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Real Life Into Art: As Time Goes By

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The death of Bob Larbey last week received little if any attention on English television; it was overwhelmed by such trivial stories as the downfall of yet another sleazy politician, and the first foreign trip of a royal infant. Bob Larbey deserved better, because he was an artist who helped transform television.

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Bob Larbey (1934-2014). Image courtesy of the Huffington Post UK.

The Times accurately but incompletely eulogized Larbey as the "king of the gentle sitcom." The program for which Larbey was best known was The Good Life, which he wrote with John Esmonde during the 1970s. I never saw that program, but for me and millions of other Americans, Bob Larbey was the sole writer of As Time Goes By, which ran on BBC One in England from 1992 to 2002. It still runs weekly in the US on PBS, and I still watch it.

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The cast of As Time Goes By. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As Time Goes By is based on the unlikely premise that two former lovers, separated by the Korean War, meet again by chance nearly 40 years later, she having been widowed, he divorced. They fall back in love, and the program records their lives, and those of their families and friends. There is little real drama, and few landmark events, but As Time Goes By is enjoyable to watch, time and again, because it is a realistic portrayal of engaging characters - real people doing real activities, in the course of living out real lives. It is an excellent example of the satisfying and unobtrusive virtues of experimental art.

Larbey was quintessentially experimental. He and Esmonde were late bloomers. They began writing The Good Life when they were turning 40: "It's one of those 'Oh, God, what am I doing with my life times.'" When a producer first saw one of their scripts and was surprised by the absence of gags, Larbey responded, "We go for character. We can't write jokes. Never could." Larbey was never confident in his work: "I don't have an inkling as to what will be a success: there is no magic formula."

As Time Goes By is typically experimental in its subtlety. The characters include stereotypes - an ambitious Thatcher-era entrepreneur, a dull but reliable policeman, a wealthy, aged, English eccentric - but they all become nuanced, three-dimensional characters over time. The program satirizes a number of targets, including superficial Hollywood executives, but the satire is almost always gentle; the only really barbed ridicule is reserved for traditional English snobbery. Larbey was a king of the gentle sitcom, but he was also a king of sophisticated dramatic art and reasoned and sensible social commentary.

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Judi Dench, by Alessandro Raho (2004). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Larbey wrote As Time Goes By by himself, after Esmonde's retirement. Most viewers would probably attribute the show's success to superb ensemble acting, and the brilliance of Judi Dench in the lead role. But the unobtrusiveness of the scripts should not be taken for unimportance, as is often done with excellent experimental art. The actors themselves would never make this mistake. As Geoffrey Palmer, who starred opposite Judi Dench, concluded, "You can find hundreds of actors, but you don't get many writers like Bob Larbey."