Whatever happened to The Likely Lads? Well, James Bolam, who played the reprobate Terry, went on to an acclaimed small-screen career (When the Boat Comes In, Only When I Laugh, The Beiderbecke Affair, Second Thoughts.) He recently took leading roles in two major BBC1 dramas, Have Your Cake and The Missing Postman. Meanwhile, the actor who played the prissy Bob, Rodney Bewes, had a spell in the When Did You Last See Your Trousers? zone before landing up, er, driving himself and a 24-foot skiff around the country to places such as Goole and Hunstanton on a tour of his one- man show, Three Men in a Boat.
Not that he's bitter about it. He proclaims himself delighted with Bolam's successes and scotches all rumours that he and his erstwhile screen buddy have fallen out. "We're good friends socially," says Bewes. "There was a time when journalists tried to make out that we were enemies: 'The Likely Lads don't get on' is a story that'll get you two pages in a newspaper. Eric Morecambe had the same. He told me, 'They're dying for Ernie and me not to get on and to have rows in restaurants.' If you carp about your fame rating, then you're on a slippery slope to envy, and envy is bad in actors ... With Jimmy and me it was like a mutual admiration society. We'd do 13 episodes together each year. The workload for each Lad was more than Hamlet. To do it well, we had to get on."
That's as may be. But hasn't the enduring popularity of Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement's marvellously-crafted comedy of male bonding been a hindrance to Bewes's subsequent career? Hasn't he become a prisoner of the show's success - "You are sentenced to be a Likely Lad forever, with no hope of parole"? A poster outside the Civic Hall, Guildford, advertises the forthcoming production of Three Men in a Boat as: "with Rodney Bewes - the Likely Lad himself".
Again, Bewes professes not to mind. "I wouldn't say I'd been a victim of The Likely Lads' success. I like it. I'd be foolish to say that people paying to see this old loon with white hair in Three Men in a Boat had nothing to do with The Likely Lads. Why would anybody mind that? You ought to be proud to be associated with something so well-written. Each episode had a beginning, middle and an end - often with a lovely twist. It wasn't just two guys shouting at each other for half an hour. Twenty seven million people watched it in the Sixties - that's half the population. Strangers smile at me in the street and still call me Bob. When actors mind about something like that, they need a swift kick."
There is no denying Bewes's continuing appeal with people of a certain age. At the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, last month, a very British, very polite (and, it must be admitted, very white-haired) crowd formed an orderly queue in the bar after a performance of Three Men in a Boat. They waited up to half an hour for the privilege of shaking the great man's hand. Bewes describes the experience as being "like the vicar on the church- steps after a service". When Bewes proposed taking the show to The Acorn Theatre in Penzance, the delighted manager there told him: "We've had Tinker from Lovejoy. If we have a Likely Lad as well, imagine our grateful applause."
The show itself - which demonstrates the olde worlde charme of messing about in boats - has more than a touch of the John Majors about it. Harking back, misty-eyed, to a kinder, gentler era, it evokes a land of warm beer and old maids cycling to church. It is unashamedly old-fashioned, playing on people's nostalgia for an England (not a Britain) that probably never existed outside the minds of Tory spin-doctors. The Jerome K Jerome character is mortified by the absence of mustard with his roast beef lunch: "It cast a gloom over the boat, there being no mustard," he laments. "Existence seemed hollow."
A pleasant, if undemanding tale told by a man in cream boating trousers and a stiff wing collar, Three Men in a Boat is the antithesis of in-your- face, cutting-edge drama. The closest it gets to sex and drugs and rock'n'roll is an Elgar soundtrack. It has been described by one newspaper as "rather like a worn cardigan".
Bewes has no problem with that. "The show is naive and gauche," he admits, "but it does have charm and lots of things that you don't get in Ibsen or Chekhov. If it is old-fashioned - a worn cardigan - there might be an audience that likes that, an audience that likes revivals. Americans adore it."
A self-confessed rowing nut who sculls with four-times Olympic gold medallist Steve Redgrave, Bewes is taking Three Men in a Boat to the Edinburgh Festival this year. He is fully aware that any number of adoring Americans will not necessarily shelter him from rowing into a Force 10 gale of snooty critics.
But, ever the Likely Lad, he just sails through it. "I know it'll get criticism from posh reviewers," he concedes. "But I don't mind that. If I haven't got on as well as I should have, at 60 I'm doing something I want to. I've had a lot of fun - an important word - and I haven't been too heavy or grand. I've had my five minutes of fame with The Likely Lads, but I still love my work. I'd love it if I was just thought of as a worn cardigan"n
'Three Men in a Boat' is touring nationwide. Tour information line: 0891 455485. Also at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh (0131-226 2428) from 8 to 30 Aug JRReuse content