Martin Bryce is a man who is organised. He’s a man who owns clipboards, highlighters and box files. He’s a man who likes his telephone receiver (we’re going back a few decades here) to be facing a certain way. He’s meticulous, self-absorbed and as predictable as the sunrise. What he’s not is exciting or spontaneous or somebody willing to live on the edge - or even get within spitting distance of the edge. So the one question that leaps out at you when you’re watching Ever Decreasing Circles is what does his wife Ann get from their relationship?
Ann (Penelope Wilton) is sociable and free-spirited. Martin (Richard Briers) is a middle-aged man at the administrative centre of his local community. He spends his spare time organising his local cricket team’s fixtures, pushing tiny cut-out figures (complete with tiny photo faces) of his fellow cul-de-sac dwellers round his Neighbourhood Watch street patrol map, or organising screws and tools into size order in his shed. The couple clearly don’t have much in common, but what’s also clear is that they are devoted to each other; however infuriated Ann gets with Martin she never walks away. He comes across as selfish – when he allows his schedule to ride roughshod over something that Ann had planned for example – but really he’s just misguided; he means well and his actions are intended to help, it’s just he gets so involved in his cause that he can’t see beyond it. There are elements of security in his obsessive actions as well; perhaps he clings on to his lists and timetables because he is in charge of them and they do what he asks them to, whereas life in itself is something he can’t control. An episode where Ann is in hospital overnight, leaving Martin to deal with running the household (and spectacularly failing), suggests that for all his organisational skills, he finds coping with ordinary life very difficult.
Add to this the entrance of Paul Ryan (Peter Egan), a suave and sophisticated ex-British Army officer and Cambridge Blue. He moves into The Close when he buys the local hair salon (which he later turns in to a health studio). Paul is handsome, funny and has that easy charm that draws people (and especially women) to him; something Martin can never do and therefore resents him for. Paul can turn his hand to most activities, always has luck on his side, knows the right people and moves through his life swatting problems out the way before they become anything major. This invokes barely concealed jealousy in Martin and therefore great humour throughout the programme. Despite Paul being nothing but personable, any new ideas he offers are taken by Martin as a threat to his role of Organiser General. On one occasion Martin draws reference to his time at school, where a new boy arrived and pushed Martin out of his place in his ‘gang’. It would seem that Paul’s arrival mirrors this event in Martin’s mind, and explains a lot; Martin is scared that the position he holds within his neighbourhood, within his friendship circle and even within his marriage may be cast aside by this sophisticate.
It’s easy to see why Martin feels Paul may be threatening his relationship with Ann; there is definitely a spark between the two of them. Ann sees in Paul a sense of fun that Martin doesn’t have (or did he have once, and he’s just forgotten it?) and the chance to break away from the minutiae of Martin’s obsessions, timetables and order. Paul is attracted to her but nothing ever happens between them; despite being portrayed as a real ladies’ man he is also a gentleman, and too loyal to Martin to attempt anything further with her (he even helps to save their marriage on one occasion after a work colleague plays a cruel trick on Martin). The back story of the Bryces hints at Ann feeling she owes Martin a debt of gratitude after he once helped her through a rough time, and whilst this may be one reason for her staying with him, it’s clear to see that she does love him in her own way and wouldn’t betray him.
There are enough character driven plots between the three main protagonists to keep the show going by themselves, but it wouldn’t be complete without the joys that are Howard and Hilda (Stanley Lebor and Geraldine Newman); the Bryces’ neighbours and good friends. A couple with hearts of gold, they wear matching outfits, get great pleasure from the small things in life and are still very much in love; they hold hands and are rarely seen apart. Whilst in general they are gentle and mild, they are greatly moral people, and will speak up fiercely if they feel somebody is doing something wrong. They get on well with Martin as they share his interest in local life and appreciate his ability to organise community events, but are also charmed by Paul’s easygoing joi-de-vivre, much to Martin’s disgust. From 1984 to 1989 the writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey joined forces again with Briers to create this gentle, yet occasionally dark look at suburban life which ran for four series on the BBC. Showing his range, Richard Briers morphed from the laid-back and often childish Tom Good in The Good Life to the obsessive and small-minded Martin Bryce with realistic ease. He showed Bryce to be pernickety, fussy and constantly occupied with rules and routines; a character that in the hands of some would be all too easy to be irritated by (think the title character in The Brittas Empire as an example) but Briars managed to counter the annoyances by portraying Martin with a warmth that allowed the viewer to look at him with a wry fondness rather than a sneer.