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What became of the people

November 22, 2017

Back in the sixties, life – and television, seemed  simple.

People would write to Granada Television, makers of Coronation Street,  seeking the tenancy of houses vacated by actors leaving the soap  opera. They sent in wreaths when Ida Barlow was hit by a bus, and couldn’t understand how Z Cars’ Jimmy Ellis was unable to help them with a crime because he wasn’t actually PC Bert Lynch.

Of course, they were all bonkers.

And me?

Well, to be honest, I’ve never really managed to convince myself that Bob Ferris and Terry Collier – The Likely Lads – were not real: a couple of mordantly witty Geordie guys, whose lives were somehow followed and recorded by documentary cameras.

There were many reasons for their success, all brought poignantly to mind by the death of “Bob”, Rodney Bewes, this week,  and many of them were about time and place. When we heard of his death, there were many of my generation shed a tear – and, if I’m totally truthful, I was howling. It felt a bit like the loss of an old friend, but, really, it was about the loss of a part of our youth.

When they first appeared on our screens as 21 year old factory workers, we lived in a land of monochromed, dual-channelled television, but limited channels was not the only determinant of choice. Few had central heating, so leaving the living room, especially on winter evenings, was a brave decision. In the unheated bedroom, cold lino and ice decorated windows awaited – better to stay put and subject yourself to “family television”.

Television viewing reflected life. Theoretically, the choice of shows was patriarchal – dad knew best. In reality, mum kept the peace by arguing for shows likely to appeal to the youngsters. It wasn’t an altogether bad arrangement. With a potential for more than 20 million viewers,  tv companies had to be focused, and viewing possibilities obviated  the lazy option of “niche programming”. Quality was paramount, with the BBC needing  to prove it was worthy of its iconic position, and the ITV  newcomers trying to show that being “commercial” wouldn’t affect standards. For a time, in drama and documentaries, it was a golden era – enhanced by the knowledge that half the country might be discussing last night’s programmes at any given time.

Perhaps it was the shared experience that made these television shows so iconic. Adults watched shows – like “Top of the Pops”, which they may not otherwise have viewed, while youngsters gained an appreciation of drama with “Dr Finlay’s Casebook” or “The Wednesday Play”. Family discussions often ensued, issues of the day were given an airing.

Moreover, as became apparent decades later, the memory of evenings spent together in front of the television would form an important part of happy family memories for my generation. This is ironic, as, at the time, the idea that television was killing conversation and interaction in the home was much posited. In hindsight, it’s maybe fortunate we had no idea of the future  impact of iPhones and personal computers.

So, it was into this scenario that Bob Ferris and Terry Collier first stepped in 1964.

They had the advantage of a couple of young, edgy  and, non- metropolitan writers, in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. This was also the age of the angry young northern man and there are echoes of this – especially of Keith Waterhouse’s “Billy Liar” – in “The Likely Lads.”. Indeed, Rodney Bewes was a friend of Tom Courtney’s and appeared alongside him in the film version of “Billy Liar.”

So, compared to the “French window” types of television comedy which were common previously, the “Lads” sought to take a more realistic look at life. Indeed, it’s hard now to recall how “exotic” a setting of Tyneside was for contemporary viewers, when “London and the south” was generally accepted as the centre of everything. It is interesting reading Brian Epstein’s 1964 autobiography “A Cellarful of noise” to note how he gets most pleasure from the fact he has brought fame to four boys “from the provinces.”

Clement and La Frenais had the knack of fitting gags into realistic situations, and inventing recognisable characters. Their dialogue was easy on the ear and jazzed up with the odd Geordie phrase, and, most importantly of all, the situation in which the two main characters found themselves promoted that comedic necessity: conflict.

Bob is aspirational – he wants to be a “young professional”, while Terry cussedly sticks to his working class roots and sees being “upwardly mobile” as a betrayal. Of course, because the characters are so well conceived, the situation is more complex than at first appears. Bob is never totally happy with his aspirations, while Terry is envious of elements of a middle class lifestyle. Such is the human condition.

This conflict – between accepting your lot and wanting more – has long provided effective comedy. Originally, in popular television terms,  an internal conflict within Tony Hancock, it was later represented externally by Harold and Albert Steptoe, and, later,  by Fletcher and Godber in “Porridge”. In all these situations, the comedy is heightened by the characters being trapped – either socially and economically, or, in the case of “Porridge”, physically. Ultimately, you could say Bob and Terry are trapped by their friendship – a state of affairs which is at once tragic and touching.

For my generation, the timing was important too. For  the original series, in 1964, I was 12 years old, so Bob and Terry were like big brothers, living in a world we could only dream of – with beer, girls, and other adult pursuits. When they returned ten years later, seeking to establish themselves, heading towards middle age, we were just starting out on our independent adult lives. My first car was even a Viva, like Bob’s! Apart from being funny and endearing, they were relevant.

Equally crucial  was the fact that things went wrong for them, they seldom achieved the result they sought, in any part of their lives. We could identify with the slings and arrows of misfortune, that feeling of being tossed about by fate as we tried to appear as mature adults.

