Dick Clement (right) and Ian La Frenais (left) are the comic minds behind hit shows like The Likely Lads, Porridge and Lovejoy. With two episodes of The Likely Lads recently recovered and presented alongside the restored film on a DVD and Blu-ray release, British Comedy Guide sat down with them to find out more.
So two more episodes of The Likely Lads have now been recovered - exciting?
Ian: Weird. Very weird.
Dick: Of course. But you'd much rather they exist than being buried. It makes you sad that the others have gone. People do like to see old shows - if you think what a shelf life some old shows, like I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show, have had. Sometimes we do look at these and think "boy, we were very young and green", but even that's quite good for you, to remind yourself what it was like at the beginning of your career.
Ian: It's probably more interesting for Dick too. I just see, hear, the words, but Dick produced and directed the shows and was learning his craft. Every programme he was far more involved in; rehearsal and everything: he can remember more of the experience than I can. I still had a day job and only showed up for the last rehearsal, then the Sunday night when we recorded it. Dick can probably remember every single person who's in it. Working with them, rehearsing.
It's part of your past, like looking at an old photograph in an album.
Dick: I do remember the set designer, a guy called Geoffrey Kirkland, who went on to be a very distinguished designer and worked with Alan Parker on lots of things. The thing I remember most is he was a lovely, laid-back guy. Every week he would look at the sets you had and come up with a plan for how he was going to lay them out on the studio floor. One day he brought the week's plans to me, I looked and said "The living room's here, this is here, that's there - very good, Geoffrey. Where's the pub?" and he said, "Do you know, I forgot all about it!" He was so laid back - he quickly found a pub set and put it in.
There's a huge pub in A Star Is Born, probably the biggest pub we ever had. There were lots - there was always a pub. But that was probably the biggest. We were connoisseurs of which pub the boys were drinking in. We didn't drink in the same pub all the time, we'd go to different pubs, and so did Bob and Terry.
As Ian touched on, you were producer/director as well as writer, Dick.
Dick: Yes. They didn't distinguish between producer and director in those days - you just did it. That was it. They threw it at you. I learned as we went along, because I'd done nothing before. It was virtually like doing it live. You had five cameras but you could shoot it in three segments, so roughly 8-9 minutes each segment. If nothing went seriously wrong, you left in the odd fluff or boom in shot. You couldn't really edit in those days, they didn't have the technology. If something went wrong you'd shoot the whole segment again, so it was a big deal. Particularly with a live audience it was quite nerve-wracking.
My eldest son now directs football matches, which I think is even more nerve-wracking. The terrible decisions about showing a near miss, and then you might miss a goal. I think he wakes up screaming about that possibility! Live is live, there's nothing quite like it.
At the time, television - and to some extent film - was just ephemera: it must be strange coming back to it from that too, where you presumably never had any thought of each episode beyond the week it was going out?
Ian: No, you're right. We were just trying to scramble our brains around writing a plot. We'd never done anything before the first series either: after the euphoria of being told we had a series, I remember calling home to my parents, who were like "Mmm ... a series?" And going to a pub in Chelsea, the Black Lion, and talking to friends who responded, "Oh really?"
And then the reality. They gave us an office at BBC Television Centre. The reality of now writing six episodes - we were terrified! But then the words started to come, we got a bit of encouragement. It was a life changing moment, literally. Basically overnight. It might not have done - it could have been a flash in the pan that went away, but it did.
As I say, I'm sure Dick remembers more, but it was the first time we'd worked with actors, the first time we'd been around actors. It was unbelievably exciting. I remember the first night, the first show we recorded, I had a panic attack! I was so wound up I had a panic attack, and I was taken to the BBC nurse. She told me to have a glass of red wine - and I've been taking her advice ever since!
You get a shot at success and you think "how did that happen?"
Being on the brand new BBC 2, which had only a small subset of the population able to receive it, the show didn't really pick up until a repeat run on BBC 1 early in the next year, 1965, did it? But you had a special sketch on Christmas Night With The Stars?
Dick: Well that's what triggered it. That special triggered the repeats, which had a massive response. The two episodes that have now been rediscovered and released are from Series 2: inevitably there's a little more confidence about Series 2, I think both from us and the actors. The BBC wouldn't have asked for a second series if it hadn't been successful, so there's definitely a bit more self-confidence in everything.
Ian: When most of the country watched Christmas Night With The Stars, they must've thought "who the fuck are they?"
Even on BBC 2, only two episodes had been broadcast before that special - the BBC were showing tremendous faith in you, and the format, to give it such a high-profile spot as Christmas on 1?
Dick: Yes - I guess they thought it can't hurt, to give it a boost.
But nobody came near us when we were shooting the show. There was nothing like the enormous spotlight, poring over every line, of today. No sixteen executives giving their opinion. We were really quite upset at the time, thinking nobody seems to give a shit. In hindsight it was wonderful to be left alone!
That must indeed be an enormous contrast to today's industry.
Dick: It's changed a lot. Not as bad here as in America though. I remember we were doing a pilot in the states - for Birds Of A Feather - and they talked it to death, essentially. We had a pretty good pilot but the network said "no we're going to reshoot it".
Ian: There was like a greenroom where they all came and watched the show. There must have been sixteen - sixteen! - studio executives who all came and watched and gave their opinion.
