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Series / Ever Decreasing Circles

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From left to right: Martin, Paul, and Ann.

Ever Decreasing Circles was a BBC1 sitcom written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey as a vehicle for Richard Briers, the star of their previous hit The Good Life, which aired for four series between 1984 and 1989. Briers plays neurotic control freak Martin Bryce, a middle manager at a valve manufacturer who organises a wide variety of social and cultural activities for the Close, a housing development in an unnamed London suburb.

The lives of Martin and his long-suffering wife Ann (Penelope Wilton) are turned upside-down when laid-back, charismatic hair salon owner Paul Ryman (Peter Egan) moves in next door to them. Martin soon feels his position as "leader" of the Close is under threat from the multi-talented Paul, for whom everything seems to come easy, often courtesy of one of his many casual friends. Other characters include fellow Close residents Howard and Hilda Hughes (Stanley Lebor and Geraldine Newman), an eccentric middle-aged couple always seen wearing matching jumpers.

Much of the series revolves around the one-sided rivalry between Martin and Paul; although Paul is never anything other than friendly toward Martin, Martin resents both the ease with which Paul seems to accomplish everything and the minor changes he suggests to the established routine (such as sitting at a different table to their usual table in the local pub). However, he remains largely oblivious to perhaps the biggest threat of all to his way of life: the unspoken romantic tension between Paul and Ann.

In the triple-length series finale, Martin's employer merges with another firm and he is transferred to a new office in Oswestry; though initially reluctant to leave the Close, he is swayed when Ann reveals that she is carrying their child.

Although, as a "sofa sitcom" in the 1980s, it was somewhat at odds with a comedy landscape populated by such series as The Young Ones and Blackadder, it drew audiences of over 12 million at its peak, and Ricky Gervais has named the series as a personal favourite.note 


