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
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The Independent Online

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.