to leave the screen to pursue more work on the s
tage, there would have been much more to come from this smashing comedy. I hope this review, along with the two excellent pieces already posted here about Ever Decreasing Circles, have wetted your appetite to get hold of a video or two. One of the best comedies ever made.
After the gentle touch of The Good Life, an enormously popular BBC sitcom starring Paul Eddington, Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendal, writers John Esmond and Bob Larbey took its main star Richard Briers with them when they established their next comedy series, the marvellous Ever Decreasing Circles in the late 1980's. This time Briers was cast as Martin Bryce, a straight laced and anally retentive pillar of the community. Married to Ann, played by the wonderful Penelope Wilton, Martin is a buyer at the nearby Mole Valley Valves, and is keen on proving himself to be the rock upon whom the entire Close depends. For many years, he manages to lord it over all he surveys and bind the entire population of his leafy London suburb together. But then, a very smooth and extremely disruptive element arrives on the Close in the shape of the owner of a hairdressing business, Paul Ryman, played by Peter Egan, and life is never quite the same again, much to Martin's utter dismay. Everyone loves Paul, as the man who is good at everything and knows everyone there is to know, and Martin sees Paul very much as the Antichrist, his arch enemy, whose sole intention is to wreak havoc on his very ordered little world. The smugly smirking Paul sees it all as a very big joke and delights in poking holes in Martin's very comfortable life. The other main characters in this marvellous little masterpiece are Howard and Hilda Hughes - "not THE Howard Hughes" - played by the excellent Stanley Lebor and Geraldine Newman. This is a stereotypical little couple who are constantly in each other's company and always seen to wear matching outfits. The main characters are all expertly played and they combine together for some of the most wonderful gentle situation comedy of all time. Briers in particular is first class as the harrassed and put upon Martin, who just loves taking command in a crisis, but Egan too is wonderful as th
e elegantly smooth and smug Paul. There was one particular episode which brought out the best qualities of the show and that's the one where Martin has taken it upon himself to organise a neighbourhood watch programme. He has invited a policeman round to give him the full details of the programme, and as usual Martin is terribly focused: “I am the only one who’s allowed to contact the police aren’t I?” He also keeps referring to himself as the Commandant, although the policeman keeps correcting him, “Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator, sir." Martin is soon in his element in his office, which doubles up as operations centre, and he’s got a map of the area laid out on the table, with model cars and mocked up model neighbours and burglars everywhere. “Why has Paul got glasses and a moustache?” asks Ann. “Just doodling.” Howard and Hilda catch a suspicious guy poking around and effect a citizen’s arrest and take him back to the operations centre for Martin to carry out his inquisition. This is chummy, you know the ne’er do well, the bandit, the chummy. The guy tells Martin he is in fact a policeman, much to his embarrassment. A few days later, the cop comes back and invites Martin and all his neighbours to a special dinner at the Ritz. Luckily, Paul susses that there is something phoney about the whole thing and a major burglary is thwarted, much to Martin’s annoyance and embarrassment. It’s all so gentle and comfortable and predictable, but it’s gloriously played. You have to check this one out.