Self Sustainability and Living The Good Life
Way back in 1975, self-sustainability was firmly introduced into the mainstream consciousness via the medium of the great British sitcom; fanfare please for the arrival of BBC comedy, ‘The Good Life’.
The series, which ran until 1978, leads the audience through a journey sparked by an idea conceived by its central character — 40-year-old Tom Good — to quit the rat race in favour of a fully-functioning, self-sustainable lifestyle, complete with pigs, crops and a homemade generator. The Goods take the decision to rely only on their own ability to produce what they need, and sell or swap what they don’t. They use their own skills, wit and initiative to achieve their goals, overseeing many obstacles along the way; some achievement for a former draughtsman whose 9-5 had, until recently, consisted of an office drawing board, liquid lunches and the Sunday night back-to-work terrors.
What we know as the alternative 3Rs today – reduce, reuse, recycle – were already watchwords of the post-war public. “Make do and mend” was still a common mantra, borne of necessity in a time where rationing and austerity were all too recent memories. As the 1970s progressed, so did the increased use of man-made products and perhaps the advent of what we know as ‘throw away culture’.
Man made plastics were first developed in the 1850s but just a century later, chemical technology led to the cheap, mass production of goods in all areas of life. Plastic, in all its shapes and sizes, flooded the market, often relying on crude oil at a time when it was much more in abundance.
But for Tom and Barbara, hoping to make a go of self-sufficiency, the stumbling blocks of paying bills, running a smallholding in their garden and growing their own food became the framework for a comedy classic. As an audience we could point and ridicule at the lengths that the Goods go to maintain this lifestyle; essentially so Tom could avoid being trapped as “a cog in a great big wheel”.
Their neighbours, Margo and Jerry Leadbetter, perhaps represent the majority of the watching audience of that time: slightly mocking, suspicious and cynical of the great leap. However, they always rose to the occasion to step in and help out when the goat droppings hit the fan. Whether helping to bring in the waterlogged harvest, or collecting a goat in the back of Jerry’s car, the Leadbetters put their differences of opinion to one side in order to help when help was needed, as that is what friends do.
This does not get in the way of Jerry and Margo’s snobbishness when it comes to muck, noise and general vulgarity. But as an audience we are invited to poke fun at both sides – the traditional and the alternative – and see the light-hearted, general silliness of life.
Our new podcast — the Sitcom Archive Deep Dive Overdrive (SADDO) — began life during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020,under the shadow of a no-deal Brexit in Europe. A time when many areas of life closed down worldwide, certain items became scarce in shops and people fought over toilet rolls like they were Cabbage Patch Dolls leading up to Christmas ‘83.
Rewatching the Goods usher in their new lifestyle held up a mirror to the current situation. What would the general public do if food production suddenly stopped, if we couldn’t get our hands on ‘essentials’ and the possibility of goods arriving by the medium of an Amazon delivery became a pipe dream? Suddenly the back-breaking labour of Tom and Barbara wasn’t so funny. The Goods chose a radical lifestyle against a backdrop of the 1970s: Not exactly a time of plenty and political stability, but many people, like Tom, could expect a job for life, and live in a detached house on the outskirts of the capital. The pandemic gave us a small glimpse into how the world of self-sustainability could become a necessity in times of want.
In one episode at the start of the second series, Barbara is seen cutting Tom’s hair in the kitchen — a scene replicated across the nation in the spring and summer of 2020, due to the Covid closure of hair salons and barbers. There will doubtless be a whole host of photographs in existence of children from that short period, looking as though they’ve been in a particularly vicious attack with a fringe-o-matic. For Tom and Barbara it was an opportunity to save money, but in 2020, a byproduct of the pandemic for many families.
In addition to co-hosting the SADDO podcast — a celebration of the sitcoms of my youth — I also run a textiles business, making bags for mums who carry their babies in cloth slings. The pattern I developed produces low-waste, which means less cloth is thrown away. Larger pieces left over are kept and reused or sold on, and smaller scraps are swapped for bigger pieces from the manufacturer or donated to local primary schools for arts and crafts. This influence to make some positive changes came from friendship groups, social media and the news.
Recycling, reusing, repairing and donating can feel like a drop in the ocean when you’re going about your life but even minor changes can help.
In contemporary society, taking care to look after the planet and conserve energy is not only par for the course, it’s admired and respected. Most people accept that we need to work together to support the future of the planet and conserve its resources, with saving money through sustainable-living a welcome by-product.
Whilst in 2020 we largely know and accept the need to make a significant contribution to the effort, back in 1975 the self-sustainable life of the Goods put them firmly on the fringes, making them social pariahs and a bit of a laughing stock on ‘The Avenue’.
It’s fair to say that the Goods were pioneers (albeit fictional ones) — but back in the time of The Good Life, were audiences in the 70s and 80s influenced to adopt a more ‘Good Life’ approach to sustainability from watching the sitcom? Or did it seem so far fetched and ‘hippy’ that it was only ripe for ridicule.
The Good Life contained a lefty concept at a time when, politically, capitalism was where it was at. It was during the latter series that Thatcher took her place as one of the most divisive PMs in recent history. I strongly suspect she would have condemned the Goods for being unwashed and lacking in traditional morals.
In 2020, we can still learn so much from The Good Life, such as how to maintain a friendship with people who have opinions that are poles apart from our own. The Goods and Leadbetters might not live in harmony, but they are still supportive and loving to one another. In today’s polarised world, it might do for us all to take a leaf out of the book of the Good Life.
The benefits of slow fashion – advocating the mending, making and reusing of clothes – is a concept urging the move away from shopaholic tendencies and landfill. This was perhaps something more forced upon Barbara than her willing choice; one of the first things to go was her clothing budget. But a positive move nonetheless.
Undoubtedly, coming ‘off grid’ was a simpler prospect in the 1970s. With life revolving around the wifi router nowadays, we are urged to undergo a digital detox every so often. Even a short term adherence to this is good for us, but with a huge amount of our lives maintained online now – from banking and business to even our social lives through the pandemic – how easy and realistic is this today?
We’d love to hear from real-life sustainable living enthusiasts who have taken the plunge, inspired by the efforts of Tom and Barbara. We’re on social media (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram) and can be contacted at [email protected]
The Sitcom Archive Deep Dive Overdrive is a brand new podcast that week by week, delves into every episode ever made of our favourite situation comedies.
Starting with all 30 episodes of ‘The Good Life’, SADDO can be found wherever you listen to podcasts.