  • AB Negative: In the Series 1 episode "A Strange Woman", Paul is taken away in a police car in the middle of the night. He reveals the next day that he is a registered blood donor with a rare blood type, and had to be fetched to donate to an accident victim. This is Artistic Licence Medicine - people with rare blood groups are not called up to donate, as anybody in need of a blood transfusion can be given O negative blood, the world's second most common group.
  • The Ace: Paul. A Cambridge graduate who succeeds almost effortlessly at any job at which he tries his hand, as well as a talented sportsman and musician, and possessing a winning personality that has allowed him to accumulate a friend for every occasion. The only one not overtly won over by Paul is Martin, and even Martin secretly wishes he could be more like Paul.
  • Alliterative Family: Howard and Hilda Hughes, as well as Dan and Diana Danby from the Series 3 episode "House to Let", and Pam and Peter, Martin and Ann's neighbours before Paul.
  • Always Someone Better: Paul is this to Martin in most episodes.
  • Annoying Laugh: Howard's high-pitched giggle is clearly intended to be annoying, and often seems to prompt uncomfortable laughter in the live audiences.
  • Babies Ever After: In the series finale, Ann reveals to Martin that she is pregnant, which finally prompts him to accept his promotion and leave the Close.
  • Baseball Episode: The plot point of "The Cricket Match" revolves around a cricket match. Martin does not want Paul to participate in it, but events conspire to put him in the match and he wins for the team.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: In the Series 2 episode "Boredom", Ann tells Paul that she married Martin because he helped her through a difficult time in her life, and although she finds his obsessive nature vexing at times, she remains as devoted to him as he does to her.
  • Bedmate Reveal: Due to events of which he was unaware, Martin is quite disturbed to wake up next to Paul in Series 2's "The Party". Howard then pokes his head out from the bedding, playing this twice in one scene.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Paul has shades of this; although he is able to succeed professionally with seemingly minimal effort, he tends to lose interest just as a venture is showing real signs of success, and begins searching for a new challenge. (In the Series 2 episode "A Married Man", Paul's ex-wife Sue explains to Ann that this trait is why she left Paul and ultimately divorced him.)
  • British Brevity: Four series (two in 1984, one each in 1986 and 1987) and a Grand Finale in 1989 for a total of 27 episodes.
  • Butt-Monkey: Martin, as the most uptight character in the series, naturally serves as the biggest comic disaster magnet.
  • Canis Latinicus: In "Manure" from Series 3, Paul manages to persuade the company that plunked a skip at the end of Martin's driveway (after Hilda thought it might be the best way to get rid of the manure that was dumped on it due to a miscommunication with the delivery tractor driver) and refused to move it until it had been there for two days that the terms in their contract outlining this were "de profundis mundi and extincto crapto". Which, he cheerfully admits to Martin, is complete gibberish, but it gets the desired result and the skip is removed.
  • Catchphrase: Whatever the situation, at some point Paul will announce, "I've got a mate who [does something relevant and potentially helpful to the situation]."
  • The Charmer: Paul. As well as having a wide enough circle of friends that he seems to have one for every situation, he dates a series of attractive women over the course of the series, and often turns the charm on around Ann.
  • Christmas Episode: Series 2's "The Party", in which Paul hosts an enormous Christmas party and Ann volunteers the Bryces' house to accommodate some of the many guests.
  • Control Freak: This is Martin's whole character, and a key source of his resentment of Paul, to whom control of everything comes effortlessly despite his barely even trying for it.
  • Cool Car: Paul's white vintage MG sports car is admired on multiple occasions by the other characters.
  • Coordinated Clothes: Howard and Hilda Hughes, as part of their characterisation as an eccentric yet very happily married couple, are invariably seen wearing matching hideous homemade jumpers (Hilda is implied to knit them herself).
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Sporting events in the series often seem to result in this.
    • The under-13 football teams Martin coaches always seem to end up on the receiving end of these; the first episode, "The New Neighbour", opens with a buoyant Martin dropping off his dejected players after a 13-1 loss. In Series 4's "Relaxation", Paul finds a match report from 1981 in which Martin's lads lost 7-0.
    • In the Series 2 episode "The Cricket Match", Martin's cricket team soars to victory thanks to a century from former Cambridge Blue Paul, leading to accusations from the opposing side that he is a ringer. (Martin, meanwhile, is out for a duck after a bizarre umpire ruling.)
    • Later in Series 2, the episode "Snooker" sees Martin storming to victory over snooker novice Paul in a pub tournament, only to be equally heavily defeated by Howard in the final.
  • Dark Horse Victory: In the Series 2 episode "Snooker", Martin is delighted to discover that, for once, Paul is hopeless at something, and he breezes past him on the way to the final of the local pub snooker tournament, confident in his ultimate victory. However, Howard's anger at being perceived as a loser reaches boiling point after an incident at work, and he proceeds to demolish Martin in the final.
  • Disaster Dominoes: Two noteworthy examples.
    • In the Series 2 episode "Housework", Martin's ambitious attempt to give his house a thorough spring clean while Ann is in hospital quickly turns into this. Although he meticulously schedules both the cleaning and his usual contributions to the social lives of the Close residents, his lack of experience with cooking and cleaning means that the house is soon in complete chaos and his schedule quickly falls by the wayside.
    • In the Series 4 opener "Relaxation", Martin and Ann have followed Paul's advice and had a long Saturday lie-in... forgetting they are supposed to be driving Howard and Hilda to Heathrow Airport until they hear them knocking at the door. After scrambling to get dressed and struggling to get the van out of the garage, they are delayed by engine trouble, which causes them to get stuck in heavy traffic on the way to Heathrow. By the time they arrive, Howard and Hilda have just minutes to catch their flight, so Martin leaves the van parked in a restricted zone and returns to find it towed away. Finally, a dirty and exhausted Martin and Ann return home to be told by Paul that the Council have shut off the Close's water supply for the afternoon.
