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Angela Tilby: We need to ask, what is the good life?

28 June 2024


Tom and Barbara Good with Jerry and Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life

Tom and Barbara Good with Jerry and Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life

AS I flicked through the TV channels the other night, I came across a documentary celebrating the BBC’s The Good Life. This sitcom ran between 1975 and 1978, and chronicled the attempt of Tom and Barbara Good to live self-sufficiently, growing their own food, generating their own electricity, and producing their own, alarmingly alcoholic, “Peabody Burgundy”. Their efforts are looked on with affectionate scepticism by their more conventional neighbours, Margo and Jerry Leadbetter.

The series was an enormous success. The Christmas edition in 1977 attracted 22 million viewers, and, when it finally ended, a special extra programme was commissioned and recorded in the presence of the late Queen, who was a great fan.

My first response to the programme about The Good Life was that it now seems quite extraordinary that 22 million people could be watching the same thing at the same time. There was much less choice then, of course, but the storyline and characters had genuine and wide appeal.

The decision to opt out of the rat race resonated during the Cold War years. We valued our freedom, not least to question our own lifestyles, compared with those living under totalitarianism. We also liked laughing at ourselves, and, while the Goods’ aspirations to live more lightly on the earth could be admired, the living out of it was often hilarious.

When Margaret Thatcher’s government deregulated television, many welcomed a greater range of viewing. Audiences were inevitably smaller and more fragmented. We found ourselves watching programmes more tailored for “people like us”, and perhaps lost some of our previous sense of solidarity.

Nobody would write The Good Life these days, not least because we barely recognise the society in which the Goods made their choice. For some, the concept of “the good life” would most likely refer to health and well-being; for others, it could suggest the lifestyle of the global super-rich, enjoying their multiple homes, yachts, and celebrity lifestyles. Opting to live simply, as the Goods tried to do, could now seem little more than a bizarre affectation, especially when so many are struggling to survive.

As we prepare to vote next week, many of us are approaching the polling booths with scepticism. I attended a local hustings, and was depressed that the answers given by the six candidates were so bland that it was almost impossible to tell the difference between them. Everybody knows we are short of housing, and that the NHS needs money and reform. We listened politely, but I would be surprised if anyone learnt anything new or came out with any sense of hope.

Everyone has answers, but we are not asking the right questions. If the Church was to put energy into asking what the good life might mean today, perhaps it could start a national conversation.

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