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.