So, Christmas is upon us once again. Egads, it only seems five minutes since the last one. Oh, remember when we thought we had forever. And as we all prepare to purchase what for some of us is the only Radio Times of the year we can genuinely be bothered with, and scour the listings for the remotest chance of a decent movie, we can bet our sweet bippies that some of the same names will flash before our rapidly misting eyes yet again. The Great Escape, The Snowman, Escape To Victory (or is that more of an Easter job? I dunno, it all seems to meld together into one giant shapeless jelly these days), Hook, various lesser Carry-On movies, you know the drill. However, it’s not all crap – and thankfully for us UK residents, the last few years have seen the regular appearance of a rare gem in the shape of The Likely Lads – The Movie.
Strange as it may seem now, there was once a time when it was common practice for a successful UK sitcom to transfer to the big screen. Dad’s Army, Up Pompeii, Are You Being Served?, Porridge (twice), Til Death Do Us Part, The Lovers, Rising Damp, even Father Dear Father – all (some with more box office success than others) crossed the border into the cinematic world, although it was generally thought that in most cases the humour didn’t transfer as successfully to its new medium as one would have hoped. The Likely Lads, shot in 1975 some two years or so after the final episode of the ‘Whatever Happened To…..’ series (itself an extended Christmas special, almost a prophecy of what would befall successful Britcoms come the economically bereft 1980s and 90s) is unique in that it is actually a great movie, every bit as funny as its televisual counterpart, and the natural extension/conclusion of everything that made its parent series so great. If there’s been a quibble of any kind, it tends to be that certain viewers seem surprised at the sudden and regular use of profane language throughout – but for me, if anything, this makes the film all the more realistic- after all, if working class men on Tyneside were to have conversations with each other in the real world, the chances are that the odd swear word would creep in, albeit probably not in front of their wives and mothers. If anything, the script here finally sees Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, probably the greatest comedy writers this country has ever known with the possible exception of John Sullivan, finally breaking free of the constraints that television had for so long placed on them.
So, how does anything differ in the cinematic world of Bob and Terry from that depicted in the half-hour small screen? Well, it’s not so much different as changed – and this, for some viewers, is the very heart and emotional core of the film. After all, two years have elapsed since we last saw our Geordie heroes. Whereas in the final series Bob was merely an apprentice member of the middle classes, here we see him finally as a fully-paid up card-carrying suburbanite – although again, part of the film’s focus comes from our identification with his difficulties in reconciling his current life with his past, which he obviously still yearns for. I think it’s fair to say that unless anyone reading this lives their life in what the MC5 referred to as ‘terminal stasis’, then we’ve all been there at some time or another. The big shock, though, is that it’s not just Bob who’s changed, but Terry.
OK, he’s still the same flat-capped Northern working class bigot he’s always been, his dress sense is still stuck in its perpetual time warp (which, filtered through the nostalgia factor of this being a 70s film, assumes even odder overtones) and he still drinks like a fish – prompting in one key scene the fondly-remembered line in which he tells Bob that he’d offer him a beer, but he’s only got six cans – but by his own low standards, even he seems upwardly mobile. Not only is he now regularly employed (as what he refers to as an ‘advertising and promotions executive’, which mainly consists of driving a van around with a loudhailer strapped to the roof telling people to buy washing powder) but in the spirit of Seventies ‘redevelopment’ he and his parents have been relocated to a high rise in Gateshead – which at least means we have a definite location this time, something the series never seemed to be able to hold onto!!
