Media: Have the likely lads had their last laugh?: The critics may not like their latest series, but Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are not about to quit after 30 years in TV comedy, says Sue Summers

FOR more than 30 years, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have written classics of television drama. Their big hit of the Sixties was The Likely Lads; in the Seventies, it was Porridge; in the Eighties, Auf Wiedersehn, Pet. Each combined brilliantly observed characterisation with mainstream entertainment.

But the Nineties have not started so well for them - at least on British television. Their latest ITV comedy drama series, Full Stretch, set in a luxury car-hire company, has not picked up nearly as many passengers as they hoped.

The first episode, on 5 January, was watched by 7.7 million people, compared with 11.98 million for Spender on BBC 1 at the same time (which, ironically, Mr La Frenais helped to devise). Episode two attracted just 6.8 million, not much more than the spoof detective series Police Squad, repeated on BBC 2. By week three the audience had climbed back to 7 million, but this was still far short of the 10 million that Carlton TV's managing director, Paul Jackson, says peak-time ITV shows must reach.

It is the critical reception of Full Stretch, however, that has most stung its authors. 'It gets my Dimmest Newcomer award and makes the Darling Buds of May look cerebral,' the Daily Telegraph's reviewer fulminated. 'I'm astonished by the meanness and negativity of the reaction,' Mr La Frenais says. 'In all our years, we've never been so surprised by the attitude of Fleet Street.'

'There was a real arms-folded, determinedly unimpressed, sniping attitude to all the programmes coming from the new franchises,' Mr Clement says. 'I think we've suffered from that.'

In fact, the two writers have much to gain from ITV's new order. They are shareholders in SelecTV, the thrusting independent production group that owns 15 per cent of Meridian, the new South of England franchise holder for whom Full Stretch was made.

None the less, they are anxious about the future of the series. As long-time residents of Los Angeles who refuse even to watch American television let alone write for it, they know from bitter experience how creativity and originality can be stifled in a system geared to commercialism.

'Over here, you can still do a quality show and give it a chance, nurture it along,' Mr La Frenais says. 'But things are changing here, too. In the past we wouldn't have been at all concerned about the reaction to Full Stretch, because we know it's a good show that needs another series to develop. But in the climate at the moment, we're nervous that it won't be allowed that chance.'

'In America, they used to let shows build - such as All in the Family, the US version of Till Death Us Do Part, which wasn't a hit in its first season, but they stuck with it,' Mr Clement says. 'Subsequently, they haven't nurtured anything; programmes have to be an immediate hit, or they're taken off. I think there's the danger of that happening in Britain. Our partner, Allan McKeowan, is taping a show in America at the moment. He went into a meeting about it yesterday, and there were 25 people in the room giving him script notes.

'That's absolute insanity, and it's the reason we won't write for American television. They make a few good programmes, but it's an uphill struggle and it drives you crazy. Over here, it's still fun. I hope it stays that way.

Mr Clement and Mr La Frenais, both aged 54, understand each other so well that they frequently finish each other's sentences, but they look very different: Mr Clement is a tall, blond, urbane southerner from Westcliff-on-Sea; Mr La Frenais is small, dark and hirsute, with a rather wild look in his eye and strong traces of a native Newcastle accent. They still wear the longish hair of the Sixties and the air of ageing swingers, although they enjoy long-lasting marriages to American wives.

They were introduced by a friend in the Uxbridge Arms in Notting Hill Gate in 1962. Mr Clement, a trainee in the BBC's African Service, and Mr La Frenais 'a trainee in nothing', then wrote a sketch for Mr Clement to use as an exam piece on his director's course. Soon they were summoned by Michael Peacock, the original controller of BBC 2. 'Do you think there's a series in this?' he asked. 'Oh, yes,' they replied, with an assurance they were far from feeling.

That is how they came to write The Likely Lads. 'It was incredibly exciting even just being in the BBC canteen,' said Mr Clement. 'First, there was the BBC old guard, then there were all these badly dressed satirists who had been to university and didn't look like Sixties people at all. On the other side of the room was Top of the Pops, and they did look like Sixties people.

'The intellectuals expected us to entertain them because we were in light entertainment. But in fact we were doing something that wasn't like LE at all. We were trying to write what we'd seen not on television but in movies - those black and white Sixties movies of the grainy North. We felt we should have been in drama.'

In 1975, they moved to Los Angeles on the strength of the Porridge movie and their West End stage success, Billy. But after an ill-fated attempt to make an American version of Porridge, they decided to write for television only in Britain. With Allan McKeowan, they set up one of the UK's first independent companies, Witzend Productions, to make comedy drama series such as Auf Wiedersehn, Pet and Shine on Harvey Moon for ITV.

Life in California suits them. 'It's nice living in one place and working in another,' Mr La Frenais says. 'It stops us getting dull.' Much of their effort has been concentrated on becoming successful screenwriters: their script for Alan Parker's Dublin comedy The Commitments was an unexpected hit in Hollywood, and two other film scripts are to go into production in Hollywood later this year. By then, yet another new Clement/La Frenais comedy drama series, Over the Rainbow, featuring two of the young stars of The Commitments, will have been completed by SelecTV for Meridian.

What keeps them working so hard after 30 years? 'The pressure is the same as it's always been,' Mr Clement says. 'We want to do excellent work, and we don't want those buggers in Fleet Street to say we've lost it.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

Business, Marketing and Tourism Volunteer Projects

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: As part of an ongoing effort to support local...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit