The Likely Lads - an interview with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais

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The Likely Lads - an interview with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais

The Likely Lads - an interview with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais

Posted: 08 Oct 2009

Still likely after all these years

Iconic North East TV sitcom the Likely Lads made household names of actors James Bolam, who played jack-the-lad Terry and Rodney Bewes, as aspiring Bob. Here the writers Ian La Frenais, from Whitley Bay, and Dick Clement explain why they agreed to write a stage play for a world exclusive premiere at Durham Gala Theatre.

By Michael Hamilton

I caught up with Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais in Los Angeles ahead of Durham Gala Theatre’s world exclusive stage play of the Seventies telly series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. And it was almost like being in the pub with Terry Collier and Bob Ferris themselves as the gags and wisecracks came thick and fast from this scriptwriting comedy double-act.

MH: This is a world exclusive for Durham Gala Theatre. How did you get to be involved writing the screenplay?
Ian: I didn’t know we were supposed to be interviewed by you. Dick never tells me anything.
Dick: The Gala director Simon Stallworthy had the inspired idea and even had a crack at it himself. We read it, thought it was a good idea and said why don’t we do it ourselves? And rather than just putting on a couple of old episodes we wanted it to be a proper theatrical experience. But Simon definitely got the ball rolling. Another thing was that the Writers Guild was on strike so we couldn’t work in America anyway. That’s off the record.
Ian: You’ve told everyone that! It was extraordinary. We were walking up and down on the picket line everyday outside Fox Studios and mapping ideas for The Likely Lads set onstage in Durham, very bizarre.
Dick: Let’s just say the timing was propitious. 

MH: What’s the story about?
Dick: We’ve taken the whole 26 episodes of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and condensed it into one evening. It sounds extreme but it works. We focus on when Terry comes out of the army leading up to when Bob gets married at the end of act one. The second act is about Bob coming to terms with being married, and Terry as a disruptive influence. That was the shape of the original series and we have stuck to that. But we have distilled 13 hours of TV into one evening’s theatre so we can pick and choose the best nuggets.

MH: You were keen for it not to be just talking heads then?
Dick: What works best is a situation. They don’t call it situation comedy for no reason. The show is not just two people sitting in a pub talking. But when you have 13 hours of telly to fill you tend to resort to two people sitting in a pub talking! On stage we wanted to avoid that.

MH: Were you involved in the original casting of James Bolam and Rodney Bewes as Terry and Bob?
Dick: It was me who cast Jimmy and Rodney. There were two other actors in contention. One was Brian Miller for Bob. It was close between him and Rodney for that role. The combination of Jimmy and Rodney was a very good day’s work because they definitely had something together. It was a winning combination.

MH: It’s the 25th anniversary of Auf Wiedersehen Pet. What have you got planned for that?
Ian: (in fake American accent) OH MY GOD! I had no idea.
Dick: He was never very good at maths.
Ian: We must do something special.
Dick: Like repeating all the shows again.

MH: What about doing a stage play for Auf Wiedersehen Pet?
Ian: There’s too many of them to fit on the stage in Durham and we’d have to construct a building site. Now that you have just thrust this 25th anniversary at us we hadn’t even thought about it. Maybe we’ll do it as a musical!

MH: The Likely Lads wasn’t exactly politically correct – two lads drinking beer and chasing lasses. Were you tempted to tone it down for the stage?
Together: NOT AT ALL.
Dick: It’s quite intentionally set in the Seventies. It belongs in its time when Bob’s trying to be upwardly mobile and Terry is very scornful of that. It’s a child of the Seventies. You would have thrown the baby out with the bathwater if you tried to set it in 2008.

MH: Was any of it originally autobiographical?
Ian: It was more about people that I observed than people I knew. But so many people in the North East, who I may have had some vague connection with over the years, now all claim they were the models for Bob and Terry. I don’t want to disillusion them, but they weren’t. It was the first thing we had written so we didn’t have much experience of anything else.
Dick: People think one of us wrote Bob and the other wrote Terry but it doesn’t work like that.