Such a move was considered highly desirable then: how things have changed, and then changed again, as we have seen in the three subsequent decades of Thatcherism, yuppification and ‘regeneration’ which have turned such areas from idealized utopias to undesirable ‘sinks’ for those considered beyond social redemption, to gentrified havens for so-called ‘aspirational couples and young professionals’. In this, the movie reflects what was pretty much the order of the day; change and rearrangement. It seemed in 1975 that the only solution the British government had to social problems was to move people from one place to another, rather than confront the cause at its root. Come to think of it, very little seems to have changed 32 years on… The Collier family, whilst under no circumstances ‘problem’ residents, are a victim of this in that their street, in which both they and the Ferrises lived for many years, has been demolished – and whilst Terry seems to accept it with a shrug of the shoulder and a resigned ”there goes yesterday”, much the same way as he accepts a letter informing him that his decree absolute has come through, Bob seems to have more difficulty letting go, although by way of contradiction he admits that he moved to the fabled Elm Lodge Housing Estate (in itself destined to become a prototype suburban dystopia) because he “didn’t want his kids brought up in these streets”
With the destruction of their previous neighbourhood (which has, in reality, been a threat throughout the preceding television series and beyond, leading Terry to comment that his Dad believed they only stayed there so many years because ‘it’s taken that long for them to pull it down’) has inevitably come the destruction of the lads’ favoured watering hole The Fat Ox, which they duly attend for one final mammoth (free) drinking session as the bulldozers close in – and again, it’s Bob rather than Terry who is visibly distressed by this, which in some ways is surprising considering that he only moved to the area later on from somewhere presumably nicer. Upset and much the worse for free alcohol, Bob then storms into the library (“Nobody cares!!”) to seek sympathy from Thelma – who is, predictably, unimpressed, and probably doesn’t care all that much- so it’s obvious to the viewer that whilst they may have now been married for some years (still with the threat of Terry looming in the background, though but) they are still far from anything approaching harmonious. And it’s this perceived threat, of course, which Thelma is still at pains to remove from her life- so, of course, when she finds out that Terry has been getting semi-serious with glamorous Finnish shop assistant Chris (Mary Tamm), and has even been seen out in the local supermarket (another new and wondrous thing at the time, just like tower blocks) she takes it upon herself to try and pair them off for good via planning first a dinner party and then that mainstay of 70s comedy, a camping expedition.
Of course, things don’t go quite according to plan (when do they ever?) and before you can say ‘I can see the way this is going’ we are set up for japes, larks and embarrassing incidents aplenty, which culminate in the lads getting rather fed up with their partners’ attempts to inflict the rugged outdoor lifestyle upon them (particularly Terry: “I come away with a sexy girl from a boutique, and what do I end up with? Sherpa Bloody Tensing!!”) and trying to hitch up and drive off with the girls still asleep in the caravan – resulting in said girls being left stranded in their undies in the middle of a busy Northumberland street. It wouldn’t have been so bad, of course, if it weren’t for the fact that they have also been giving two tasty young ladies (Vicki Michelle and Penny Irving) a lift in the car, then manage to drive said vehicle straight into the caravan, which they have left parked in a roadside garage.
Such events were par for the course in most seventies sitcoms and their movie adaptations, yet The Likely Lads still seems to have the edge over all, as it is tinged from start to finish with a feeling of poignancy and regret. That said, it’s not like there’s anything here one could conceivably cry over, and the overall mood is a warm and endearing one which is guaranteed to put a smile on even the stoniest of faces- but, on the other hand yet again, aren’t all the funniest comedies of the golden era laden with pathos? Or maybe the melancholy stems from real life, as we know that shortly after the release of the film, Bolam and Bewes never worked with or spoke to each other again. Nobody knows exactly why – some say it was to do with a story leaked by one to the press about the other’s wife – but one can’t help feeling that even the funniest scenes are a portentous herald of the end of something. The closing shot, as Bolam’s steely, mischievous gaze stares across the dockside at the accidentally sea bound Bewes to the strains of Highly Likely’s reflective theme ‘Remember When’, is side-splittingly funny, yet as Bob sails off to Bahrain by mistake and Terry, who was ‘homesick before he even left port’ returns home to continue just as he had before, one can’t help feeling that this was in some way symbolic of the real-life rift that would shortly develop between the two actors and develop into an unbreachable gulf. In the mid-1990s, at the peak of ‘New Lad’ culture and the rediscovery of all things Northern, repeats of “Whatever Happened To…” were still attracting weekly audiences of five million plus: clamouring calls were made for the pair, by then in their late fifties, to be reunited in some way or another, yet still nothing happened. Although maybe, what with the fiasco that had been the Liver Birds reunion a few years earlier, perhaps that was for the best. Bewes (in more need of the work than Bolam, who by then was entering a profitable new phase of his career playing ageing serial killers) did appear as ‘that one legged news vendor flaunting his placard’ in a less-than-classic remake of the classic series episode No Hiding Place starring Ant McPartland and Declan Donnelly, but methinks maybe that can be glossed over as well.
