Whatever happened to this Likely Lad?

He’s the one on the right

I remember The Likely Lads from the Sixties, at first on TV and then on the radio, in adaptations made by James Bolam himself. My memories are brief: only one exchange about the ‘three star’ system – a horribly chauvinistic but absolutely typical concept – that went completely over my head at that tender age.

I also remember Rodney Bewes’ solo vessel, the ITV sitcom, Dear Mother, Love Albert, but here I only really remember that we watched it, and nothing of what we heard or saw.

But I was sixteen in 1972, when the BBC and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais brought back Whatever happened to the Likely Lads? and it changed the face of British sitcoms in a more subtle way than Steptoe and Son had done a decade before, but no less effectively. Thirteen episodes, a sequence building one upon another, that blended very effective and very real comedy with genuine emotion. As sitcoms go, it all but eliminated the ‘sit’ whilst being so utterly ‘com’ that we all roared along.

A second series wasn’t as focused, and the film was enjoyable but well below the standard set, and then James Bolam fell out with his co-star and refused to speak to him for the rest of their lives. Bewes fell on hard time and unlike Bolam never recovered any of the glory of starring on TV.

And now he’s gone, just a week or so short of his eightieth birthday. But for his falling out with Bolam, Clement and La Fresnais had expressed the wish to return to Bob and Terry, at five year intervals, dipping into lives that were ordinary and real and which they could make funny almost at will, by being no more than reporters of the natural comedy between friends who don’t really have all that much in common.

It never happened: another reason to journey to Earth-2. But a sitcom that ended forty years ago was so good that by itself it would be enough to celebrating the life of Rodney Bewes for.

A Bank Holiday Weekend for Going Out

Do not let these men’s memory be so vilely degraded

I warned you about this some time ago, and now the disaster is almost upon us: the BBC’s Classic Sitcoms season, starts on Saturday and runs through the Bank Holiday weekend and into the next fortnight. Do not even think of staying in this weekend, do not switch on your TV set or, if you absolutely must, avoid BBC1 as you value your values and any sense of decency in your life.

Herewith a link to the Guardian‘s summary of what is to come. As you will see, a half dozen unsuspecting sitcoms are to be ravished unmercifully. These include absolute legends like ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Till Death us do Part’ and ‘Porridge’, the popular ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and that pile of steaming old tosh that nevertheless doesn’t deserve it, ‘Are You Being Served?’

Of the sextet, the first three are being remade. Selected scripts have been marginally updated and will be performed by actors prostituting their talent by attempting to impersonate the original stars, looking as much like them as they possible can. Of course, the ‘Till Death’ script has had to be carefully selected to avoid the very satirical purpose of the entire series; in this benighted age you cannot satirise the ignorance of racists unless you can do so whilst not sounding like a racist in the slightest.

Something similar applies to ‘Are You Being Served?’, although that is being honoured with a new, pastiche script, to go with the pastiche acting. A black character is to be inserted but there will not, of course, be anything remotely like the kind of gag the show’s creators, the late Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, would have written when the programme was current.

‘Keeping Up Appearances’ has fared the best of all, by not actually being revived. At least a degree of sanity has prevailed in recognising that it is impossible to duplicate Patricia Routledge. Instead, we will have ‘Young Hyacinth’, a flashback tale of the future Mrs Bucket’s teenage years, setting her snobbery against her lower class family background, starring a much maltreated young actress who will be strait-jacketed into trying to duplicate all Miss Routledge’s mannerisms.

The only one in which I have the remotest interest is ‘Porridge’, which is the only one with the courage to update the story, whilst retaining the situation. Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais are on hand to tell the story of Nigel Norman Fletcher, grandson of the magnificent Fletch who, like Lennie Godber and the unfortunate Richard Beckinsale, remains alive in the backstory of this latest chip off the old block.

It’s the only one of the sextet to show signs of facing the new era, and it’s therefore the only one of these artistic and comedic abortions to stand the remotest chance of being watchable or even, dare I dream it? Funny.

