The Likely Lads, broadcast in the mid 1960’s, was the first sitcom success for Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. They then revived the series in the 1970’s as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?
The revival was even better than the original, thanks to the way the characters of Terry Collier (James Bolam) and Bob Ferris (Rodney Bewes) had developed. In the original series they were unattached men in their twenties, but by the revival they were a decade older and, in Bob’s case at least, men with commitments (Bob had married his long-time fiance Thelma).
This was unusual for a sitcom, as normally they tend to remain static, unchanging affairs. Think, for example, of Dad’s Army, Porridge or Fawlty Towers. In those cases, characters are trapped together (because of the war, prison, the job they do). The format of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was much looser as it revolved around Bob’s eternal dilemma – he loves his wife, but he doesn’t want to lose contact with his best friend.
Over the years Bob and Terry had changed from the people we met in the sixties. Then, they were equal – both working in the same factory and sharing a similar outlook on life. But in WHTTLL?, Bob is married, holds down a responsible job, has a nice house on a new estate and is thoroughly middle-class. Terry is quite different – after a spell in the army he’s content to drift along, with no particular direction in mind. What keeps them together is their vague sense that things were better when they were younger (the theme song ponders “is the only thing to look forward to, the past?” which sums things up nicely).
This melancholic longing for a simpler time is one of the reasons why the series was so good. And had Bolam and Bewes not fallen out dramatically (it’s reputed they’ve not spoken for nearly forty years) then it wouldn’t have been surprising if Clement and La Frenais had chosen to revisit the characters every decade or so (in a sort of 7 Up way it would have been fascinating to see how Bob and Terry fared through the eighties, nineties and into the twenty first century).
Broadcast on the 24th of December 1974, this Christmas Special was the final television episode – although Bolam and Bewes would re-record the series one shows for radio in 1975 and shoot a film version in 1976.
We open with Bob feeling trapped. Thelma (Brigit Forsyth) is in Christmas planning mode – a sight which remains familiar today. She’s fretting about the cards she needs to write, the presents she has to buy and their social engagements. Bob isn’t thrilled to learn that he’ll be spending Christmas with his mother-in-law or that Thelma has committed them to a number of parties (when he’d much rather be relaxing at home, watching The Great Escape). His lack of success at charades last year still rankles – as he reminds Thelma, she had an easy one – Great Expectations – whilst he had to struggle with The AA Continental Handbook! The pay-off to the scene is that it’s only late September, another nod to those people who need to get everything organised for Christmas months in advance.
Terry’s spent the duration of WHTTLL? content to be unemployed. There’s a change here, as Bob and Thelma spy him taking his driving test (and of course they manage to put him off). Despite this he still passes and he later tells Bob that he’s planning to become a long-distance lorry driver. He has to settle for a job driving a fork-lift truck though, and it’s clear that he’s disappointed. Terry had assumed that once he had his driving licence it would be his passport to better things – he really wanted a job where he could take his vehicle home during the evening and impress the girls. But the only job he found like that involved an ice-cream van! As Bob says, his chance of pulling birds in that would have been wafer-thin.
Another sign of the timeless nature of the episode is Terry’s complaint that Christmas is just too commercialised these days. Bob doesn’t agree, he loves every aspect of Christmas (another way in which he hankers for earlier, simpler times?). Over a pint in the pub, Terry reminds Bob that he was the last person in school to believe in Santa Claus.
I remember the day vividly. Christmas Eve afternoon it was, sitting in our back kitchen in front of the fire, reading Lord Snooty in that years Beano annual. I’d got it early, because the week before I’d been crying a lot with a boil on me neck. Anyhow, there I was, couldn’t have been happier, not a worry in the world except how Santa was gonna get a fire engine down our chimney. Then you show up with an evil, malicious grin on your face and said, ‘Santa Claus is dead.’
Bob goes on to remember that Terry had told him that Santa had been gored to death by his reindeer!
If the pub scene is the heart of the episode, there’s more traditional sitcom fare afterwards as Bob and Terry make their way home, very drunk. Bob’s lost his car keys, so Terry elects to drive him home in his fork-lift truck. And since he doesn’t have his front door key either, he uses the fork-lift to raise him up to the bedroom window.
On Christmas Eve, Bob and Thelma are on their way to a fancy dress party – Bob as Captain Hook and Thelma as Peter Pan (Terry’s got the job of driving their mincab). Judging by the reaction of the studio audience they hadn’t seen Bewes’ costume before he entered the living room, since it draws an audible ripple of appreciation. Once they get to the party, Thelma is appalled at the goings on – it seems that all their married friends have paired off with other people. Bob’s not immune – he has his eye on Sylvia Braithwaite.
There’s more sitcom hi-jinks when a fuming Thelma asks Terry to drive her home, with neither realising that Bob and Sylvia are in the back of the cab. Thelma invites Terry in for a drink and Sylvia insists that Bob drive her home in Terry’s cab. This he does, but Terry sees the cab driving off and reports it stolen.
Running for just under forty-five minutes rather than the usual thirty, it’s tempting to wonder if it was originally planned as a half hour episode – if so, it would have ended with the fork-lift truck scene. Was the fancy-dress party sequence bolted on later? But however it was written, the final moment (when both Thelma and Terry realise that Bob stole the cab) is a great beat to end the series on.