It’s impossible to pick out particular scenes, set-pieces or lines of dialogue that make this film so special and so much the ‘cut anymore, and (b) that in my case neither of my best friends can be bothered to leave London unless their girlfriends or family organise it. And mine would probably kill me…..but that’s the great thing about The Likely Lads, you start off an impartial observer and end up wanting to actually be one of them – well, you do if you’re a chap anyway. Some people’s escapism consists of dreams of far-off kingdoms where princes ride around on chariots and slay dragons whilst chasing beautiful girls: for me, the far-off kingdom is North East England in the mid 1970s, the chariots are Vauxhalls and Cortinas, and the girls (mainly consisting of ex-horror crumpet, if this film is anything to go by) are still beautiful. And every movement or scene is sound tracked by analogue synthesizers and cheesy soft-rock. Aah, bliss. It may not be the great romance envisaged in cinematic epics such as The Lion in Winter or Dr Zhivago, but as a great man once said, “if Omar Sharif lived in Gateshead, I doubt if he’d above’ as (Terry would have said) all the other comedy movie adaptations: then again, the series was a cut above practically every other sitcom that ever existed with the possible exception of Porridge and The Good Life, so maybe it was a foregone conclusion to begin with – although having said that, the cinematic adventures of Norman Stanley Fletcher never translated quite as well, possibly because in order to make such a film palatable to movie audiences, one had to go outdoors and lose the claustrophobia and pent-up frustration that made the series so unique at the time. For The Likely Lads there are no such problems – their constant tendency to wander afield from their surroundings (and each other) was the bedrock of half the humour on show. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in a later sequence where, after Thelma has ‘assumed Bob is having illicit nookie’ and Terry has lost his job thanks to what he refers to as ‘Radio Free Ferris’ (you’ll have to watch it to find out), the boys take themselves off to a secret location intent on sun, sea and debauchery: unfortunately, the secret location turns out to be Whitley Bay on half-day closing, but this doesn’t stop them from ending up in a boarding house run by Brit Horror babes Zena Walker and Anulka Duzbianska, a mother and daughter of dubious morals and an even more dubious history involving natural gas converters.
Experienced moviegoers would be forgiven for thinking that amusing and embarrassing exploits would follow, and they’d be absolutely right. It’s almost enough to make you want to grab your best friend and indulge in a similar exploit of your own, were it not for the fact that (a) society has moved on (forward or backward? Enlighten me) to the point where you just don’t meet those kinds of women be Omar Sharif”. Wise words we could all do with taking heed of.
Forever the epitome of an era we’ll sadly never recapture again in UK film-making and television, there probably isn’t one comedy I can think of that can inspire such warmth, happiness and misty-eyed melancholy all at the same time as this one. And this from a director who, with all due respect, was not over-blessed with a track record for greatness. It may be a long time since Bolam, Bewes, Bridgit Forsyth and the fab-yet-forgotten Sheila Fearn were regular fixtures on our screens, but I’d be willing to lay money that come either this Christmas or the next, they’ll be back again in this full-length, big screen format: what a pity it’s not so easy to find on DVD. And if they do grace a TV screen near you over this festive period, then crack open a bottle of suitable ale, sit in your cosiest surroundings, raise a glass and prepare to laugh out loud. Why aye, man? Why not indeed.
Drew ‘Howay Pet’ Shimon