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By Martin Keady · October 17, 2019
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are the greatest co-writing team in the history of British television, a partnership as quintessentially English (despite La Frenais’s French-sounding surname) as fish and chips or Powell and Pressburger. In more than half a century of working together, they have written numerous television shows, plays and films, but ultimately their reputation rests on the remarkable hat-trick of comedy classics that they created: The Likely Lads and its even better sequel, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? (which can be thought of as one continuous show, albeit with a long gap in between); Porridge, the greatest prison-set sitcom ever written; and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, which is arguably their single greatest achievement, as it effortlessly combined hilarious comedy and heartbreaking drama. When the definitive history of late 20th century British television is written, Clement and La Frenais will deserve a chapter or two all to themselves.
Contrary to popular belief, Clement and La Frenais are not both “Geordies”, the affectionate nickname given to anyone from Newcastle in the north-east of England. La Frenais was born in Northumberland, the county in which Newcastle is situated, but Clement originally hailed from Essex, at the other end of the country. Nevertheless, in their writing, especially in their great comedy trilogy (all of which are either set in the north-east of England or make continual references to it), they effectively documented the post-industrial decline of the north of England. They wrote about the crisis of worklessness and the associated contraction of the old working-class (which has now been at least partly replaced by the so-called “welfare class”) decades before David Simon conducted a similarly forensic analysis of the post-industrial decline of America in The Wire. However, whereas Simon saw that story as essentially tragic, Clement and La Frenais, while recognizing the obvious drama that such a decline generated, also mined it for comedy gold.
Clement and La Frenais were born in 1937 and 1936 respectively. Consequently, they grew up during the war, which would have generated its own obvious drama, but after the war, they were part of the extraordinary rise through the economic and social classes that saw working-class and lower-middle-class lads like themselves capitalize on an unprecedented opening-up of British society. That transformation (however brief) of Britain was largely due to the devastation of the old economic and social order (and the accompanying economic and social certainties) wrought by the Second World War.
Like The Beatles and The Stones in music, and Sean Connery and Michael Caine in cinema, Clement and La Frenais were in the vanguard of a new breed that would eventually take over and revolutionize British television. After they had both completed their National Service (or conscription into the army, which continued in Britain until the early 1960s), Clement and La Frenais both moved into television, which was then still a nascent art form. Clement initially worked as a studio manager for the BBC, occasionally contributing comedy sketches and scenes, while La Frenais began his television career by writing comic songs and ditties for a satirical program in his native north-east. When they finally met in London, where La Frenais was working as a market researcher, they hit it off almost instantly and soon began writing together.
Their first successful collaboration was The Likely Lads, which was first broadcast on the BBC in the winter of 1964. It was almost directly autobiographical, as it featured a comedy double-act of the outgoing, extrovert “Terry” (played by James Bolam) and the more introverted, even nervous “Bob” (played by Rodney Bewes). This fictional pair bore some similarity to Clement and La Frenais themselves, with the more obviously stylish and daring La Frenais acting as the template for Terry and the more reserved, measured Clement the model for Bob.
Terry and Bob were two typical young men from Newcastle in the mid-1960s, obsessed by football (especially the struggles of their beloved local team, Newcastle United), booze (which they consumed voraciously after finishing their shifts in the factory where they both worked, back when there were still working factories in the north-east of England) and above all girls. As Philip Larkin famously wrote, “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me)”, with the development and widespread use of the first contraceptive pill, and The Likely Lads was very much part of that trend, or at least Terry was, while Bob was more circumspect – indeed, Larkinesque – in his attitude to women.
The Likely Lads was a hit, representing on television, arguably for the first time, the loosening of the old British “straight-laced” attitudes and opinions. It ran for three series between 1964 and 1966, culminating in the glorious, golden summer of 1966 in which England won the World Cup and The Beatles released Revolver. However, it was not regarded, initially at least, as being of the same cultural significance as those two sporting and artistic peaks, and extraordinarily the BBC did not even keep many of its 20 episodes, with about a dozen of them being taped over or simply lost. Ironically, this was entirely in keeping with the dolorous, even depressive, world-view of Bob, who ended The Likely Lads by watching Terry go off to join the army after he himself had been rejected for having “flat feet”.
