Celebrating Clement & Le Frenais: The Likely Lads

In the first of a weekly series, Alex celebrates a terrific writing partnership. And where better to start than The Likely Lads?

The work of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais was once summed up as “men (often) in captive situations, under pressure”. Dick and Ian, by their own admission, don’t write that well for women so their work is frequently from a male perspective. The observation above is an easy one to make of Fletcher, Godber and their fellow inmates in Porridge but what of Likely Lads Bob Ferris and Terry Collier? Or the builders of Auf Wiedersehen Pet?

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais met through a mutual friend in a pub, The Uxbridge Arms, Notting Hill Gate in 1961. On the strength of a short play the two had written called Double Date (about two lads enjoying a night on the town) they were asked by the new BBC2 controller Michael Peacock to turn it into a series. To their surprise Clement and La Frenais suddenly found themselves writing a major six-part comedy series for the fledgling channel.

Despite initial concerns about their ability to undertake the challenge of writing a full blown series they managed to expand the concepts of Double Date creating an instant classic in  The Likely Lads: the story of two working class lads, both apprentices at a factory in the North East of England. It was the first time a comedy series had been set outside London.

Dick Clement explained the setting to the BBC’s Omnibus in 1997: “The North was quite glamorous at the time … because of  the movies that had been made up there, Saturday Night Sunday Morning, A Kind Of Loving, that sort of thing… The North seemed real”. Ian La Frenais, a native of Whitley Bay had an ear for the rhythm and humour of the North East dialect.

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Sunderland-born James Bolam and Yorkshireman Rodney Bewes were cast in the lead roles, Both had appeared in noteworthy British new wave films of the early sixties; The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar respectively.

The Likely Lads indulged the writers’ creative use of language. Rodney Bewes cites a particularly accomplished line from the first episode, an observation of English girls abroad, seen en masse “… with their peeling shoulders and flowery dresses, like wallpaper on the march”. Bewes is more than happy to talk about the series and once said of the writing “People often ask me if we ever added anything to the scripts and to be honest I don’t think we even added a comma.” The series ran until 1966 and established Clement and La Frenais as sort-after, top notch writers for television.

In 1973 Dick and Ian wanted to write a series about thirtysomethings to reflect their own maturity and concerns. They decided to bring the Likely Lads back. Answering a much asked question, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, was a rare case of a sequel which was even better than the original. The new series showed a maturity not only on screen but also in the writing style. A more reflective approach was apparent in the writing. Nostalgia for the swinging Sixties (at the start of the more sober Seventies) was key to re-introducing the characters several years on, in itself a ground-breaking move for sitcom.

Dick and Ian were keen to evoke a sense of times past and things gone. The end credits featured children playing on pulled-down housing to further emphasize this point. If the original series told the story of two young men in the first flush of life enjoying the pleasures of being 22 years old, then the new series saw them older and wiser and contemplating what became of the people they used to be.

Terry Collier joined the army at the end of the original series, five years later he and Bob Ferris meet up on a train and over the course of their journey home begin to realise just how different they have become. Whilst Bob has settled down to a good job,  engagement to his fiancee Thelma, a new house and car, Terry’s seen the world with the army. The pressure of being institutionalised has given Terry a “devil may care attitude” which in turn has made him cynical of his mate’s middle class aspirations and pretensions.

In truth, Terry envies Bob’s lifestyle though he would never admit to it. He feels pressurised to find work but unable to motivate himself. Bob, arguably, is trapped in a relationship which doesn’t allow him the freedom to see his old friend as much as he’d like. He’s followed the “expected path” of a working class lad – settling down, getting married and setting up home. To some extent Bob envies Terry’s singledom and freedom, especially when he feels pressurised by his impending wedding.

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Terry’s attitude could be partly explained by his gammy leg – a reminder perhaps of the true sacrifice of his five years away but as he “never talks about it” we can’t explore any theories on that score. He feels slightly betrayed by Bob, whose idea it was to join up in the first place. As Terry says in episode one: ” I used to think “when I get back… ” then I thought “when I get back – what?” His contacts are five years out of date and as Bob later shows him  the town he left behind has changed radically.

The Likely Lads had its fair share of scenes in pubs as the lads took stock of their lives and loves. These scenes were said to have been filmed using real beer. Rodney Bewes once estimated they got through nearly nine pints each on one occasion due to retakes. Fortunately they weren’t required to stand up!  

Both men are captive to their situation. Although on the surface Bob seems the more content, he has more to lose. Bob is keen to conform to whatever Thelma wants from their relationship. Bridget Forsyth played the role critic Clive James dubbed “The Dreaded Thelma”. Ian La Frenais has described Thelma as “a threat to what had gone before”. Both writers were determined the character shouldn’t be seen as a monster but merely a take on the traditional ball-breaking wife. Bridget Forsyth saw the character as being rather unfortunate in that despite her best efforts, Thelma didn’t realise Bob was already “married” to someone else…

Despite all his free-spirited attempts at doing otherwise, Terry too feels an need to conform (at least enough to make a living) and in the long term for acceptance and the chance of forming a meaningful relationship. Ultimately though both men are flawed. While Bob is prone to doubt and sentimental thinking, Terry is bigoted and often gets his priorities wrong. When Terry’s short-lived marriage in Germany ended after a Football game divided his bride’s family, it seems unlikely he’ll ever find true happiness or commitment with a woman. His entrenched racism for just about anyone outside his own doorstep won’t endear him to potential employers either. Exemplified by a well written scene in the classic episode No Hiding Place Terry gives Bob his wisdom of other cultures. He appears to be clutching at straws when describing the Danes as “pornographic”!

The last television episode, the 1974 Christmas special, sees Terry’s character move on a bit. He’s learnt to drive and now has  a job as a forklift truck driver and part time taxi driver. A bearded Bob seems more settled in his marriage in part because he  and Terry have spend some time apart. A clever script allows Terry to show off both driving skills, in turn getting Bob home in the most unusual manner.

Clement and La Frenais scripted a successful film version of The Likely Lads in 1976. Unlike many previous attempts, the film was a decent representation of its television counterpart. Despite its success the film marked the end of the professional relationship between Rodney Bewes and James Bolam. The two men fell out soon afterwards and haven’t spoken since.  It seems unlikely therefore, we’ll see another revival of this classic series. Ant and Dec unwisely attempted to update No Hiding Place. Rodney Bewes even had a cameo as a one-legged news vendor but the episode met with very mixed reviews.

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In 1974 Clement and La Frenais, unable to convince ITV bosses of the potential of a sitcom set inside a prison, took their idea to the BBC. One of the very best sitcoms of all was about to emerge. In part two of this series – next Friday – the spotlight falls onto Porridge…