And, of course, there were the comic misunderstandings and madcap adventures: Bob’s constant battle to broker some kind of peace between Terry and Thelma, the classic attempts to avoid the football score, and Bob’s middle name, to name a few.

In truth, they felt like an extension of ourselves: we recognised them and they had our empathy and often our sympathy.

We would discuss with pals whether we were Bob or Terry. It was a worrying reflection: am I ever as soft and sentimental as Bob? Do I ever act as thoughtlessly as Terry? Who would I rather be? Who do I fear I might be?

Of course, the answer, and a huge part of their success, was that all of us were both of them – Bob and Terry exist in us all, and what we were watching was the playing out of our own inner conflict. We can all be charming or rude, soft or cynical, honest or dissembling. How, and when,  we choose to control that conflict is what decides our personality.

Most of us, I guess, identified more with Bob than Terry – whilst admitting he could be a right prat at times!

The final three questions remain: could the series have returned with them as old men? Would we have wanted it to? Should it have happened?

The first two are relatively easy to answer: given the well documented rift between the two actors, it’s unlikely that it could ever have come to pass. Though Rodney Bewes remained keen, Jimmy Bolam was not, although he did point out there were instances of actors who didn’t get on playing best friends on screen. In this case,  I think the absence of chemistry would have been fatal to the feel of the show. Bolam  appears to have semi-retired in any case.

Would we have wanted it to?

Well, of course we would. When characters are as well drawn  and well loved as Bob and Terry, whether in literature,  or on screen, there is always the feeling that they live on after the story ends, part of our lives, always just out of sight in the corner of our eye, and we speculate endlessly about what became of them.

Should it have returned?

“Going back” is often a mistake. Clement and La Frenais have lived for some time in California, their writing style and approach has developed in a certain direction, and they had hinted at an unwillingness to risk  spoiling the legacy. It may well be that Bob and Terry could only have been effective in their particular 60s and 70s setting.

Because the characters were so complete, it is not too difficult to project a future on to the old men they would have become. We can also factor in the political, social and economic events of the past forty years.

Would we really want to see Terry as an embittered old Brexit voter, railing at foreigners and the state of his beloved Tyneside – and particularly at the fact that Newcastle became a  “party central” city, decades too late for him to enjoy it? He may well have been an extra in “I, Daniel Blake”.

How would we take to Bob in 2017? A terminally disappointed ex-pat in a gated community on the Costa del Sol, surviving on what’s left of his much diminished pension – feeling as out of place there as he was in his three piece suit at Thelma’s mother’s?

I think perhaps Jimmy Bolam was right, whatever his reasons, and that it is better to leave them out there, still chums, and much loved in our memories.

However.

It’s impossible not to speculate………

Terry has never left Tyneside and never had a closer friend than Bob. For a time he was the favourite wild uncle of Audrey’s kids, but they have all moved away. He still maintains his loyalty to the working class, but remains incandescent about the manner in which the workers of the north east were duped by New Labour.  The world, he believes, has not rewarded his “honest” approach to life.

Bob continued to aspire, often more to please Thelma than from his own convictions. They ended up in London’s suburbia, Bob visiting upmarket housing developments for the firm, aware he could never afford to live in such opulence. He makes a number of “clever” investments based on “sound” advice at the badminton club, but the financial crash, just as he was retiring, almost wiped him out. The couple had no children, but he and Thelma grew even closer as the years passed, and when he was widowed he was devastated.

Luckily, he had paid off the mortgage on the house and rented it out through the years, giving him an additional income. He decides to leave a London where he had never really fitted in, and return home.

Needing a lodger, he reluctantly approaches the recently evicted Terry (something to do with a late night chip pan fire) who becomes his housemate  on the Elm Lodge Housing Estate. Terry often forgets to pay the rent, Bob seldom reminds him. Both make a show of hating the arrangement: “Only till I find somewhere else, mind!” – but are secretly comforted by it.

After all these years, their conversations are reassuringly familiar – about their schooldays, the wrecking of old neighbourhoods, pubs long lost, and the exploits of their teenage years. Both are near apoplexy over Mike Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle Utd.

The highlights of their week come from visits to the local social club, where they play dominoes, drink beer, and have a hot meal. Predictably, Bob tries to fit in with the other members, ever polite and obliging, whilst  Terry sneers at them all and their “social manners”, not always sotto voce.

What really rekindles the spark of Bob Ferris and Terry Collier, though, is their fierce competition for the favours of the club’s social convener – one Deirdre Birchwood.

Lads as likely as ever.

God bless, Rodney!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2017 3:16 am

    It’s impossible not to speculate …. and I’m delighted you did!

    What a fabulously poignant piece of writing, vivid & touching.

    One can only hope that at the news of the death of his old mucker, James Bolan thought fondly of their capers together, fictionally or otherwise 🙂

    • November 23, 2017 11:18 am

      Thanks Andy – they certainly got, and retained, a grip on us, didn’t they!
      S

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