1 9 6 4 – 1 9 6 6 (UK)
48 x 25/30 minute episodes
The Likely Lads has deservedly gone down in the annals of British TV history as one of the cleverest and most popular comedy series, and is still much appreciated and admired today.
The series focused on the friendship between two working class lads living in the north east of England and recently out of school.
Extrovert Terry Collier and plodding Bob Ferris were continually getting themselves involved in humorous schemes and situations, usually associated with girls, pubs and their first jobs.
The brilliant casting of the reasonably high-profile James Bolam (as Terry) and Rodney Bewes (as Bob) continued the BBC’s Steptoe And Son–inspired policy of employing straight actors in sitcoms rather than comedians, and once again the device paid off, the pair giving a more realistic reading of the scripts’ robust dialogue.
The storylines were quite earthy for the period, following the path emblazoned by Steptoe And Son, but with a lighter, more uplifting appeal that owed to the characters’ youth (they were approximately 21 at the start) and expectations.
The scripts crackled not only with great dialogue but with excellent observations and truisms about working-class life and young peoples’ aspirations in the 1960s.
Even though the lads were 100% working class, they had some money in their pockets and the Swinging Sixties was just getting underway. The very first scene of the very first episode, ‘Entente Cordiale’ saw them returning home from a holiday in Spain, the sort of thing that had been unavailable to the working classes in earlier years but which came to be taken for granted by their generation.
Both the lads also had a sharp intelligence but used it differently – reaching quite different conclusions about what they wanted from life.
Terry was a cynic who knew his class and his place in society, and who’s sole aim was to get what he could, when he could. Bob, on the other hand, had genuine ambition. He believed he could make a better life for himself but lacked Terry’s confidence. Terry’s crazy schemes scared him (although it was usually his friend who came off worse).
There was a rare honesty about how the lads reacted to recognisable true-to-life dilemmas such as cash shortages, the pursuit of the opposite sex (a constant theme), their work in an electrical components factory and their support of a struggling football team.
Either for authenticity or for sheer joy, the boys drank real beer on the show – in one episode Bewes estimated that he got through nine pints of bitter – but they staggered along manfully until 1966.
Sheila Fearn was the next most regular actor, cast as Terry’s sister Audrey, who, despite having the usual sibling disagreements with her incorrigible brother, nevertheless treated him with underlying affection, although she reserved the most sympathy for Bob, understanding how difficult it could be to go around with Terry.
Although the series quickly became greatly loved by its viewers these were few in number since, at this time, the channel was still only available in a minority of homes (those in London and the Midlands who had the appropriate receivers); for the majority of British TV watchers the first glimpse of Terry and Bob came in the 1964 Christmas Night With The Stars segment on BBC1.
It wasn’t until all of the episodes were repeated on BBC1 (series one between 5 March and 9 April 1965, series two from 23 August to 27 September 1965, and series three between 4 October and 22 November 1966) that The Likely Lads enjoyed national exposure, at which time much of Britain was talking about it.
When the series came to an end, Bob had a girlfriend, Thelma Chambers (played by Brigit Forsyth), and Terry was off to new pastures in the army. Initially horrified by the idea, he had followed Bob into the Army, only to discover Bob had been discharged for having flat feet. Sadly, like so many other great shows of the sixties, only eight episodes of The Likely Lads are known to still exist.
The main cast reprised their roles for a BBC Radio version of The Likely Lads, with scripts adapted by James Bolam. It ran for 16 episodes; Eight of them between August 6th and September 24th, 1967 and eight of them between May 19th and July 7th, 1968.
The Likely Lads was born in unusual circumstances. Dick Clement was a trainee BBC director and Ian La Frenais an out-of-work salesman when the pair – who had previously met in an Earls Court pub – renewed their acquaintance to write a short sketch. The BBC were so impressed that they asked for it to be turned into a series.
Bob and Terry returned in 1973 with a follow-up series, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? with Terry Collier returning from his stint in the army to find his North East hometown and its inhabitants changed beyond recognition.
His best friend Bob, with whom he has had no contact in the intervening years, has settled into a respectable white-collar job and is engaged to his boss’s daughter, Thelma.
With distaste Thelma remembers Terry from the past and is aghast that he has returned to interrupt their cosy new lives and exert what can only be his customary poor influence over her easily-led fiancé.