  • Driven by Envy: Martin's motivation in his one-sided rivalry with Paul; he is secretly envious of the ease with which Paul both achieves success and wins people over. He therefore takes particular delight at any situation where Paul is clearly out of his element.
  • Drop-In Character: Howard and Hilda drop in on Martin and Ann on a regular basis; we only occasionally see them at their own home.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: At the beginning of the Series 4 episode "The Footpath", Martin confronts a farmer who chased Howard and Hilda off his land when they walked on what they thought was a public footpath, but the man's Alsatian and gun cause him to lose his nerve. Inevitably, Paul reveals that the farmer, Raymond, is a mate of his, and the "vicious" Alsatian bears the terrifying name... Blossom.
  • Freudian Excuse: As a schoolboy, Martin had a "gang" of friends that fragmented upon the arrival of a talented new boy, leaving him alone and excluded; Paul's arrival awakens his memories of the experience, leading him to fear that the same thing will happen to his adult social circle.
  • Games of the Elderly: Subverted in an episode where the hapless Martin tries to entertain a group of old ladies with a home made bingo machine, only to find they hate bingo (and then the machine goes wrong).
  • Genre Savvy: When Paul enters the snooker competition that Martin has arranged, Martin claims that he will inevitably have to go up against him in the first round. Sure enough, when the draw happens, they are paired up.
  • Grand Finale: "Moving On", an 80-minute series finale in which Martin's employer merges with another firm and he is promoted to their branch in Oswestry in Shropshire; though reluctant to leave the life he has built for himself and Ann in the Close, Ann's revelation that she is pregnant finally pushes him to accept the move. In the final scene, Martin and Ann exchange farewells with Howard, Hilda, and Paul in their now empty house.
  • Happily Married: Although Ann finds Martin's enthusiasm for organisation frustrating at times, they clearly love each other. Howard and Hilda are also happily, if somewhat quirkily, married. Averted with Paul, who is separated from his wife Sue (she appears in Series 2's "A Married Man" to ask for a divorce so that she can remarry).
  • Homemade Sweater from Hell: Howard and Hilda are always seen wearing hideous matching jumpers; it is implied, though not stated, that Hilda knits them herself.
  • Impersonating an Officer: In Series 4's "Neighbourhood Watch", a man Howard and Hilda catch climbing over the back wall of a jeweller's shop claims to be a Detective Inspector in the Metropolitan Police, and, after getting information from Martin about the home security for every house in the Close, invites the members of the watch to a function at the Ritz. However, Paul notices that the function room on the invitation doesn't actually exist and alerts the local police, who are able to arrest the fake policeman and his accomplices before any damage can be done.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: In the Series 4 episode "Jumping to Conclusions", Hilda misinterprets an apparent secret meeting between Paul and Ann and relays the news to Martin. Martin decides that Ann would probably be happier with Paul and decides to let her go, telling Ann in his farewell note that he will always love her. Fortunately, Ann and Paul are able to track Martin down and set the record straight before he can make the separation permanent.
  • Manchild: Despite his passion for organisation, Martin comes across as emotionally immature and ill-equipped for adult responsibility in many episodes. Richard Briers commented in an interview that this side of Martin makes the relationship between him and Ann almost more like that of a mother and son than a husband and wife, while Paul becomes a sort of father figure for this strange family.
    • In the Series 1 episode "Taking Over", when Paul remarks that he thinks the pub dinner Martin has booked for the Close's motoring club is overpriced, and that he has a mate who has a pub where they can get a much nicer meal for less, Martin begins sulking and complaining about how hard he has worked, and this is the thanks he gets. (To Martin's horror, Paul promptly calls his bluff by suggesting that perhaps he does work too hard and that the other Close residents should take over some of the committees.)
    • When Paul tries to help Martin learn to take things a bit easier in Series 4's "Relaxation", the scene where he and Ann help Martin burn several reams' worth of old paperwork for the various Close committees is played as though Martin is a child who is reluctantly letting go of a collection of old toys, and Paul and Ann play the role of the parents trying to re-assure the child that letting go of the past will help him face the future.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Two examples, one for each of Martin and Ann:
    • In the Series 3 episode "One Night Stand", a practical joke-loving co-worker of Martin's arranges for him to find a strange woman in his bedroom one morning on a business trip. Martin is horrified to discover his "indiscretion" and immediately confesses to Ann. Ann, Howard and Hilda send Martin to Coventry until Paul tricks the joker into admitting the truth in front of her.
    • In the Series 4 episode "Jumping to Conclusions", Hilda sees Ann climbing over the fence into Paul's garden for a study session for her Open University course. She concludes that Paul and Ann are having an affair, and word works its way back to Martin. Martin decides to leave Ann to what he sees as a happier life with Paul, but is set straight before he can make the separation permanent.
  • Moving-Away Ending: The final episode (called "Moving On") focuses on Martin being promoted to his employer's branch in Oswestry and having to move. He is initially reluctant to leave but the revelation that his wife is pregnant is enough to convince him to leave, with the final scene of the series being them exchanging farewells with their neighbors.