The big danger, as with the wretched ‘Still Open All Hours’, is that one or more of these one-offs will attract enough of an audience to tempt the BBC to order a series. So do everyone a favour, switch off your TVs, do not add so much as an eyeball to the audience of any of these, help avert the further degradation of British TV, that believes that the capturing of lightning in a bottle can be repeated by bringing back comedies that were successful representations of their times, and asking invariably lesser men and women to copy towering talents.

It is an Abomination.

Goodbye To All That

If I watched it those long years ago, I’ve forgotten it completely, for there wasn’t a moment of recognition, not a single line. And I didn’t remember it in 1973, when I’d only seven years in which memory could deteriorate, when its writers took situation comedy to a new and higher level by the simple expediemt of picking up the threads of this episode and seeing where they led.

Goodbye To All That (which took its title from the Robert Graves’ classic) was the last of twenty episodes, arranged in two series of six and one of eight, of the successful Sixties sitcom, The Likely Lads, created and written by the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, then just starting out on their illutrious career as comedy scripters.

I used to watch The Likely Lads in the Sixties, and I remember it on the radio too (like many TV sitcoms, it was re-recorded for radio by the original cast, the scripts on that occasion being adapted by co-star James Bolam himself), though I don’t remember much of it. But I was one among the millions who welcomed it back, in colour, in 1973, as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, a sitcom that turned away from the silly situations and joke-telling of the British sitcom to that point, into character and situation play with a darker and more realistic underbelly, where the humour came from naturalistic, real dialogue, and the clash of people’s expectations and wishes.

The Likely Lads had been ground-breaking in its time too. It was part of the wave of working class sitcoms, of which Steptoe and Son was the first and greatest. It broke ground by getting almost as far away from London as was possible, up to the North-East, to not-quite Newcastle itself (not until the sequel at any rate), and mining its humour from the lives and interests of two young working class lads whose main interests were beer, football and sex, and who contrasted between the ever-confident, brash Terry, fully immersed in his life, and the quieter, more insecure Bob, who wanted to better himself, to move up.

What makes The Likely Lads exceptional is that it is, so far as I am aware, the only Sixties sitcom, indeed, one of a very small proportion of sitcoms, to end, with Goodbye To All That presenting a conclusion that broke up the situation.

It’s a simple enough but decidedly contemporary story. With one of their old mates home on leave after joining the Army (Catering Corps), Bob starts to take very seriously the idea of enlisting. It’s a way out for him, a way upwards, an avenue of escape from a dead-end town with nothing to do. An opportunity. Terry mocks him throughout, secure in his belief that Bob is all talk: and anyway, it’s only because Thelma Chambers has given him the push again. He’s astonished that Bob goes through with it, and clearly deeply affected by losing his best mate for three years, though completely incapable of admitting it.

So, when Bob’s absence has had time to sink in, Terry does the only obvious thing, and signs up himself. Arriving on the train with the rest of his intake, he is at first delighted to see Bob also at the station. Then aghast, because Bob is being discharged with flat feet. It isn’t Bob who’ll be away for three years, it’s Terry!

Thus ended The Likely Lads. Six years later, Clement and La Fresnais proposed a series to the BBC picking up the Likely Lads and looking at where and who they were now, what changes had been made in them by time, by the turn of the Sixties into the Seventies, by the massive changes redevelopmemt had wrought to Newcastle itself. The BBC liked it, Bolam and Bewes agreed to do it, Sheila Fearns was happy to recreate her role as Terry’s elder sister Audrey, and Brigit Forsyth, who appeared in only one episode though her character had been mentioned in art least two others, was available to turn Thelma Chambers into a full starring role.

The rest, as they say, was history, history I’ve watched many times over. I do regret though that I can’t now watch the opening episode of Whatever Happened to… for the first time with the understanding of just how much it, and the remaining episodes of that first series, drew with such sweet and loving continuity from what had gone before.