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.

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.

Little Ironies 1

The Likely Lads, circa 1964

Though it may spoil my reputation as a connoisseur of only the finest entertainment, I do have a soft spot for the BBC’s long-running but not very well regarded comedy drama series New Tricks. For those unfamiliar with the programme, it’s a crime series featuring Amanda Redman as DCI Sandra Pullman, in charge of UCOS (Unsolved Crimes and Open Cases Squad). The unit is staffed by three retired Detectives, each with decades of experience, investigating unsolved cases in which some form of new evidence has come up, combining experience with the new technology now available.

The show is in its tenth series and is in the process of being deserted by 75% of its long-serving cast. James Bolam (Jack Halford) left the programme at the beginning of series 9 and this week saw the final appearance of Alun Armstrong (Brian Lane), with Redman herself due to depart the squad in next week’s episode, thus leaving only Dennis Waterman (Gerry Standing) of the original cast.

With Armstrong goes veteran actress Susan Jameson, who has played throughout the character of Esther Lane, long-suffering wife of Brian. There’s always been something of an irony to Jameson playing Armstrong’s wife, given that she’s the wife of James Bolam.

What’s brought this post on is that I’ve finally got round to watching the Likely Lads DVD boxset, which includes the only surviving episodes of the original B&W mid-Sixties series (8 out of 20), in addition to the complete run of the ground-breaking sequel, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? James Bolam first came to prominence in this series, as Terry Collier, alongside his mate, Bob Ferris, played by Rodney Bewes.

The second of these preserved episodes, Double Date, is a funny and clever episode which deals with the lads picking up two attractive, unattached girls in a coffee shop and taking them out for a drink and a chinese. What’s especially clever is that creators and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais chose to play both sides of the story: the thread keeps flipping backwards and forwards from Terry and Bob, their expectations, anticipations and nervousness, to the two girls, Dierdre and Pat, and what they hope, expect and anticipate.

The two couples save themselves a bit of trouble (and a few comedy cliches) when it turns out they have the same ideas over who they prefer, with Terry copping off with the blonde Dierdre, played by Coral Atkins, and Bob taking up with the dark-haired Pat, even though it’s the fact that Terry knows Pat through her friendship with his sister, Audrey, that gets them the introduction in the first place.

But what amused me into writing this little post, given that she spent all those years in New Tricks playing someone else’s wife, was that Pat was played by Susan Jameson, and she ended up with Rodney Bewes’ character instead of Bolam’s.

Given that Bolam and Jameson also appeared together in the popular Seventies series, When the Boat Comes In, in which they were briefly engaged in the early episodes only for Bolam’s character to get someone else up the spout and have to marry her instead, they seem to have spent their career not getting together on screen!