MH: How do you stay au fait with what’s happening in the North East when you live in Los Angeles?
Ian: We are in England four times a year. It’s not like we are exiles.
Dick: We aren’t Irish, yet we wrote the Commitments movie. We went there and tuned in. Actors prepare for a part and in the same way writers have to prepare.

MH: What about Bob and Terry as they would be today? Could you do it with the Likely Lads in their 60s?
Dick: Let’s leave them embalmed in the Seventies.
Ian: We don’t want them to get old and grumpy, lose their hair and have prostate problems. It definitely belongs in Newcastle in the Seventies.

MH: What do you think of the regeneration of Newcastle today?
Ian: The new Newcastle is fabulous. It’s a pleasure to come back. I’ve got lots of cousins in the region. In fact I seem to get more every year!

MH: Do you miss the North East?
Ian: I don’t need to miss it. I’m still in touch with it and we’ll be there in June to see the play. I like it enormously. I really, really love the North East.
Dick: I’ve spent more time in the North East than I have in my home town of Southend. I was never invited back there! Seriously, I love the city of Newcastle too but I particularly like the warmth of the people. In February this year we were over for the Sunday for Sammy tribute (the bi-annual charity gig to raise money in memory of Geordie actor Sammy Johnson). At the end of the show we stood on stage with Lindisfarne and we all sang Run For Home. You look out at this sea of faces and you get this tremendous warmth from the audience. It’s quite unique and I’m very moved by it.
Ian: That means we’re going to retire there, doesn’t it Dick? We’ll have to retire to one of those assisted living places in Whitley Bay!

Likely Lads stats

There were three series of The Likely Lads between 1964 and 1966. A Likely Lads film was made in 1976 – the story focuses on a disastrous camping holiday. 

Most of the original show’s episodes were lost when the master recordings were wiped in the early Seventies. There were also16 radio episodes of The Likely Lads recorded in the late Sixties.

Two series of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? were made between 1970 and 1973 plus a Christmas special.

The only thing to look forward to ... is the past

The Likely Lads marked a revolution in television – there were no other programmes set on Tyneside when it was first broadcast in 1964.

It's nearly 45 years since it first hit our TV screens. But it’s as fresh and funny today as it was when it was first screened – one of the most enduring shows in television history – thanks to the great scripts of Ian la Frenais and Dick Clement.

The Likely Lads struck a chord with people all over the UK and had 27 million viewers at its peak.

Bob and Terry were like real people, the sort of lads you might meet down the pub on a night out in Newcastle.

The sitcom gave the North East a voice for the first time and spoke volumes about the huge social and economic revolution of the Sixties and Seventies. The region was grappling with massive slum clearance, the loss of its manufacturing industries and a cultural revolution.

Bob and Terry are sometimes accused of being Geordie stereotypes – but there was never any real malice in them. Terry is the old fashioned bigot, and a moaner and cynic. Meanwhile Bob is struggling to shake off the shackles of the Geordie macho image, trying to become a 'new man' with middle class aspirations.

The theme of nostalgia runs throughout the TV series. They both have one foot in the past, but they are constantly battling to makes sense of the changing world around them. 

Geordie heroes Ant and Dec are huge Likely Lads fans and they can remember watching the programme when they were kids. 

They were inspired by watching the first ‘Geordie' actors to make it big on TV, although Rodney Bewes was from Yorkshire and James Bolam was a Sunderland lad. 

Ant explains: ‘When Dec and I first moved to London and shared a flat, we had Likely Lads nights. We've been fans all our lives.’

Famous gags

Terry to Bob: ‘I'd offer you a beer but I've only got six cans.’

Terry on football: ‘I don't just hate Chelsea. I hate Arsenal, Spurs, Crystal Palace, West Ham… in fact I hate all London clubs.’ 
Bob: ‘You never could stand southerners".
Terry: ‘To tell you the truth I don't much like anyone outside this town. And there aren't many families down our street that I can stand.’ 

Hairdresser: ‘Do you want the beer, egg or herbal tonic?’
Terry: ‘Nothing to drink for me, thanks.’

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