  • Nightmare Sequence: In Series 4's "Half an Office", Martin is convinced he will be sacked after blowing up at his boss for taking away half of his (already small and shabbily-furnished) office, and reacts uncomfortably when Paul offers him a job in his health studio if he should get the sack. That night, he imagines himself as a corrupt, womanising gangster/brothelkeeper who neglects Ann to the point of starving her; the dream also features Paul as Martin's grovelling doorman, Hilda as one of his tarts, and Howard as Martin's cloth cap-wearing father.
  • Non-Indicative Name: The houses in the Close all have names that evoke images of the countryside (Brooksmead, Hillview, Fircroft), which is at odds with their decidedly suburban setting. To Martin, they are an essential part of the character of the Close; to Paul, they are meaningless nonsense, and in Series 1's "A Strange Woman" he removes the sign with his house's name and burns it.
  • No Sense of Humor: Martin alone among the characters does not find Paul's flippancy amusing. Although said flippancy is occasionally ill-timed, even in lighthearted situations Martin seldom even cracks a smile at Paul's jokes. The closest he gets to telling a joke of his own is describing the neighbourhood as "quite a close Close", a play on words of which he seems very proud.
  • Not What It Looks Like: In the Series 1 episode "Vicars and Tarts", Martin and Ann are returning home from the eponymous "vicars and tarts" dance when a gloating Martin reveals his underhanded scheme to claim credit for the dance over Paul (the real source of the idea) in the local paper. An outraged Ann orders Martin to stop their van and, still in her tart's costume, storms out. When Martin, still in his vicar costume, gets out and tries to persuade her to return, he exclaims, "Good God, I'm only human!" A passer-by gives them a very disturbed look.
  • Once an Episode: Martin adjusting the direction of the phone receiver in its cradle, sometimes several times in succession.
  • Percussive Maintenance: Paul's "solution" to the lack of water coming out of the taps in "Stuck in a Loft". As he explains to Martin, "When in doubt, give it a clout!"
  • Planet of Steves: The employees at Paul's hair salon are all named Debbie.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The series of misfortunes in Series 3's "Manure" is set in motion by an instance of this. Paul is away at a Pro-Am golf tournament and has left Martin to receive a delivery of manure, which he asks to be dumped in his driveway. When the tractor arrives, an impatient Martin tells the driver, "Well, I don't want it on my drive, do I!? Put it on Mr. Ryman's!" Unfortunately, he is standing in Paul's driveway as he says this, and as he wanders into Paul's front garden, the tractor dumps the manure in Martin's driveway.
  • Rules Lawyer: Martin has moments of the Lawful Good variety of this, most notably in the Series 4 episode "The Footpath", in which he discovers that his house was built over a public footpath. He promptly puts a signpost indicating the path in his front garden and a stile over the fence in his back garden. It is not until a representative from the local Council tells him that only they can put up footpath signs, and that they have no plans to do so since the footpath became defunct when the house was built in the 1970s, that he removes the sign.
  • Schedule Fanatic: Martin is the organiser for dozens of social, sporting, and cultural clubs in the Close, and applies the same mania for scheduling to his home life, much to Ann's frustration.
  • Serious Business: Martin takes his many activities and committees very seriously, and shoots Death Glares at Paul when he tries to make light of them in a bid to get Martin to loosen up a bit.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Martin becomes one of these in the Series 3 episode "Local Hero" after rescuing a drowning child from a canal and letting the resulting adulation go straight to his head. Hilda makes the mistake of inviting him to speak about his heroics at a Women's Institute meeting, and later tells Howard, Ann, and Paul that Martin just wouldn't stop talking.
  • Stealth Pun: In "Half an Office" from Series 4, we learn that Martin's secretary is named Mrs. Ripper. He runs into her and her husband Jack in the pub halfway through the episode.
  • Super Ringer: In the Series 2 episode "The Cricket Match", Paul, a former Cambridge Blue, is drafted to replace an injured member of Martin's cricket team. He proceeds to score a century in a partnership with Howard to propel the team to victory, leading their opponents to accuse Martin of bringing in a ringer for what is supposed to be a friendly match.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between Paul and Ann. Although Paul often flirts with Ann, and she is sometimes tempted to reciprocate, their mutual respect for Martin and his marriage to Ann prevent them from seriously acting on their impulses.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Martin and Ann sometimes use "Kidderminster" to refer to physical intimacy, a reference to one of the few spontaneous things Martin has done in his life: randomly deciding to spend a passionate night with Ann in a hotel in Kidderminster on their way home from a trip to the North.
  • Vacation Episode: Series 4's "Stuck in a Loft" finds the Bryces, the Hugheses, and Paul and his Girl of the Week going on a long weekend to a cottage in the countryside. Martin proves more adept than Paul at dealing with the cottage's plumbing and fireplace, and finds himself thoroughly enjoying getting the better of his neighbour for once, until he ends up... well, the clue is in the episode title.
  • Verbal Tic: Ann starts repeating phrases three times when she is upset about something but trying to keep it suppressed. Martin's tendency to draw attention to her repetition does not help.
  • Video Inside, Film Outside: Except for the Nightmare Sequence in "Half an Office", which is set indoors but shot on film.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Although Martin is often hostile toward Paul for the perceived threat he poses to his position as "leader" of the Close, as well as for his facetious sense of humour, Paul (who has no ambition whatever to replace Martin as "leader" and just wants to contribute where possible) simply shrugs it off and is consistently genial toward Martin. Several episodes reveal that, deep down, Martin wishes he could be more like Paul, and actually does consider him a friend.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: In Series 3's "One Night Stand", Martin's prank-loving colleague Rex Tynan gets Martin drunk on a business trip, then arranges for a local girl to be in his room when he wakes up, thanking him for the previous night. A distraught Martin assumes that he has cheated on Ann, but cannot remember the details of his "affair" when asked.