The recent death of Rodney Bewes, who played Bob in BBC TV’s Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, brings an additional poignancy to the wistful comedy classic.
The funny, sad, clever scripts of Dick Clement and Ian Le Fresnais are superbly brought to life by Bewes and by James Bolam as Bob’s mate Terry, both in the original series The Likely Lads and its sequel.
We first meet the pair of working-class lads as apprentices in a factory in the North-east of England, in 1964 and we pick up their story again seven years on.
The humour and the pathos of the series pivot on the contrast between the unreconstructed lad Terry and the aspirational Bob, and the underlying themes that are explored through their relationship resonate today.
Bob and Terry are likely lads and unlikely friends, or at least friends who have developed strikingly different views of the world.
They are deeply bonded by their shared past, their playground experiences, their teenage years, their enjoyment of being young men in the mid-1960s. It’s part of the show’s presentation of the pull of the past that we understand how their friendship survives the years in which their paths diverge, with Terry in the army and Bob settled down with an office job and a fiancee, Thelma.
Their attempts to understand and accommodate each other underline every episode, and our awareness that each envies parts of the other’s life gives weight to the comedy.
The penultimate episode of the series marks a defining moment for Bob, sparked by the funeral of Terry’s uncle. The old man, it seems, was an unpleasant, unpopular sponger, just out for himself.
In a moment of insight, Bob sees his relationship with his friend through this prism — Terry uses, Bob is used. It’s time to break away.
The scene may not have the gravitas of Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry IV rejecting his old drinking buddy Falstaff, but it hits the same nerve.
‘You’re the past,’ Bob says to Terry. ‘You’re what we used to be. You’re just a friend now, not my bosom companion.’ Ouch.
It’s not an outright rejection, just an acknowledgement that things might be better with just a little distance between them, and indeed, that’s how it turns out.
Bob is upwardly mobile, urged along this route by Thelma. The markers of middle-class life in the 1970s are sweetly placed.
Bob and Thelma start married life on a new housing estate. They like foreign holidays. Bob joins a badminton club. They have a skiing holiday, and dinner parties. Did we see a hostess trolley? Maybe a fondue set? And there’s a wicked hint of suburban spouse-swapping in the Christmas Eve party episode…
Terry, in contrast, stays the same, determinedly clinging on to what he sees as his authentic roots. His life is bounded by the pub, the snooker hall, the betting shop, nights on the town. Eventually he is forced to take a job and becomes a hospital porter, then a fork-lift truck driver and then a mini-cab driver.
The series finishes at this point, leaving us to speculate what changes this turn of events may lead to.
A brand name, a television programme, a toy — each generation responds with its own knee-jerk reaction to these instant evocations of our bygone years. You don’t have to have been a 1960s’ kid to feel Bob’s reluctance to part with his Dinky toys and his Rupert the Bear annuals, not to mention his collection of Picturegoer magazines and his Buddy Holly records.
And you don’t have to come from the same town as Terry and Bob to respond to their dismay as the old familiar landscape and landmarks are pulled down or disappear. We feel Bob’s pain as he exclaims in disbelief, ‘The new Civic Centre on the site of the old Roxy!’
The show maintains perfect tension between the longing for a former time, which they both experience, and an acceptance and sometimes appreciation of change, which Bob exhibits. We can understand their bafflement as they try to make sense of a changing world.
The Eternal Triangle
Ah, as was famously once said, there are three in this marriage. The Eternal Triangle, the marriage or relationship threatened by a third party – it’s the stuff of tragedy, and the best comedy is divided from tragedy by a very thin line.
The real romance is between Bob and Terry, and poor Thelma knows that she has a fight on her hands. There’s an Andy Capp cartoon which shows Andy at the altar as a couple are getting married, and he is saying to the groom, ‘If you can’t come and play darts tonight you can’t, but if you ask me she’s got you under her thumb already.’ Now that’s Terry.
Terry’s presence in Bob’s life is an ever-present thorn in Thelma’s side as she constantly tries to assert her values and protect Bob from Terry’s anarchic temptations. She says, ‘He’s always been there you know, Bob, a nagging doubt, haunting me.’
You don’t want to sympathise too much with Thelma, whose anxiety for a well-ordered life makes her seem a bit of a nag and a killjoy, but at the same time, she’s not a monster, and you do feel for her. She is a threat to Terry, and he’s a threat to her, and now and again we get the faint scent of a different kind of drama.
And you have to admire the way that Thelma carries off the Peter Pan outfit at the fancy dress party. The girl’s got guts.
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by Mary Rizza