The director Franc Roddam, recalling life on a German building site, convinced Ian La Frenais the stories would make a good drama for the BBC’s Play for Today strand. La Frenais saw huge potential in the idea and upon returning home began writing. He and Dick Clement then expanded the idea into a 13 part series which became one British TV’s most enduring comedy dramas.
Alan Bleasdale’s acclaimed Boys From The Blackstuff had depicted the sheer anger inherent in the poorer areas of Britain for whom the lack of work and prospects was a grim daily reality . For its part, Auf Wiedersehen Pet!‘s opening titles depicted Job Centres and for an ironic twist the famous Saatchi “Labour isn’t working” poster. While Boys From the Blackstuff moved the viewer with the pathos of those put on the scrap heap, Auf Wiedersehen Pet! was Clement and La Frenais’ more comedic response to Norman Tebbit’s soundbite about (the working man) in this case his father getting on his bike and looking for work.
One of ITV’s biggest shows, ‘Pet! regularly pulled in 15 million viewers. Dick Clement was made all to aware of the popularity of the series and indeed the rivalry with Bleasdale’s drama when he attended a Newcastle v Liverpool FA Cup match. Newcastle fans taunted their opponents with chants of “… Oz is harder than Yosser!” The series resonated in Newcastle in particular because the city was home three of the main protagonists: Dennis, Neville and Oz.
The Geordie trio travelled to a Dusseldorf building site (in reality Borehamwood!) where they met a mixed bag of fellow workers. As always, Clement and La Frenais established the series around well-honed characters. Dennis (Tim Healy), his marriage over, decided to look for work abroad for the sake of his children. Young and naive Neville, played by Kevin Whately (in reality a year Healy’s senior) is happily married but prone to excessive worry. Oz (Jimmy Nail) was arguably the most popular character despite (or possibly because of ) being a loud, opinionated slob. His sheer size would intimidate anyone who wasn’t his mate. His love of country music and espionage pulp fiction adds depth to a character which lesser writers would have made very one-dimensional.
Dick Clement recalled his first impressions of Jimmy Nail “as soon as I saw Jimmy I thought ‘please God let him be able to act-just a little bit’ and he was a revelation…” Nail impressed the writers when, agitated by their incessant chuckles, he told them to shut up in no uncertain terms. This clumsy faux pas made the writers realise they had found the perfect Oz.
The three men are best summed up by their attitudes to women. Neville doted on his young wife Brenda. Dennis and Vera were mature enough to realise they should do their best for their children. Oz meanwhile saw the trip to Germany as a perfect escape from his harridan wife Marjorie and so made a dawn departure without even telling her his destination.
The Geordies were joined by Barry, a Brummie electrician, played so convincingly by Timothy Spall many people were surprised to discover the actor was actually a Londoner. Bomber, a burly Bristolian with many a tattoo was played by real-life wrestler Pat Roach. Enigmatic Liverpudlian plasterer Moxey, (Chris Fairbank) a petty thief and arsonist was invited to join the group when the lads discovered he owned a dartboard… the fact he had no darts was revealed only after his acceptance. Wayne, a womanising wideboy, was the most confident of the lads in the company of the opposite sex The chirpy chippy was played by Gary Holton. Cockney Holton enjoyed the success and fame the series brought him more than most, ultimately with tragic consequences.
The supporting characters too were well written and believable. Site manager Herr Grumwald was a gift for Michael Sheard, an actor so adept at playing authority figures. Peter Birch played foreman Herr Ulrich with a teutonic efficiency. Brigitte Kahn was the understanding Dagmar and Lysette Anthony was office new-girl Christa. Michael Elphick was memorable as the uber-violent Irish labourer McGowan who wasn’t exactly the lads’ favourite
Clement and La Frenais named many of their characters (especially in Porridge) after footballers. In Auf Wiedersehen Pet!, the writers love of the game is to the fore in the episode The Girls They Left Behind. The Geordies like their real-life counterparts are Newcastle United fans (despite their following Sunderland in a European Cup game). Wayne, contrary to Oz’s initial assessment (“Spurs!… ye can tell man!”) supported West Ham when he wasn’t chasing girls, which admittedly wasn’t often. Bomber was a Bristol City fan while Moxey followed Liverpool. Barry however, felt football could destroy the fabric of human society – a neat assessment of the hooliganism which pervaded the game during the early eighties.
Over the course of thirteen finely crafted episodes the lives and loves of the seven likely lads played out in the squalid, claustrophobia of their workman’s hut. The first series ended with the hut destroyed by fire and the builders returniing home. Wayne stayed in Germany to marry Christa.
A second series was made in 1985 and broadcast in Spring 1986. In contrast to the first series, it had multiple locales. It boasted some of the finest dialogue of the series as a whole when the builders (minus Barry) discuss which member of the Magnificent Seven is most like them. The lads are brought back together by Barry to help him finish his new house in Wolverhampton. The action then shifted to Newcastle where notorious gangster Ally Fraser (a brilliant performance from Bill Paterson) hired the lads to renovate an illegally-funded old people’s home in Derbyshire. The drama moved to Spain for its final episodes and the lads are last seen aboard Fraser’s yacht , Oz having won the Spanish lottery, pursued by Police speedboats.
There were plans for a third series but they were shelved when mid-way through filming Gary Holton died suddenly of morphine and alcohol poisoning. Clever filming and re-writes ensured Wayne appeared throughout, however the scripts towards the end of the run are noticeably compromised. Understandably, the remaining cast felt they couldn’t continue without Holton and Auf Wiedersehen Pet! came to a rather premature end. Clement and La Frenais moved on to other projects, whilst the cast of the series became major stars in both TV and film.
Next week, a look at Clement and La Frenais’ various film work, including The Commitments, the duo’s solo projects, the BBC revival of Auf Wiedersehen Pet! and their current project The Bank Job.
Check out last week’s piece on Porridge here.