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Oh, What Happened to You? The Likely Lads on Blu-ray

  The Likely Lads was created by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais for the then-new BBC 2 channel in 1964, and was an immediate hit, with the tide turning towards placing other accents than the South East of the country into both drama and comedy. Here were the adventures of two young men from Newcastle, proudly Northern: Terry Collier played by James Bolam, and Bob Ferris played by Rodney Bewes, the lads of the title, getting into scrapes the young audience could readily identify with. The programme lasted for twenty episodes of three series each and would become one of the best-loved and most identified of the nineteen-sixties.

However, as were many programmes of this decade, a number of episodes were wiped to reuse the expensive videotape and because there was no storage available (no digitisation back then), a practice used by both the BBC and ITV, which has led to a small industry of collectors and fans seeking out those lost efforts ever since. Fortunately, The Likely Lads has seen the benefit of a recovery operation, and when the resulting film version from the seventies was released by Network on Blu-ray and DVD, they included two of the rediscovered episodes as extras, work that had not been seen in over fifty years.

The first found episode was Far Away Places, which sees the boys wondering where they should go on holiday. Terry, ever the pragmatist, suggests a British excursion to somewhere like Bognor or Morecambe, whereas the ever-aspirational Bob wishes to travel abroad: Spain sounds enticing, for instance. For that reason, they decide to take a day job to complement their night shifts to raise the cash for their vacation, with Terry toiling in a supermarket, lugging heavy boxes around, and Bob as a domestic, applying a feather duster: the contrast in labour is where the comedy arises, and thanks to the well-observed script and acting, generates a good few laughs.

The second episode was A Star is Born, also from the middle series, where Bob and Terry are in the pub and the barmaid who Terry immediately fancies suggests they enter the talent contest that is being held in a few days' time. The rest of the story has the two of them in passive aggressive rivalry after they decide to enter the competition separately in an instalment notable for the amount of pop culture references they packed in, from singing various songs to mentioning various entertainers, all of whom would be lost on many viewers all these decades later. But again, Bolam and Bewes have great interplay, and it is amusing to watch them spark off one another.

The series ended in 1966 as Terry enlisted in the Army, and that was that, Bewes staying in comedy as sidekick to puppet Basil Brush and his self-penned, pathos-heavy sitcom Dear Mother... Love Albert. Bolam tried a few films and guest roles in the meantime, but Clement and La Frenais wanted to bring back Bob and Terry so Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads arrived in 1973, lasting two series, and was regarded by everyone as not only superior to its source, but one of the greatest, best written and performed sitcoms of the seventies. There just remained one more thing to do, what almost all successful sitcoms did in this decade: take to the silver screen.

1976 was the last time we saw Bob and Terry, in the midst of a flurry of activity between television and films which saw the former plundered for the latter, the idea being that what audiences wanted to stay in and watch on the more attractive small screen would be equally successfully translated to the more senior medium. These sitcom movies (dramas saw themselves show up there too) were looked down on by the film buffs, mistakenly believing the art of the motion picture to be superior to the telly, which was not necessarily so, as they were different forms of what could be just as accomplished, only in a different way.

That said, whereas the On the Buses trilogy of films were big hits, to pick an example, that did not mean they were going to be cultural touchstones in the same way their source material had been. And so it was that even with the best sitcom adaptations, never do they overshadow their inspirations in the popular consciousness, which in the case of The Likely Lads was a pity, because while it was treated with mild disdain for its coarsening of language and jokes, Clement and La Frenais were seasoned enough with penning movie screenplays to be able to make something that at once paid tribute to the original and was just as funny and poignant.

The theme here was nostalgia, which may be strange to watch in the twenty-first century when The Likely Lads itself is the centre of just that feeling, but it appears that such a sensation will never go out of fashion and anyone who has ever thought, "Remember when...?" can relate to Bob and Terry's predicament. We catch up with them as Bob has been married to Thelma (the superb Brigit Forsyth) for a while now, as Terry's divorce has come through and he is in a relationship with Finnish Christina (Mary Tamm, Doctor Who's first Romana), something his pal jealously regards as a chance he has now missed out on, that sowing of wild oats.

This refusal to do what life tells you, and grow up and settle down, basically, then fuels the rest of the story, which proceeded in almost sketchlike manner with Bob and Thelma's increasingly tetchy union affecting Terry and Christina. The dialogue, though now including more innuendo and the odd swear word, was as terse and well-conceived as before, and the sexual frustration that both our heroes suffered from was set against a Newcastle that may have been undergoing renovation and rebuilding, but it was not necessarily improving. The sense of community that held the city together is not being replaced by near-feral kids and the old town being laid waste to.

As with many a sitcom movie, there was a holiday involved as Christina wants to see the countryside, much to Terry's disgust and Bob's dismay as this means they will be on a jaunt around the damp environment with all the drawbacks of a British trip that the audience would be too familiar with. Clement and La Frenais mined these discomforts for all they were worth, from losing your own caravan in a vast site to hearing Terry pissing against the side of the mobile home one night in full earshot of the other three. This leads to a misunderstanding (thanks to the lads' misplaced lust for two hitchhikers) and the rest of the plot played out as farce as the relationships break down. It wasn't subtle - not often, anyway - but was a lot better presented than many a sitcom effort and didn't shame the original by any means. In fact, it's one of the best British big screen comedies of the seventies.

[The Likely Lads on Blu-ray and DVD also has the trailer as an extra, and both the film and episodes have been fully restored, looking never better.

Click here to buy from the Network website.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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