The success of The Likely Lads enabled Clement and La Frenais to move into film, which was still regarded in the 1960s as being inherently superior to television. They wrote and directed a number of features, the most notable of which was probably Villain (1971), in which Richard Burton played a gangster planning to steal money from a factory. However, even Villain paled in comparison with Get Carter, which was also made in 1971 and starred Michael Caine as another, infinitely more threatening gangster trying to establish how his brother had died. Get Carter remains, along with The Long Good Friday (1980), probably the greatest British gangster movie ever made. More importantly for Clement and La Frenais, it was set in their old stomping ground of Newcastle, to which Caine’s Carter returns from London. Coincidentally or not, Clement and La Frenais’ next great achievement would similarly examine the difficult return home of a Newcastle native.
Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? was not so much a sequel to The Likely Lads as a complete reimagining of the original series, showing how the youthful effervescence of two young men in their twenties had curdled into the disappointment of two men fast approaching their forties. Although it was shot in color, as opposed to the original show’s black and white, it was far deeper and darker, showing Terry returning home after a decade away (first in the army, then in Germany in a marriage that ultimately foundered) to find that Bob has finally found a girl (the snobby Thelma) and made something of himself, as a middle-class manager. Unlike the original series, so many episodes of which were under-valued and ultimately lost, almost every episode of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? was a minor classic, showing the travails of two men entering middle age but desperately trying to recapture their lost youth.
Even today, more than four decades on from its original broadcast in 1973 and 1974, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? is a staple of British television, enjoying the kind of syndicated afterlife in the UK that US shows such as Happy Days and Friends enjoy around the world. And perhaps the ultimate testament to its enduring cultural significance is the fact that it was so important to The Libertines, particularly the song-writing partnership of Carl Barât and Pete Doherty, who in their heyday in the early 2000s not only referred to themselves as “The Likely Lads” but even covered the theme tune to Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?
As before in the 1960s, when they ended the original series of The Likely Lads before it grew stale, Clement and La Frenais resisted the temptation to remain with Bob and Terry, watching them grow old and frail like the increasingly troubled economy of the north-east of England. Instead, after just two highly successful series of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? in 1973 and 1974, they opted to leave their original comic creations behind to create an entirely new comic world inside, of all things, a prison.
Porridge is probably the greatest British sitcom (or “Britcom”) that is least well known outside of Britain. Unlike the equally sublime Fawlty Towers or even the appalling Are You Being Served?, it did not “travel well” outside of the UK, which again is entirely fitting in a way, as its characters – prison inmates – did not travel anywhere at all. Its protagonist was the now legendary Norman Stanley Fletcher (such was his fame that his fans, which was most of the watching British public, even knew his middle name), a perpetual petty criminal who is finally sent down for the proverbial “long stretch”. “Fletch”, as he is called by his fellow cons, is a Londoner but typically Clement and La Frenais had him imprisoned in the distant north-east, with all the attendant difficulties that created for his family when they tried to visit him.
Porridge, which was British prison slang for spending time in jail (as in “do your Porridge”), was such a brilliant and enduring comedy that, exactly like Fawlty Towers, it is astonishing to consider that it only ran for a few series and a total of about 20 episodes. (Fawlty Towers, of course, had even fewer episodes). However, so convincing and compelling was the world that it created that it seemed to last for far longer, and indeed it has remained forever imprinted in the British cultural consciousness. In large part, that was down to the superlative casting, in particular, that of the great Ronnie Barker as “Fletch” and the equally brilliant Richard Beckinsale (who would die tragically young, aged only 31, of a heart attack) as his youthful and inexperienced cell-mate Godber. However, it also owed an immense amount to the sublime writing of Clement and La Frenais, who from the pilot episode (in which “Fletch” is first transferred to Slade prison in Cumberland), conveyed all the accumulated wisdom and survival instincts of a career criminal, as well as the petty obsessiveness of the prison guards (or “screws”), in particular the principal prison officer, Mr MacKay, who was also fabulously played by his near-namesake, Fulton Mackay.
