We just don’t hear much about them. Till it’s too late. TVWriter™ pays its respects to Bob Larbey:
BOB Larbey enjoyed 30 years as half of one of television’s most successful sitcom-writing partnerships. He and John Esmonde had their first major hit with Please Sir! (1968-72), set in Fenn Street Secondary Modern School, with John Alderton as Bernard Hedges, the fledgling teacher trying to keep order among the unruly pupils who call him “Privet”.
Larbey and Esmonde switched to a more traditional domestic setting for their other big success, The Good Life (1975-78), but gave it a twist by making one of the two middle-class couples self-sufficient.
The idea came to Larbey when he was approaching his 40th birthday and recognised it as a time for people to reassess their lives. He and Esmonde had been asked to find a vehicle for Richard Briers, so they cast him as Tom Good, who gives up his job as a draughtsman at a company making plastic toys for cereal packets to go self-sufficient with his wife, Barbara (Felicity Kendal), at their house inSurbiton.
“I think it just struck a chord, not in terms of making everybody want to be self-sufficient, but it just fed that little bit of all of us that wants to opt out, to become independent,” reflected Larbey. “It was about a revolution – just one without violence or shouting.”
On his own, Larbey came up with another original idea in the sitcom A Fine Romance (1981-84). Judi Dench starred as a socially inept translator who has an on-off relationship with a shy landscape gardener played by Michael Williams, Dench’s real-life husband. The series was nominated for 11 Bafta awards, with two won by Dench.
Larbey was born in south London, the son of a carpenter. He and Esmonde attended the same school and were friends who shared a sense of humour. After National Service, Larbey had a job at a foundry while Esmonde was a journalist. In their spare time, the pair submitted comedy sketches to the BBC.
They were able to give up their day jobs when the BBC commissioned their radio sitcom idea Spare a Copper (1965-66), starring Carry On actor Kenneth Connor as a bungling policeman.
On television, Larbey and Esmonde had already been writing sketches for The Dick Emery Show when Room at the Bottom was given a try-out in the ‘Comedy Playhouse’ slot in 1966. Although given the green light for a full series, it failed to catch on.
However, Please Sir! made the writing duo hot property. Its sequel, The Fenn Street Gang, spawned a spin-off prequel, Bowler (1973), with George Baker as a wide-boy villain, and there was longer-running success with the RAF sitcom Get Some In! (1975-78). Before The Good Life ended, Larbey and Esmonde wrote the first of three more series for Richard Briers. The Other One (1977-79) was not popular, but Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-89), co-starring Penelope Wilton, had writers and star back on track. (Later came Down to Earth (1995), but it was shunned by viewers.)
Larbey and Esmonde were on a roll again with Brush Strokes (1986-91), featuring Karl Howman. After Down to Earth, the writers ended their partnership and Esmonde retired to Spain. Larbey had already branched out on his own with A Fine Romance and On the Up (1990-91), as well as writing the first four episodes (1991) of The Darling Buds of May. Larbey’s longest-running solo sitcom was As Time Goes By (1992-2005), from an idea by Colin Bostock-Smith. Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer played two old flames, reunited after 38 years apart. As with A Fine Romance, Larbey’s scripts shone with intelligence and poignancy.
Larbey married Patricia Marshall in 1973 (who predeceased him) and they had one son. John Esmonde died in 2008.