Look back in anger: Whatever happened to The Likely Lads?

It was one of the biggest shows of its day, part of the North's cultural revival. But an attempt to bring it back has failed – due to the animosity between the two stars. By Andy McSmith

It really would have been a nostalgia fest if The Likely Lads had got back together – again – a full 43 years after they first hit the small screen, in the days when all televisions were black and white and only a few had more than two channels.

Rodney Bewes, who played Bob Ferris, the sensible put-upon likely lad, was up for it. So were the scriptwriters Dick Clements and Ian La Frenais. But James Bolam, who played the rebellious, cynical Terry Collier, would not hear of it.

And even if the revival had happened, they would surely have had to remove the word "lads" from the title. Bolam and Bewes are not 26 any more, as they were when they made the first episode. In fact, Bewes will be 70 this month, and Bolam next June, so they could invite all their friends to a 140th birthday... if only they were on speaking terms.

Sadly the two actors who played close friends in the series and who first brought northern angst to small-screen comedy are in that category of brilliant comic pairings – like Tony Hancock and Sid James, or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, or Rob Newman and David Baddiel – who gelled on screen, but just could not get on in private. From what Bewes says, he and Bolam stopped speaking to each other 32 years ago.

Even John Lennon and Paul McCartney, or Simon and Garfunkel, or Margaret Thatcher and the great sulk-master of British politics, Sir Edward Heath, did not go that long without exchanging a single word.

The froideur has kiboshed every attempt to reassemble the team that made up one of the most successful television series in the BBC's history. For years, it even prevented the repeat-addicted BBC from repeating one of its greatest successes.

Three years ago, when the BBC1's Inside Out programme decided to screen a tribute to The Likely Lads, on the 40th anniversary of the first episode, they took Bewes back to Newcastle to revisit some of the series' old locations, minus Bolam. This was ironic because Bolam was the genuine northerner, born and brought up in Sunderland. Bewes's home ground was 100 miles south, in Bingley, near Bradford. He was drafted in because in those days the number of professional actors with screen experience from the North-east could be counted on one hand.

Television viewers in the North, of course, instantly noticed that the two Likely Lads spoke with different regional accents, although they had supposedly grown up on the same street. For that reason, the exact location of the original series was always kept a bit vague. It was hinted that the action might all be located in Middlesbrough, or somewhere between Sunderland and Bingley. Such geographical imprecision in no way damaged the show's phenomenal success. Nor was it hurt by the fact that it began life on BBC2, then a very new channel that was assumed to be for southern intellectuals only. At its peak, the show was watched by 27 million people.

It was part of the cultural revival of 1963-64 which seemed to turn the old, decaying industrial north of England into the most vibrant source of entertainment in the world. A few weeks before The Likely Lads went on the air, a new rock group called the Animals had burst into the charts with a single called "The House of the Rising Sun", which kept the Rolling Stones off the number one slot. They were working-class youths from Tyneside, who might normally have been apprenticed to the shipyards, who looked for a while as if they were to become an international phenomenon to rival the Beatles, until the group disintegrated in another great showbiz feud, which persists to this day, between its lead singer, Eric Burdon, and its keyboard player, Alan Price.

In the same year, every arts cinema in the UK was showing gritty northern dramas such as Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or A Taste of Honey, all of which explored what it was to be like to be young, restless, and full of vague hopes in a northern town that seemed to be dying on its feet and where the older generation had given up. The Likely Lads used the same themes, but made them softer, funnier and more popular. One of the lads aspired to be middle class, the other wanted to cling to his northern working-class roots in a world which no longer required great armies of working men to fill the coal pits and arms factories.

In 1973-74, after a five-year gap, there was a follow-up called Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, which critics thought was even better than the original. In this series – shot in colour, and located in Newcastle upon Tyne – Rodney Bewes's character, Bob, had achieved the middle-class stability he craved by finding an office job, and was preparing to marry the relentlessly bourgeois Thelma, while his old friend Terry was as adrift as ever, still believing that he was morally superior to his friend because he had not sold out. The last episode was broadcast in Christmas 1974.

