Celebrating Clement & La Frenais: Screen Writers

Alex's celebration of Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais concludes with a look at the screenwriting duo's forays into film...

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ first foray in to the film world came at the end of the sixties. Fresh from their success on The Likely Lads they worked with director Michael Winner on a couple of comedies featuring Oliver Reed. The Jokers (1967) featured Reed and Michael Crawford as two con men attempting to steal the crown jewels. 1969’s Hannibal Brooks saw Reed paired with an elephant in an enjoyable wartime comedy which featured Michael J Pollard. In 1971 the writers collaborated on Villain. Amongst the cast was a young Ian MacShane who would become both a good friend and business colleague.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1975 to work on an American version of Porridge called On The Rocks Clement and La Frenais soon realised that although the US remake wasn’t working out, Los Angeles as a base definitely was. They were asked to beef up a couple of scenes in the “alternative” 1983 James Bond film, Never Say Never Again. Sean Connery was making a comeback as Bond to rival Roger Moore in Octopussy. Clement and La Frenais in turning around the script paid homage to one of their own. A scene from Porridge featured Fletcher undergoing a medical and being asked (from some distance) to “fill” a flask. Somewhat taken aback he retorts “what, from here?” The scene is “recycled” wholesale and Sean Connery delivers the same line though arguably with less aplomb. Later in 1983 Dick Clement got to work with Roger Moore not to mention Michael Caine when he directed the comedy Bullshot. A year later he directed Caine in Water, which featured Billy Connolly and was itself featured in the BBC series In At the Deep End when reporter Paul Heiney was given a small part as a soldier.

Ian La Frenais’ developed two major TV series. He was given a book by Ian MacShane, Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy. The two men were convinced Lovejoy would work as a TV series and La Frenais adapted the book, bringing in the characters of Eric and Lady Jane creating a popular comedy thriller which starred MacShane as the eponymous antique dealer, with a slightly roguish streak. Despite a gap of 5 years between the frankly superior 1986 season and the more formulaic 1990s seasons the show was a big success.

The working relationship of Clement and La Frenais has often been described as a “marriage”. La Frenais thought of Jimmy Nail as “the mistress” so keen was the Geordie actor to work with La Frenais on developing his pet project about a maverick police detective. Spender appeared in 1991 and was warmly received. Making the most of its Tyneside locations it also allowed viewers to see a different, more thoughtful side of Nail as an actor. Spender had little in common with Oz and was all the better for it.

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Perhaps Dick and Ian’s most successful film screenplay The Commitments was adapted from the book by Roddy Doyle. A white Dublin soul group from the wrong side of the city (a classic Clement/La Frenais theme) experiencing the ups and downs of balancing their lives in and out the band. In short their commitments versus The Commitments. Director Alan Parker cast a bunch of unknown Irish actors. One of the last to sign up was 16 year-old Andrew Strong, whose impressively mature soul voice was key to the success of the movie.

Andrew Strong played Deco the band’s lead singer. The bunch of misfits was put together by Jimmy, the would-be manager (when not interviewing himself in the style of Terry Wogan). He tried to convince the initially below average white band soul music wasn’t about the colour of your skin. He tells the group”the Irish are the blacks of the world and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland and North Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin, so say it loud and say it proud ” I’m black and I’m proud!”, The film rolls along to a great soundtrack of classic soul music. Joey is the hardened seen-it-all veteran whose worked with all the greats. The three girls Imelda, Natalie and Bernie are mates who bring both vocal talent and a much needed glamour.

A great comic scene ensues when the band commandeer an old fish and chip van for transport. Deco farts and the others are forced to open the main hatch. A confused old couple ask if they have any rock salmon… “Sorry mister we’ve only got soul!”. There are a couple of bit part roles for some future stars. A young Sean Hughes has a cameo role as Dave, Eejit Records A&R man. Alan Parker plays Eejit records musical director. Andrea Corr and her brother Jim also have minor roles.

Clement and La Frenais attempted to translate The Commitments‘ success to TV with Over The Rainbow (1993) which starred Angeline Ball who played Imelda in the film but like another potentially good sitcom Freddie and Max (1990) it lasted only one series. Full Stretch (1993) was a comedy drama Dick Clement felt could have been the new Minder but it was a victim of the ITV franchise shake up. After the disappointments of not having an on-going British TV series, Dick and Ian put their energies into their big screen writing. Ian La Frenais told Omnibus in 1997 ” It used to upset me at not having something regular on TV but nowadays I doesn’t bother me…”

They were often asked to beef up decidedly average movies Clement once described their work as “calling in the plumbers only after the kitchen was flooded”. Bad Boys, Bad Boys II (1995/6), The Rock (1996) and Excess Baggage (1997) all benefitted from some dialogue additions by the writers. On American TV Dick and Ian worked on scripts for Tracey Ullman. Tracey Takes On was successful format which lasted two seasons between 1996 and 1998.

Returning to the big screen as main writers Clement and La Frenais wrote Still Crazy in 1998. A kind of would-be British Spinal Tap it starred their regular collaborators, Jimmy Nail, Tim Spall and Billy Connolly. Honest (2000) was a diversion for the Appleton sisters from All Saints and is probably one film Clement and La Fenais would prefer to forget. Certainly the Briutish Public did…

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All in all the Nineties had been a tough time for the writers so when the BBC decided to revive Auf Wiedersehen Pet! Clement and La Frenais were keen to return to their former success, whilst others expressed misgivings. Allan McKeown, who had been executive producer on the ITV series, was very much against the idea. He suggested that if they must go ahead, they shouldn’t revive the title. Clement and La Frenais ultimately sacrificed their friendship with McKeown. He and La Frenais haven’t spoken to this day.

