Penelope Keith will forever be remembered as snobby suburbanite Margo Leadbetter, the antagonist of Richard Briers’s self-sufficient Tom Good. But was their feuding masking a romantic frisson, a hint that in another life, Tom and Margo could have been more than just sparring neighbours?
“Oh yes! That would have been fun!” Keith laughs. “He would have sent her up all the time. I don’t think they’d have been together very long, though, because I know that the only way to make life work is to laugh. And, of course, Margo had no sense of humour.”
The good humour of The Good Life did result, though, in viewing figures of 21 million and the show being performed in 1978 at BBC Television Centre in front of its most notable fan, Her Majesty the Queen, earning itself a Radio Times cover in the process:
“I remember saying to Richard, ‘You do realise that if we forget our lines, it’s the Tower tomorrow.’ There were police and sniffer dogs everywhere and we had to be escorted from the studio floor when we went to the loo. All the cameramen and boom operators were in black tie and when I looked out at the audience, all I could see were diamonds sparkling. Mainly from the Queen. Oh gosh, it was so fascinating, but a very nerve-racking day.”
But Richard Briers, who died last month at 79, seemed so calm as he’s seen addressing the audience at the start of that special episode. “Well, he was a wonderful actor, you know! I learnt a hell of a lot from observing the way he presented himself and behaved when he was at work. Atmosphere in television, well in everything really, comes from the top. And it was a very good atmosphere on that show. All of us involved smile when we think back to The Good Life.”
Yet Briers came to brand his character “selfish” and criticised the “parasitical” way he’d pop over to Margo’s for a handout. Is this a view that Keith shares? “Oh, Richard was always self-deprecating, mainly about himself but also about his work. So, no, I don’t agree.”
In all, just 30 instalments of The Good Life were ever filmed, but back in 1978, producer John Howard Davies was expressing hopes to RT that “further individual episodes” could be made. So was that ever a real possibility?
“There was a move afoot for Paul Eddington and I to have a series together,” recalls Keith. “But I remember realising very strongly that the reason why The Good Life worked was because its four characters were juxtaposed with each other. Plus I think the great secret with television situation comedy is to know when to stop. And as time went on, life changed radically, so I don’t think you would have believed the idea of the Goods, who had no money, living on the same street as a neighbour who was running a big business. The Leadbetter characters would be on over £100,000 easily, so it wouldn’t have worked, no.”
But what this relatively short-running comedy did give Penelope Keith was a long-term friendship with Richard Briers: “We were very close. I’d count him a family friend. He and his wife Ann [Davies, also an actress] would come to us for lunch or we’d go to theirs. So we saw quite a lot of him. He was kind, generous, a real gentleman and also someone to look up to as an actor.”