Belfast Telegraph

Classic Likely Lads twists carry lessons in life for us all

By Mike Gilson

If I tried to claim the 1970s sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was on a par with Pinter or Ibsen, you'd think I was an idiot. So I'm not going to. But ... I've been watching the repeats on TV recently. It is to be reminded how funny, evocative of time and place and, yes, profound the show was.

You will probably remember the series. "Whatever" was the colour follow-up to the black and white The Likely Lads. It starred Rodney Bewes and James Bolam as Bob and Terry and had a wonderful theme tune. "Oh, what happened to you," it went, "whatever happened to me?" "And what became of the people we used to be?" Straight away, there is wistfulness here, a desire to hang on to what we might be losing, a theme that would lace the comedy with something approaching fear: that lives change, but maybe not always for the better.

The opening credits set the scene. Here's Bob with his new Vauxhall Viva embarking on a white-collar life of aspiration in a new suburbia. Here's Terry, fag in mouth, failing to flag down a bus back in the meaner streets.

Bob and Terry are school mates from working-class Newcastle. They still love each other, but that bond is being tested. While Bob has one foot on the first rung of the 1970s social climber, all fondue parties and mixed double badminton nights, Terry is left behind, taking pride in not forgetting his roots, but whose future is uncertain.

Terry's ridiculing of the new middle-class social mores and his attempt to "rescue" his mate from them is at the heart of the comedy. Largely at Terry's insistence, they still meet most nights in a pub with one other customer and a pneumatic, understanding barmaid for a few pints of Newkie Brown. Years ago, I, too, had a best mate who was a bit Bob and the truth is I was a bit Terry.

I hated the thought of becoming Bob. I would urge my friend away from the clutches of his fiancee, she all "let's look at houses" and scampi-in-the-basket meals, me all "let's hit Joanna's nite spot and piano bar" on a Wednesday.

He once told me he couldn't go out because it was quiz night at his fiancee's family's local. You know Tuesday is quiz night he'd say, sounding exactly like Bob, all high-pitched whiny voice.

The truth was, for many young men at that time, Bob and Terry were our yin and yang. Despite what we might have thought, we actually had a bit of both of them in us in different measures, sure that we couldn't remain gloriously feckless forever, but equally sure the material treasures available for us in the new aspirational society were unlikely to bring eternal bliss and could even suffocate.

The repeats are rare, but welcome, because the Likely Lads has another twist, another regret-filled story that proves nothing can stay the same for ever.

Seems Bewes and Bolam have not talked to each other since the end of the series. The origins of the split are uncertain, although Bewes says Bolam didn't like a story the former told to a newspaper which, on the face of it, seemed harmless. Bewes has talked about the split quite a bit and seems crestfallen that his old screen mate won't talk to him.

Until recently, he accused Bolam of blocking money-spinning repeats of the show, because, the suggestion was, the latter had moved on and become a "proper" actor. He didn't need reminding of those early days. While Bolam is a prime-time TV favourite in his 70s, Bewes plays to half-full theatres on the provincial circuit, it seems.

So, there is another lesson in life from this great sitcom. We should take nothing for granted. For it is actually Terry (Bolam) who had the career that took him to the promised land, while Bob (Bewes) was left behind.

It is Bob (Bewes) pleading, via newspaper interviews, for his old mate to take one more trip down memory lane. But Terry (Bolam) is not like Bob was back then. He can't be lured back for one last pint of Newkie in that smoke-filled snug. He's gone forever.

As I say, not quite Pinter, or Ibsen, but ...

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