We have been storytellers all our adult lives, ever since we first scribbled lines together for a sketch in the early Sixties in an Earls Court pub. It began a career that, amazingly, has lasted longer than Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise. The first characters we created were Bob and Terry, factory hands from the North-east, who would become The Likely Lads. The Sixties hadn’t really kicked in when we met. Mini Mokes, miniskirts, sexual liberation and psychedelia – that all came later. Our London was smoke-filled pubs, coffee houses, Wimpy Bars and cheap Chinese restaurants. The whole country was stable, predictable, deferential and dull. It was the England the Kinks missed so much in many of their songs – Sunday roasts, football matches, allotments and racing pigeons. It was a far cry from “swinging London”. But you could be young and broke and live within half a mile of Buckingham Palace.
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The BBC’s in-house drama club, the Ariel Players, put on a Christmas revue so, inspired by the movie Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, we wrote a comedy sketch for them, cutting between two boys called Bob and Terry and the girls they’d just had a date with, having a post-mortem on the evening they’d spent together.
It made people laugh and, after that, we made a commitment to write at least one night a week.
We wrote a play for television and called it The One Most Likely. It got turned down – but very nicely. Peter Willes, then head of Yorkshire Television, said we had a natural ear for dialogue.
But our big break came two years later when Dick got on to a directing course. At the end he was given a studio for a day, a £100 budget and encouraged to “make something”. Remembering the sketch we’d written for that revue, we expanded it to 20 minutes or so and made it with real actors on real sets.
We thought it had sunk without trace. But the timing was in our favour. BBC Two was about to be launched and slots needed filling. Michael Peacock, head of the new channel, saw the test piece and we were summoned to a meeting.
After the opening exchanges he asked us the key question: “Do you see it as a series?” The thought had never crossed our minds but without hesitation we said “absolutely”.
James Bolam and Rodney Bewes in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads
Somehow we got six scripts written. We agreed later we owed a debt to children’s author Richmal Crompton because we had both been avid readers of her Just William books as kids.
She was great with plots and one of the lessons we learned was that William didn’t always have to win; a satisfying ending could go either way. We stole from her shamelessly. One of our early plots featured a mobile medical unit checking people for tuberculosis.
Terry was trying to pull the radiologist but as he left the house he had a row with his sister, Audrey, and said: “You won’t half be sorry if I’ve got a spot on the lung!” That was pure Just William.
We wrote the last script of the series in two days. We’ve always found it’s a good sign if a script comes quickly. If we struggle with one it’s usually because there’s something not quite right with it.
When choosing actors, we eliminated those who looked as if they could only be serious, romantic or menacing. This brought us to James Bolam, who had been in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, and to Rodney Bewes, who had played Arthur Crabtree in Billy Liar.
We wanted to capture the gritty reality of those movies and transfer it to the small screen. We wanted the factory floor and houses with outside lavatories. These actors checked those boxes: Rodney was from Bingley in Yorkshire, Jimmy from Sunderland.
Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement
The chemistry between Jimmy, as the more acerbic, working-class-and-proud-of-it Terry, and Rodney, as the more reflective Bob with dreams-above-his-station, seemed to work right away when rehearsals began.
Jimmy treated his work with great seriousness. He had a great respect for “the text”. He was fiercely self-critical, especially of anything too obvious, which he dismissed derisively as “face-acting”.
When the first episode was transmitted only a handful of households had BBC Two.
What pushed us into orbit was when we were asked to write a sketch for inclusion in Christmas Night With The Stars, seen by 19 million people as they digested their turkey and mince pies. They liked it and the series was repeated on BBC One.
Suddenly, Jimmy and Rodney were recognised on the street. Rodney enjoyed this taste of fame. Jimmy did not.
This was a typical exchange if a friendly fan called out to him: “Hey, Terry, where’s your mate?” “He’s dead!” he’d reply.
We did another two series and decided that enough was enough. We wrote an episode called Goodbye To All That in which Bob decides to broaden his horizons and join the Army, much to Terry’s scorn.
James Bolam and Rodney Bewes
After two weeks, Terry realises he misses his mate and signs on himself. When he gets off the train to report for duty, he finds Bob is going home because of flat feet.
Jimmy and Rodney loved the way we had written them out of our lives. We said goodbye to each other and went our separate ways.
Six years later, we came back from separate summer holidays and found similar thoughts had been bubbling through our brains: what had happened to Bob and Terry? After all, the changes in a young man’s life between 19 and 25 are profound, more often than not including marriage. Moreover, Terry was due to come out of the Army. What would he find in his hometown when he returned?
We were fairly sure we could talk Rodney round. Jimmy was another matter. We took him to an Italian restaurant on the Kings Road. After the preamble, we put our proposal on the table.
His mouth tightened. “Not with Rodney Bewes, no.” It wasn’t a promising beginning. We poured more red wine and started to tell him what had happened to Terry Collier since we had last seen him.
We told him about coming home just in time for Bob’s wedding to Thelma Chambers and his own failed marriage to a German girl, not to be revealed until episode three. He started to laugh. He might not have seen “the text” yet, but Jimmy knew a good plot when he heard one. By the time we got to the sambuca, he was hooked.
They had very different personalities. Tears came easily to Rodney. Jimmy didn’t have an ounce of sentimentality. Unsurprisingly they had flare-ups.
But the general view about the new colour series, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, was that it was better than the old one.
It also reflected the social changes that Britain was going through at the time. So the critics said anyway. Our primary concern was still making people laugh.
Every line was timed to perfection. Every pause was the right length. Every laugh came exactly where it should. When one recording was over, Jimmy said quietly: “Well done, Rod.” They may not have complimented each other often but they certainly complemented each other.
We look back on those first shows in black and white with affection and gratitude. Together they gave us our first taste of success. We thought we’d found a formula: write a series, cast it and wait for the accolades.
If only it would always be that easy.
Adapted from More Than Likely by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £20) published Sept 19. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, or send a cheque/PO payable to Express Bookshop: More Than Likely Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.co.uk The unabridged audio edition of More Than Likely is available from Orion Audio.