Porridge would have several spin-off series and sequels, including Going Straight, and was even adapted for the cinema (about as successfully as so many other British sitcoms of the 1970s). Whatever the merits, or otherwise, of those programs and films, the original series, which ran for three years between 1974 and 1977, is an absolute comedy classic and anyone outside the UK who has not seen it is heartily encouraged to do so immediately.
By the end of the 1970s, and having penned not one great sitcom but two, Clement and La Frenais were at their peak as a comedy writing team. Consequently, they were hugely in demand and not only on television. They also wrote numerous plays and musicals, but nothing quite matched the apparently effortless genius of The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? and Porridge. That was until they struck artistic gold again in the early 1980s with their third and arguably greatest television comedy, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
Auf Wiedersehen, Pet might just have the greatest premise of any comedy series ever, namely that a group of unemployed tradesmen from the north-east of England are forced to go to Germany to find work, effectively rebuilding the towns and cities that their fathers and grandfathers had bombed during the war. Apparently, the original idea for the show came from an actual Geordie bricklayer, Mick Connell, who had made the same kind of “business trip” to Germany himself. But it was effectively fleshed out and truly created by one of the great mavericks of British film and television, Franc Roddam.
Like Clement and La Frenais with their great comedy trilogy, Roddam would have his own remarkable trio of successes, only his were far more varied in tone and subject matter than those of Clement and La Frenais. First, he directed and co-wrote Quadrophenia (1979), the cinematic adaptation of The Who’s last great album; much later, he would come up with the format for Masterchef, the TV cookery program that would become one of the most successful “reality TV shows” around the world; and in between he co-created, with Connell, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
However, although Roddam was the man who originally came up with the premise and format of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (which was a superb title, combining the two very different worlds of “Geordie-land” and Germany), it was Clement and La Frenais who really brought it to life with their writing. It was as if they employed all the hard-won experience of more than 20 years of comedy writing along with their own in-depth knowledge of the north-east and its people to create their absolute masterpiece, a “whole school of fish out of water” comedy in which a trio of Geordie builders (and their colleagues from the rest of England) struggle to adapt to a world in which Germany might have lost the war but had undoubtedly won the peace.
The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? and Porridge were both shot through with pathos, but pathos – indeed, real dramatic irony and even pain – was built into the DNA of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. It was as much a drama as a comedy and consequently is often regarded as the greatest British television drama of the 1980s. Its only real contender for that crown was the similarly themed Boys From The Blackstuff, the story of a group of Liverpool “tarmac-ers” (or road-builders) who also lose their jobs. However, whereas Boys From The Blackstuff was almost literally unwatchable at times, such was its insistence on the tragedy of these working men (and indeed their whole class), Auf Wiedersehen, Pet never forgot to be funny, even when its protagonists were facing their own tragic fate.
Eventually and regrettably, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet jumped the shark, but that was only when it was revived more than two decades later and its original collection of layabouts and lowlifes became “the Geordie Globetrotters”, ending up in Cuba and Laos. However, its first two series, which were aired in the mid-1980s, remain utterly, compellingly watchable today. Indeed, as Britain approaches Brexit and faces the possibility of experiencing another sharp economic downturn, it may just become more relevant than ever.
The late, great Tony Wilson of Factory Records fame often used the analogy of “the hat-trick” to explain the nature of true artistic triumph. To achieve a hat-trick, he would say, meant that you had achieved greatness not once, or even twice, but three times. Sadly, by his own admission he himself only achieved greatness twice, first when he discovered Joy Division at the end of the 1970s and then again a decade later when he discovered Happy Mondays. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who, like Wilson, were “working-class boys made good”, did complete a hat-trick, with The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet constituting three of the greatest British television comedies ever made. And if the rest of the world is yet to catch up with Britain in its appreciation of their genius, well, the rest of the world has a treat in store.
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/