Bob Larbey enjoyed 30 years as half of one of television’s most successful and prolific 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 of Class 5C, who call him “Privet”.
The ITV comedy – previously turned down by the BBC – was raucous, and Larbey later referred to it as a “pudding”, but it was a masterclass in ensemble writing. The four series were watched by up to 20 million viewers – and there was a 1971 film spin-off and a sitcom sequel, The Fenn Street Gang (1971-73), following the fortunes of the pupils on leaving the school.
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 featured middle-class couples self-sufficient, with allotments of fruit and vegetables, as well as chickens, pigs, a goat and a cockerel.
The idea came to Larbey when he was approaching his 40th birthday and recognised it as a time for people to reassess their lives – what has been and what might follow. 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 in Surbiton. The Goods’ antics test to the limits their friendship with neighbours Jerry Leadbetter and his toffee-nosed wife, Margo (Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith).
“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 singleton Laura Dalton, a socially inept middle-aged translator who has an on-off relationship with shy landscape gardener Mike Selway (Michael Williams, Dench’s real-life husband). The series was nominated for 11 Bafta awards, with two won by Dench.
Larbey was born in Lambeth, south London, the son of a carpenter. He attended the Henry Thornton School, Clapham, where Esmonde was a friend – two years his junior – who shared his sense of humour. On leaving, Larbey worked as a printing-block maker, then in an insurance office, before doing National Service in the Royal Army Educational Corps in Germany.
On demob, he had a job at a foundry while Esmonde was a journalist. In their spare time, the pair submitted comedy sketches to the BBC. Eventually, one was accepted for a radio programme that included Cyril Fletcher – and they jointly earned two guineas (£2.10).
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. Clive Dunn was cast as a lively pensioner in their second radio series, You’re Only Old Once (1969).
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. Given the green light for a full series the following year, it featured Kenneth Connor leading a factory’s maintenance workers against Deryck Guyler’s personnel director – but 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), featuring him as a compulsive liar, was not popular, but the role of do-gooder Martin Bryce, with Penelope Wilton as his wife, in Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-9), had writers and star back on track. Later came Down to Earth (1995), but Briers’s unsympathetic character, an expatriate struggling to adapt after returning to Britain from South America, was again shunned by viewers.
Feet First (1979), Just Liz (1980) and Don’t Rock the Boat (1982) were other turkeys, but Now and Then (1983-84), starring Bernard Holley, ran to two series. Larbey and Esmonde were on a roll again with Brush Strokes (1986-91), featuring Karl Howman as a womanising decorator. Then, in Mulberry (1992-93), Howman starred as the manservant to Geraldine McEwan’s crotchety old spinster.
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), teaming Dennis Waterman’s self-made millionaire with the socially superior wife played by Judy Buxton, 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, Jean and Lionel, reunited after 38 years apart. As with A Fine Romance, Larbey’s scripts shone with intelligence and poignancy. The sitcom also proved popular in the United States.
Robert Edward John Larbey, writer: born London 24 June 1934; married 1973 Patricia Marshall (died 2006; one son); died London 31 March 2014.