Most of the tributes to Richard Briers are understandably focusing on his role as Tom Good in The Good Life (there was a particularly gracious and moving tribute from Penelope Keith on Channel 4 News – despite her having obvious problems keeping her earpiece in – for example).
It’s no particular surprise as Tom was undoubtedly the character for whom he was best known and best-loved, and if the waves of affection that have followed his death yesterday show anything it’s that Richard Briers was well-loved.
The Good Life only ran for three years and finished in 1978 yet its characters and situation were so well-drawn by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey that its longevity is now well into its fourth decade and it’s the role by which most of us have come to define Richard Briers.
I might be flying against the received wisdom here however but I think his performance as Martin Bryce in Ever Decreasing Circles was easily his best work, at least on television. The Good Life was fun and reflected a particular aspect of contemporary British life in the 1970s but I think Ever Decreasing Circles went deeper than The Good Life: there was a tragic aspect to Martin that Tom didn’t have and one that Briers portrayed flawlessly.
Martin was a man who was permanently on the brink of losing control of both his life and his world and he knew it. Tom Good had recognised that his life and career – as a draughtsman at a breakfast cereal company – had all been worthless and set out to do something about it. Martin Bryce had long endured a creeping realisation of the same thing but knew it was too late. All he could do to prop up this bottomless chasm of ennui was to make himself a big fish in his small suburban pond.
There was a deep sadness in Martin, a realisation of his own failure and lack of fulfilment, and Briers’ brilliance was in leaving it not just unsaid but effectively unexpressed. It’s an extraordinary feat of acting that he managed to convey all that depth and darkness through the persona of an interfering suburban busybody.
In musical terms, it was all in the spaces between the notes.
Take this clip, for example: an apparently banal exchange with a receptionist that lasts less than a minute yet drips with unexpressed self-knowledge and the emptiness of a life unfulfilled.:

There’s this clip too: it opens with a classic piece of projection. “Poor old Howard” he laments, is “always number two; one of life’s Dr Watsons, never a Sherlock Holmes”:

Three minutes into the clip, see the childlike innocence in his face as he returns to the bar to tell Ann he’d beaten Paul in the snooker tournament. Even the slight swallow before he says, “I won, Ann” says much more about Martin than the lines themselves. I mean, it’s brilliant writing by Esmonde and Larbey of course but their job was certainly made easier by the fact they knew they were writing for Richard Briers.
There was a lot of Tony Hancock and fair smattering of Basil Fawlty in Martin Bryce but it came out through Briers’ performance in a completely different way – through a skilful subtlety. Subtlety is not something you find in many mainstream sitcoms; certainly there are few actors genuinely able to pull it off, but this is, after all, Richard Briers we’re talking about.
If there’d been no nuances to Martin Bryce, if an actor had played the whole obsessive middle-class busybody aspect totally straight, it would never have worked. In the hands of Richard Briers Martin became one of the greatest (and, indeed, most underrated) situation comedy characters we’ve ever seen.
I’ve heard a few naysayers comment that Richard Briers only ever played Richard Briers. They mean it as a criticism. That he made them think this way is probably the greatest testament to his skill of them all.