I’ve always wanted to write about the BBC TV sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-74) but never got around to it. However, after the death the other day of Likely Lads star Rodney Bewes, this seemed an appropriate moment to sit down at my computer and ruminate about the show.
The work of the excellent screenwriting partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads was not only one of the funniest things broadcast by the BBC during the 1970s, but also one of the most wistful and socially observant. It was a rarity too in that it was a sequel that was better than the original – for there’d been a previous incarnation of the show, simply entitled The Likely Lads, which ran for twenty episodes and three series from 1964 to 1966. (Thanks to some idiotic wiping of tapes done in the BBC’s archives, twelve of those twenty episodes have been lost. But the surviving eight can now be watched on Youtube.)
Filmed in black and white and mostly on studio sets, the original 1960s Likely Lads looks primitive by today’s standards but remains amusing and interesting. Its first episode begins with two working-class lads from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bob Ferris (Bewes) and Terry Collier (James Bolam) returning from a holiday in Spain that’s been their first-ever taste of life abroad. Bob is rhapsodising about the wine, cuisine, stylish clothes and – being a horny lad in his early 20s – exotic ladies he’s encountered. Terry, though, has spent the holiday guzzling English beer and fish and chips and pursuing ‘English birds’ at the resort. (He struck it lucky with one ‘Rita from Barrow-on-Furness’.) Indeed, the first five minutes of the original Likely Lads set the tone of everything that follows. Both Bob and Terry are working class, but Bob yearns for something more sophisticated than the factory (Ellison’s Electrical) that employs them and the pubs and dancehalls that constitute their social life. The unreconstructed Terry has no such ambition. He enjoys life as it is, thank you very much. Somehow, you get the impression that Terry is going to be the happier one in the long term.
By the end of the Likely Lads’ third series, in 1966, Bob is so frustrated with his life in Newcastle that he joins the army, hoping to see more of the world (and, no doubt, to hook up with a few more exotic foreign ladies). Terry pours scorn on his decision but soon realises he can’t face life at home without his old mate and he enlists too. In the show’s last minutes, Terry discovers that Bob has just been discharged on account of having flat feet, which means he’ll have to spend the next few years in uniform alone. It ends with a shot of Terry being whisked off into the distance in the back of an army truck while Bob watches apologetically. And that’s it until 1973 and the advent of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads.
Whatever… begins with Terry finally out of the army and back in Newcastle, where Bob is about to get married to his long-term girlfriend, Thelma. A character even more socially driven than Bob, Thelma is excellently played by Brigit Forsythe – she portrays her as a hard taskmaster, yes, but not an unlikeable shrew and even gives her a certain sassiness. Bob has also left the factory and gone on to a better job in a building firm and he’s about to start living in a new, upmarket housing estate where, snorts Terry, “the only thing that tells you apart from your neighbours is the colour of your curtains.”
Thus, Bob – now sporting collar-length hair, a kipper tie and a big-lapelled pinstripe suit and looking worryingly like Laurence and Tony in Mike Leigh’s 1977 TV adaptation of Abigail’s Party – seems to have finally achieved his dream. He’s gone up in the world.
I’ve seen modern-day commentators describe Bob as a symbol of Thatcherism, but that theory doesn’t hold water because Whatever… aired years before Margaret Thatcher came to power. Rather, Bob has simply been able to take advantage of the social mobility that was accessible to some working-class people at that time. How long ago that seems now.
Predictably, what follows is a comedy of manners as Terry, more boorishly set-in-his-ways than ever, goes crashing about the comfortable middle-class world that Bob and Thelma are trying to build for themselves. The night before Bob and Thelma’s wedding, for example, Terry’s antics inadvertently land him and his old mate in a police cell. But things are more complex than that. Despite Bob’s constant carping about Terry’s old-school attitudes and lack of finesse, he’s obviously not that happy with his new, improved situation. He often finds middle-class life suffocating and envies Terry’s devil-may-care freedom. And he doesn’t put up much of a fight whenever Terry tempts him to let his hair down for old times’ sake.
Whatever… is also imbued with poignant nostalgia. By now Bob and Terry are in their thirties, and not only is their youth slipping away – as the world changes, so too are the things and places associated with their youth. This inspires episodes like Storm in a Tea Chest, where the space-conscious Thelma forces Bob to chuck out all his prized childhood possessions like his scout cap and Rupert the Bear annuals, or The Great Race, where Bob and Terry try to re-enact a boyhood bicycle race from Newcastle to Berwick-on-Tweed near the Scottish Border. (Both of them end up cheating like hell.)
The show feels special too because it’s set in Newcastle. Unlike most BBC sitcoms of the 1970s, it doesn’t take place in London or the Home Counties and isn’t full of characters rattling away in posh Received Pronunciation or watered-down TV-Cockney accents. That said, while Newcastle is visually prominent in the show – which features some location filming, unlikely the studio-bound 1964-66 Likely Lads – it’s not exactly aurally prominent. Most of the characters don’t speak with genuine Newcastle accents, but with rather generic ‘north-of-England’ ones. This suggests 1970s British TV executives feared their viewing public weren’t ready to hear the Geordie accent in all its full-on, Viz-comic-style glory. At least Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais rectified the situation later with their much-loved show Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-84 and 2002-4).
Incidentally, Bewes was from the West Riding of Yorkshire, while Bolam was born in Sunderland. And as any Makem will tell you, Sunderland might be close to Newcastle, but they definitely aren’t the same place.
In 1976, two years after Whatever… ended on television, a movie version was released. The film is a hit-and-miss affair, although by the standards of cinematic spinoffs from British TV sitcoms, which are usually terrible, it’s not bad. One memorable sequence sees Bob and Terry go for a final pint in their favourite boozer before it gets torn down by the developers. The whole neighbourhood around it is being flattened too and they have to trudge across a near-apocalyptic wasteland to get to the pub. The movie also contains the great lines: “In the chocolate box of life, the top layer’s already gone… And someone’s pinched the orange cream from the bottom”; and “I’d offer you a beer, but I’ve only got six cans.” Guess which line was said by Bob and which by Terry.
In subsequent decades, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais talked about reviving the series again with Bob and Terry now middle-aged. They’d even worked out a scenario for a new show whereby Terry, through a lottery-win or a big compensation pay-out, has become stinking rich; whereas poor old Bob has gone bankrupt and is on the breadline. However, James Bolam was unwilling to play Terry again and the idea never came to fruition. (Since the 1970s, rumours have abounded about Bolam and Bewes being locked in a bitter feud. However, in the wake of Bewes’ death, Bolam has denied that this was ever the case.)
Post-Likely Lads, Rodney Bewes concentrated on theatrical work and during the 1990s performed one-man stage versions of George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1892) and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), both of which he brought to the Edinburgh Festival. In the late 1990s I was living in Edinburgh and during one festival I got into the habit of having lunch in a bar-restaurant downstairs from a venue where Bewes performed every morning. A couple of times he materialised on a bar-stool a yard or two along the counter from me, where he’d sign autographs for and chat to people who’d just been to his show. I couldn’t believe the number of people who asked him how Terry and Thelma were getting on – who seemingly didn’t grasp that this was Rodney Bewes, not Bob Ferris, sitting in front of them.
Then again, The Likely Lads and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads addressed themes that are significant for all of us: the frustrations of trying and failing to have fun when you’re young and, when you’re older, the frustrations of feeling stuck in a rut while the world changes mercilessly around you. No wonder some folk confused the onscreen illusion with reality.