Dick Clement knew the revival would work after he saw a comedy benefit in memory of the late Sammy Johnson (best known as Spender’s sidekick Stick). One sketch featured Johnson’s close friends Tim Healy, Jimmy Nail and Kevin Whately reprising the roles of Dennis, Oz and Neville. Having convinced the three Geordies Clement and La Frenais managed to get Tim Spall, Chris Fairbank and Pat Roach onboard too. The biggest problem of course was how they should approach Wayne’s death in the new drama. It was decided to introduce Noel Clarke, (later cast as Mickey in the revived Doctor Who) as Wayne’s son Wyman. Despite Clarke’s best efforts the series never really overcame the absence of Gary Holton.

Oz brought the lads back together to help him move the Middlesborough transporter bridge to the Nevada desert. Whilst well-received, written and acted, the series merely underlined just how good the original had been. A fourth series set in Cuba was better, in part because the viewers had become more familiar with the character of Wyman. Pat Roach’s death before the planned final Christmas special ended the Auf Wiedersehen Pet! saga. It’s fair to say it should have remained a fond memory.

In early 2005 Clement and La Frenais adapted Jonathan Coe’s novel The Rotters Club for BBC2. The nostalgic comedy drama was compulsive viewing. The coming-of-age drama was set in Birmingham and featured a wonderful evocation of the mid-seventies as it told the semi-autobiographical tale of the life and loves of Ben Trotter and his friends and family. A tremendous cast included Mark Williams, Rebecca Front, Hugo Speer, Sarah Lancashire, Julian Rhind Tutt and Chris Fairbank. There were rumours Clement and La Frenais would be working on a sequel however this hasn’t emerged at the time of writing. Later in 2005 Ian La Frenais worked on scripts for the drama Archangel featuring soon-to-be James Bond Daniel Craig.

In recent years the two writers have worked on projects as diverse as the football comedy drama Goal! (2005) and Aardman Animations’ Flushed Away in (2007). Clement and La Frenais’ most recent work was The Bank Job (2008) a film about a seventies heist gone wrong which was based on a true story.

Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais are without doubt amongst the greatest British writing partnerships with an impressive body of work stretching nearly 50 years. Their nearest rivals on the sitcom front are Ray Galton & Alan Simpson and Jimmy Perry & David Croft. Between them they’ve penned many of the greatest sitcoms ever produced, Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads, Dad’s Army and Porridge to name but a few. If Galton and Simpson can be credited with inventing the sitcom for a British audience and Perry and Croft’s nostalgic sitcoms captured the hearts of the family audience then Clement and La Frenais’ attention to detail in character development and flair for realistic dialogue is second to none.

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Dick Clement and Ian La FrenaisFILMOGRAPHY

As Writers1963 Double Date (Play)1964-6 BBC2 The Likely Lads (3 Series)1965 BBC1 COMEDY PLAYHOUSE The Time And Motion Man1967 BBC1 Further Adventures Of Lucky Jim (series 1)1967 BBC1 Mr Aitch (1 series)1967 FILM The Jokers1967 BBC2 Vacant Lot1968 FILM Otley1968 FILM The Touchables1969 FILM Hannibal Brooks1970 FILM The Severed Head1970 FILM Villain1971 FILM To Catch A Spy1973-4 BBC1 Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads (2 series)1973 BBC1 SEVEN OF ONE Prisoner And Escort1973 BBC1 SEVEN OF ONE I’ll Fly You For A Quid1974 ITV Thick As Thieves1974-7 BBC1 Porridge (3 series)1975 BBC1 Only On A Sunday1975 BBC1 Captive Audience1976 (US) On The Rocks1976 FILM The Likely Lads1977 (US Pilot) Stuebenville1977 BBC2 Three Piece Suite1978 BBC1 Going Straight (1 series)1979 FILM Porridge1982 BBC2 Further Adventures Of Lucky Jim (series 2)1983-6 ITV Auf Wiedersehen Pet! (Series 1,2)1985-6 ITV Mog (2 series)1986 BBC1 Lenny Henry Tonite: Neighbourhood Watch1990 ITV Freddie and Max (1 series)1991 FILM The Commitments1992 (US)(UK tx 1993-4 ITV) Billy (2 seasons)1992 The Old Boy Network (1 series)1993 ITV Full Stetch (1 series)1993 ITV Over The Rainbow (1 series)1996 ITV Tracey Ullman: A Class Act1996 (US)Tracey Takes On New York1996-8 (US) Tracey Takes On… (2 seasons)1998 FILM Still Crazy2002-4 BBC1 Auf Weidersehen Pet! (Series 3,4 & specials)2005 The Rotters Club (Adaptation from book by Jonathan Coe)2005 Archangel2005 FILM Goal!2007 FILM Flushed Away2008 FILM The Bank Job

As Script Editors:

1980 ITV The Other Arf1981 ITV Astronauts1982 ITV P.O.S.H.1983 FILM Never Say Never Again1984-5ITV Shine On Harvey Moon


1966 BBC2 Not Only But Also1983 FILM Never Say Never Again1996 FILM The Rock1995 FILM Bad Boys1997 FILM Excess Baggage

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Dick ClementAs Film Director

1968 Otley1970 The Severed Head1971 Catch Me A Spy1979 Porridge1983 Bullshot1985 Water

Ian La FrenaisAs Writer and Script Editor

1986 Lovejoy (1 series)1991 Spender (3 series)