For years afterwards, it was assumed that Bolam and Bewes were on friends off screen as well as on, a pretence they kept up because their public expected it. It was finally blown in 2005, when the ageing Bewes published his memoirs, in which he revealed that they had comprehensively fallen out 30 years earlier and had not spoken since. He blamed Bolam's fear of having his privacy invaded and of being eternally typecast.

The final breach, as Bewes told it, occurred after Bolam's wife, Sue, announced to her husband, while he was driving, that she was pregnant. He almost crashed the car. Bewes repeated this story in a newspaper interview, thinking that it was already public knowledge, then got a frosty reaction when he rang Bolam to forewarn him. "There was this dreadful silence. He put the put the phone down. I called him back, He didn't answer. He hasn't spoken to me since," Bewes claimed.

The silence from Bolam suggests that at least two elements of this story are true: he guards his privacy carefully, and he despises his old co-star. The underlying reason may be less flattering to Bewes. In real life, the actors were the opposites of the characters they played. Bolam, supposedly the proudly working class cynic, was actually a deeply serious actor who shook the dust of Sunderland off his feet and went south to pursue exactly the sort of lifestyle that his fictional character was determined to avoid. Having no wish to be a professional northerner forever linked with one comedy series, he has consistently refused to be interviewed about The Likely Lads. Instead, he has taken a series of demanding roles, playing characters as diverse as Harold Wilson and Harold Shipman.

Other big names associated with the series also found new pastures. The scriptwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who were novices when they wrote the first sketch on which The Likely Lads was based as a training exercise, went on to create other monster hits such as Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet, and to form their own production company, as well as intermittently pursuing separate careers. Brigit Forsyth, the Scottish actress who played Thelma, has enjoyed a long career on stage and television. Like others associated with The Likely Lads, she finds Bolam's refusal to talk about or revisit the old show rather odd.

But he still has the cheerful air that once made him one of the nation's favourite actors and has never been out of work for long.

"He vetoed repeats of The Likely Lads for 18 years," Bewes told the Daily Mail. "He justified it by saying, 'It's a retrospective step in my career.' But eventually they did show the series again, and I'd love to have asked Jimmy: 'Did you send the repeat cheque back because of your principles?' It's all terribly sad."

Artistic differences

The Professionals

The British-made crime series starring Martin Shaw, Lewis Collins and Gordon Jackson ran for 57 episodes from 1977 to 1983. The show was criticised for its extreme violence, which was one of the reasons that Shaw, who played the curly-haired Ray Doyle, did not like it despite the fame it brought him. By the third series, he was criticising the show in the press and wanted to get out, but his four-year contract obliged him to carry on. He went on to be a highly respected actor, whose roles include Adam Dalgleish in the television adaptions of PD James's novels, but greatly annoyed his former co-stars and fans of The Professionals by allegedly using a dispute over royalties to block repeat screenings of the programmes.

Starsky and Hutch

For four years between 1975 and 1979, the adventures of the two southern California cops were America and Britain's favourite weekly fare of mildly far-fetched adventures in which the good guys always won, usually after tearing through the streets of Bay City in an outlandish, red and white, two-door Ford Gran Torino. Paul Michael Glaser played the dark-haired, streetwise David Starsky; David Soul played the blond, reserved Kenneth Hutchinson. Glaser never really liked the role, or that ridiculously garish Ford Gran Torino, and quit after four series. A plan to kill off Starsky and have Hutch team up with his kid brother was dropped and there was no fifth series.

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

PPC Account Executive

£25 - 28k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A PPC Account Executive is needed to...

Android Developer / Java Developer

£35 - 45k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a tech savvy Android Develo...

Sales Account Manager

£30 - 35k + 25% Y1 OTE + Fantastic Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an e...

Drupal Developer / Web Developer

£18 - 25k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Drupal Developer / Web Developer (Drupal / PH...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album