Television sitcom and screenplay writer behind popular hits such as Please Sir!, The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles
Bob Larbey, who has died aged 79, was renowned as a television sitcom and screenplay writer with his professional partner John Esmonde for 30 years: they wrote The Good Life (starring Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington as the Surbiton neighbours) and a second Briers vehicle, Ever Decreasing Circles.
They had broken through with the highly popular late-1960s sitcom Please Sir! (rejected by the BBC but taken up by ITV) in which John Alderton made his name as a newly qualified teacher grappling with a crowd of mouthy fifth-formers in a rough London area. And they signed off with a BBC 1990s series, Mulberry, in which Karl Howman as the son of Death (disguised as a manservant) parried the barbs and put-downs of his employer, a cantankerous old spinster brilliantly played by Geraldine McEwan.
But Larbey was his own man, too, seriously under-acknowledged as the author of two subtle and civilised television series for Judi Dench – A Fine Romance and As Time Goes By – which not only catapulted Dench into the centre of the nation's affection, but also revealed a writer of rare talent, sly wit and popular touch. He played an equally significant part in the career of Dench's great friend and contemporary Maggie Smith, when in 1983 he adapted a William Trevor story, Mrs Silly, for ITV and the producer James Cellan Jones, and launched Smith on her gallery of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She was unexpectedly and disarmingly tragic, severe and angular like a Modigliani portrait, as a divorced vicar's wife disowned by her own son and humiliated by her ex-husband and his grandiose new wife at a parents' open day in a minor public school.
Larbey had no theatrical background, but his first stage play, A Month of Sundays, won the Evening Standard best comedy of the year award when it played at the Duchess theatre in the West End in 1986, starring George Cole. The play was set in a retirement home and won praise for its humour, delicacy and humane consideration of growing older, qualities evident in all of his, and Esmonde's, television writing, even the knockabout stuff.
How interesting it is that so much of our postwar television comedy writing originated from male professional couples with deep cultural ties and friendships: David Croft and Jimmy Perry (Dad's Army), Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (The Likely Lads), Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (Steptoe and Son). Esmonde and Larbey met at school, remained friends all their lives and tried their luck in BBC radio comedy because they loved listening to it.
They were both south London boys. Larbey was the youngest son of a carpenter who attended the Henry Thornton grammar school in Clapham where he met Esmonde, two years his junior, and was captain of cricket. He worked as a printing-block maker, then in an insurance office in Soho, and did his national service with the education corps in Germany. Three years of after-hours writing with Esmonde yielded a BBC joint fee of two guineas in 1965. Sketches for the comedian Dick Emery led to their first radio sitcom, Spare a Copper, starring Kenneth Connor (of Carry On films fame) as a hopeless policeman and, in 1969, Just Perfick, adapted from HE Bates's stories about the Larkin family; 20 years later, Larbey dramatised the first television series adapted from the same source, The Darling Buds of May.
Their television debut followed in 1966 with Room at the Bottom for the BBC, in which Connor led a bolshie crew of maintenance workers against a newly appointed internal security officer, and then came Please Sir! This was certainly a diluted, commercial version of several theatrical plays at that time dealing with secondary schools in inner cities, but it touched a national nerve, and even spun off into a secondary series in 1971, The Fenn Street Gang, in which Alderton's feckless charges left school and faced the world, each other, unemployment and parental duties.
Above all, Esmonde and Larbey wrote funny lines. They had that precious knack of translating how they spoke and what they heard into comic dialogue and entertaining characters. They weren't Tom Stoppard, and they weren't Alan Ayckbourn (whose 1973 trilogy The Norman Conquests provided a template for The Good Life), but they were very good indeed.
The pair exploited their national service days in Get Some In! (1975-78) which made a coming star of Robert Lindsay as a teddy boy new recruit. They developed their Briers association – with Michael Gambon as a glum-faced bachelor stooge – in The Other One (1977-79), before hitting their stride again big-time in Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-89); Briers – supported by Penelope Wilton and Peter Egan – was an interfering suburban fusspot with a manic drive worthy of Molière's most ridiculous egotists.
Between these series, Larbey went solo on A Fine Romance for Dench and her husband Michael Williams, a four-series saga (1981-84) of on/off social intimacy with ups and downs and looming elderly parents played by the unforgettable duo of Richard Pearson and Lally Bowers. And he rallied to the great actor again with As Time Goes By (1992-2002, with "reunion" specials in 2005) as Dench's Jean Hardcastle re-animated a long lost affair with Geoffrey Palmer's ex-army officer; her casual brilliance and comic timing in these Larbey scripts undoubtedly led to her Indian summer in British films and Hollywood.
The BBC ran two series, between 1986 and 1993, Brush Strokes and Mulberry, which attempted (and nearly succeeded) in projecting cheeky boy-next-door Howman into the Briers league of tele-stardom. In the first, Howman played a womanising painter and decorator in Motspur Park whose sexual fantasies usually evaporated in a wine bar run by a coarse-grained and very funny Howard Lew Lewis.
Larbey and his wife, Trish Marshall, moved from London to a thatched cottage in the Surrey village of Ockley in 1989 and promptly got involved with the local amateurs, the Ockley Drama Society. Though Larbey never repeated the success of A Month of Sundays, his theatre output continued and is often revived in repertory theatres and amateur companies around the world: A Small Affair (1990) charts the romantic perils of TV rehearsal rooms; Building Blocks (1992) was written from the heart about family traumas during a domestic building extension; and Sand Castles (2001) is a seaside comedy of beach-hut politics.
Esmonde and Larbey's last series together, again starring Briers, was Down to Earth (1995). They tried to make his character of an expat readjusting to life in Britain after many years in South America interesting, and failed; it evaporated after seven episodes.
Trish died in 2006. Larbey is survived by their son, Matthew.
• Robert Edward John Larbey, television screenwriter and dramatist, born 24 June 1934; died 31 March 2014