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Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? (1973-74)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? (1973-74)
BBC1, tx. 9/1/1973-24/12/1974
26 x 30 min eps in two series, plus one special, colour
ProducersBernard Thompson
 James Gilbert
ScriptDick Clement
 Ian La Frenais

Cast: James Bolam (Terry Collier); Rodney Bewes (Bob Ferris); Sheila Fearn (Audrey); Brigit Forsyth (Thelma)

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After five years in the army, Terry returns to Newcastle to find that Bob is now a middle manager, engaged to librarian Thelma and living on a new suburban estate. Bob is torn between his new life and his old working-class pleasures, as represented by Terry.

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Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is remembered as a sitcom from British television's 'golden age', when writers and programme makers were encouraged both to entertain and challenge a mass audience. The series was both funnier and more popular because it explicitly confronted the dilemmas facing viewers in the early 1970s.

Writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (later to create Porridge (BBC, 1974-76) and Auf Wiedersehen Pet (ITV, 1983-86)) had their first success with The Likely Lads (BBC, 1964-66). The story of Bob and Terry, two working-class young men working in a Newcastle electronics factory, it was essentially a comic version of stories familiar from British new wave films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (d. Karel Reisz, 1960) or A Kind of Loving (d. John Schlesinger, 1962), about young people in the North looking for a good time.

Set some ten years after The Likely Lads, Whatever Happened to... is particularly concerned with class and how we identify with it. Terry remains an unreconstructed working-class man, revelling in the old macho drinking culture of the North East; Bob wants to fit into the new middle class, with its badminton clubs and foreign holidays. In 1970s Britain, old certainties were being questioned, newfound wealth was threatened and social attitudes liberalised - and popular television was leading the debate.

The comedy comes from our understanding that Bob and Terry will never really change themselves. We know their flaws and how they will react to situations - Bob will always be pompous and feeble, Terry feckless and stubborn. In them we see the gap between our own aspirations and reality.

There is an obsession with time and its effects. The title song, set to images of slums being demolished, tells us, "it's the only thing to look forward to - the past." There is a melancholic edge to the laughter, as we realise how much our lives are mapped out for us. The Shape of Things to Come (tx. 9/4/74), makes this clear. The final episode of the series (bar a Christmas special), it encapsulates the themes and characters, and shows that nothing will really change between them.

Reruns have since brought new audiences to the programme. Although concerned with a particular time and place, it succeeds in making the local universal; despite the flares and the fondue sets, it is still as funny and poignant today.

Philip Wickham

*This programme is the subject of a BFI TV Classics book by Phil Wickham.

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Video Clips
1. Food and foreigners (1:33)
2. Good days (1:40)
3. Great Uncle Jacob (3:30)
4. The future (2:01)
Complete episode: 'The Shape of Things to Come' (29:58)
Bewes, Rodney (1937-)
Bolam, James (1938-)
Clement, Dick (1937-) and La Frenais, Ian (1936-)
La Frenais, Ian (1936-) and Clement, Dick (1937-)