A very good life indeed

Inspired by her new TV series, comedian Sue Perkins has hard-won advice for those who dream of living the self-sufficient life in suburbia

Inspired by her new TV series, comedian Sue Perkins has hard-won advice for those who dream of living the self-sufficient life in suburbia

For the last four months, as part of a BBC show based on hit sitcom The Good Life, I have spent my days, trug in hand, experiencing the highs and lows of the novice smallholder.

It’s not easy being green, but let me tell you, it’s even harder being Felicity Kendal. The trials and tribulations of suburban self-sufficiency are nothing compared to my attempts to win, as she did in 1981, Rear of the Year.

My failed 40-year old buttocks notwithstanding, my partner-in-grime, Giles Coren and I threw ourselves into the challenge. We moved into our 1970s Metroland semi, rolled on the textured wallpaper and lit the coal-fired Rayburn – ignoring major amendments to the Clean Air Act over the last 30 years that prohibit the burning of fossil fuels. After a visit from The Smoke Police, we let the fire die down and sat down to our raw pastry pie.

We took as our template John Seymour’s seminal book, The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency. Within hours, thanks to an ancient but serviceable Rotavator, the manicured lawns of suburbia looked like a field furrowed by a farmer high on bootlegged cider. Gone were the beds of pansy, dahlia and lupin, and in their place, three large vegetable patches for our brassicas, legumes and alliums.
Much has changed in our attitudes towards food and the environment. When the show first went on air in 1975, it was the ludicrous attempts of Tom and Barbara to leave the rat race that provided the amusement, whereas in the 21st century it seems more natural to scoff at their neighbours – the scandalously wasteful and crass Margo and Jerry Leadbetter. We no longer aspire to drink gin and tonics on a Day-Glo sunlounger whilst phoning Harrods for a jar of ox tongue in aspic. These days, the middle classes long for a patch of land to call their own on which to milk goats and pull reassuringly bent and muddy carrots from the earth.
Many lessons were learnt during the making of the show, and in case you fancy a crack at the good life, here is my list of dos and don’ts.
• Do take up a craft such as knitting, sewing or embroidery. Nothing beats the look on your least favourite relative’s face when they open that handmade and lurid jumper at Christmas.
• Do make eggnog (recipe; two parts cream, one part brandy, three parts regret) but don’t expect to remember anything about it.
• Never drive a pair of nervous Gloucester old spots through a carpeted hallway. There is no product, short of US Air Force defoliant Agent Orange, that will remove the ensuing stains.
• Don’t make candles out of tallow (rendered fat from around a cow’s kidneys). You’ll smell like a bovine on a sunbed every time you light one.
• Just because you can make wine from anything, this doesn’t mean you should – to wit, our peapod Burgundy.

Finally, it’s about balance. Replacing one totalitarian existence (the nine-to-five) with another (rigid self-sufficiency) is never going to work. Cherry-pick the elements that you like and that work for you, and it will indeed be a good life.

The accompanying book to the BBC 2 series Giles & Sue Live the Good Life is published by BBC Books (£18.99).

Sue Perkins writes a regular monthly column for Homes & Antiques magazine. For back issues, click here.

Illustration Sophie Joyce


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