(Whatever Happened to the) Likely Lads: Second Impressions
In my last post I came to some probably premature conclusions about seventies TV which could best be summarized in the phrase, 'rush back to the sixties'. That was fully my intention, until I spotted the boxed set of The Likely Lads in a charity shop. Since it was absurdly cheap & the Society of St Vincent de Paul used to visit our mother, I bought it, despite not having favourable memories of the 1970s return of the show.
In my real/unreal division of TV shows, this one would definitely come into the real category. In fact it was the first public collaboration of two of the big names of British television:
'Taking a BBC course in directing for television, Dick Clement was tasked with making a short production using one studio and a £100 budget. Stuck for an idea, he turned to drinking companion Ian La Frenais, and the duo worked up a notion they'd originally conceived as a comedy skit for the BBC's in-house drama club, the Ariel Players.
'The result was a slice-of-life comedy about two friends, which so impressed the Corporation they offered Clement a job in TV, and asked him to develop the project into a series.
'Set in the North East (but filmed in Willesden Junction, London), The Likely Lads was one of the first shows to bring regional dialects to the network. James Bolam was cast as the proudly working class Terry Collier and Rodney Bewes as the slightly more aspirational Bob Ferris.
'Friends since school, the two characters now worked together in an electrical components factory, and spent their time dealing with the foibles of life - lack of money, supporting a rubbish football team, worrying about the future and chasing women.
'Very much influenced by the kitchen sink dramas of the 1950s, for its time this was strikingly naturalist comedy. The conversations between Terry and Bob felt real, and their concerns where ones shared by most viewers.' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/likelylads/)
I'm sorry, but none of this will do. On my return to this show I find it so self-consciously 'real' it isn't possible. I am just watching an episode with location footage of mass areas of slum clearance being gradually replaced by the sort of concrete modernism which has probably also been condemned by now. This is where this show clearly hit a contemporary nerve: the only problem is that that footage could have been shot anywhere, including my beloved Midlands.
The setting is real but the performance now strikes me as wrong in content & tone. The content includes recurring themes of working-class aspirations, change in society...once again the subject matter of these shows is a familiar one of the era. I feel this is the key to the show's success: the masses viewing it would be forced to agree with one or the other of the friends. The middle classes would pride themselves on their glimpse into the lives of the gritty northerners. This would not have been majority viewing on first showing: it's a BBC2 job, remember.
The presentation is also subtly wrong to my mind. I have commented before on my irritation at pseudo-regional accents. Likely Lads is set in the north-east of England, & I'm not in a position to judge the authenticity of the accents, but it just chimes wrong. Certainly only one of the actors is a native of up there: Bewes was born in Yorkshire before going to school in Luton before RADA, & while Bolam was born in Sunderland, he then went to school in Derby before training at the Central School of Speech & Drama. Perhaps this is a purely personal preference: my liking for unreal TV means I'm rarely obliged to task a show with it's realism.
A further subtext is the nature of friendship, & how life experience changes one & ones relationships. Sadly, similarly to The Prisoner fanclub beginning to mimic events in the show, real life's vicissitudes have led to a split between two former best friends:
'They were the best of friends – on screen at least. But now a feud that has simmered between the estranged stars of the BBC sitcom The Likely Lads for almost 35 years has erupted. Rodney Bewes, who played Bob Ferris in the series, has accused his former co-star James Bolam of condemning fellow cast members to poverty through his refusal to grant permission for the series to be repeated on network television.
"Jimmy Bolam's killed it, which is such a pity," he said: "I'm very poor so I have to tour one-man shows because Jimmy has buried The Likely Lads. You have to sign a waiver for them to repeat it and he stopped it while he did New Tricks. Well, New Tricks has been on so long, and is so repeated, that he must be very wealthy; me, I've just got an overdraft and a mortgage."
Bewes added: "He should let it be repeated on BBC2 or BBC1; to stop other people earning money is cruel."' (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/tv-radio/the-likely-lads-fall-out-as-bolam-refuses-to-sanction-tv-repeats-1899057.html)