Dick: All with a view. They talked their way out of making it. If they'd just left it be - and actually the first pilot was better than the second, also in terms of casting, because they decided to recast it...
Ian: We did have Rosie O'Donnell in both, but they recast the other girl. They'd been giving notes all week...
But yes. Maybe The Likely Lads could've been marginally better if someone with experience had come down and said, "maybe you could do this" or "you might want to do that", but no one ever did. Someone must've liked it. Someone must've thought "this is different", to put it on Christmas Night With The Stars. Someone up there must've gone "we should give these guys a chance".
Dick: But it definitely wasn't God!
Aside from the weirdness of it all, it must also be really gratifying to have your work so celebrated after 40, 50 years?
Dick: Of course. Obviously one's a little nervous as it may betray its age, but I think we're all quite used to watching old shows, aren't we? I see Lucille Ball's old shows from time to time and they're amazing.
Ian: If you watch UK Gold, you're watching vintage stuff. Funnily enough, when we're in London and staying in a hotel, it's amazing how often I go to Gold. The other night I was waiting, between dinner and Match of the Day, and I went to UK Gold - although there seemed to just be on an Only Fools And Horses marathon on at the weekend! And The Good Life was on too.
The Likely Lads film as well, freshly restored and remastered - good to revisit that?
Dick: We haven't seen that yet actually. I would love to watch it with an audience and see where the laughs are, and where they're not. You learn a lot. There is one bit in it that makes me slightly cringe, but there's a lot of good in there I think. And it really did put Newcastle on the screen, which was very gratifying.
I remember also, we were able to much more visually portray one of the themes of the TV show, which was change and nostalgia for the way things used to be, as opposed to the way things are now going. A fairly universal theme.
Ian: I can't run the whole film through my mind though! Big gaps in it. But I do remember the premiere of the film, in Newcastle. And a not-very-exciting banqueting room afterwards. What was it? Chicken wings and coleslaw... I had a lot of family there, a lot of Newcastle footballers - that was the world premiere.
You mention getting the north - Newcastle, specifically - onto the screen. The show was contemporaneous with The Liver Birds, The Beatles, all those entertainers who were bringing England's north to the fore of entertainment in that period: was it particularly important to you to portray the north itself, or was that secondary and just happened to be the setting?
Ian: When we did The Likely Lads - the original series - we'd never written anything before but what we loved was British new wave cinema at the time. The country was perhaps not fully aware, but going through a major cultural transformation: cinema, television and music. Suddenly, for the first time ever, working class characters were the leading men and ladies. We were excited by that.
When we wrote the first episode, which was an exam piece for a training course Dick was doing, we didn't want a drawing room in Surrey, but two guys who live in houses that have outside toilets, and who work in a factory. The DNA was all that new wave of the time, except yes, we were doing it for the small screen. Obviously it struck a chord. This fledgling channel, BBC 2, "we should do something interesting - ooh, what about this?" It all came from that.
You clocked up just 20 full episodes before the series originally ended. Did you ever imagine it would come back in any form?
Dick: Not at the time.
Ian: No, I don't think so. We were wondering what else we could do. The actors now had a bit of clout, they'd become TV stars. They were getting far more offers than they did before Series 1, and both they and their agents were itching to take advantage of that. We brought a real kind of finale to it. Even if somebody had said "we've got to do another series", it was too late. Terry's in the army.
It was years later, we both - quite independently - had the thought. It really came out of so many people asking us in the pub, "whatever happened to those two?". Eventually we said we'd have to find out.
Dick: Such a huge amount happens between the ages of about 19 and 25, as Bob and Terry were. That's when you make life-changing decisions. You might get a new career, get married, have children. All those things that are seriously life-changing. The whole idea of Bob being about to get married when Terry comes home, and he reveals he's tried marriage and it didn't work for him - it just seemed wonderfully apt.
Ian: The problem I think with the film is that right at the beginning of The Likely Lads TV series, yes it was original; and Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, judging by the critical acclaim, was a piece of real, quality work that captured something key to the era - but the film is just the film. It's not a statement like its predecessors were. It's just a film that we hope is funny, so it's not as important as the others were, perhaps. Never the less, a lot of people still like it - especially in the north east, where it's revered as a masterpiece!
There's been quite a lot of reappraisal of your work in recent years: the 40th anniversary and revival of Porridge; 25th anniversary of The Commitments; restorations and new releases like Otley - but what're your own favourites?
Dick: I'd like a revival of Billy! We did that with Michael Crawford - a wonderful show, which we've been trying to get back on stage for a very long time. But it's very difficult casting a leading actor who is well known enough, can be funny, and sing and dance. It was never adapted for TV, and not filmed either, so nobody can revisit that unless it's staged again, which is one reason we'd like to put it on...
Harvey Weinstein asked us to do a sequel to The Commitments. It wasn't easy to turn him down (at the time!), but we had a perfect beginning - but we didn't know how to end it. Are the band going to fail again? There was something wonderful about the fact that they blossomed and faded - it was kind of poetic, as Joey the Lips said. So I'm glad we left that alone. Some sequels are absolutely wonderful and some are dreadful.
Ian: I think the real answer is that we'd much rather some of the things we're working on now went into production, rather than something old being reissued. We have the possibility of a number of series here and one in America, plus a few features and at least two stage projects. That's what would excite both of us, someone ringing up tomorrow and saying "it's go!". But they sit there, some with a director attached, some without...
Do you have a typical writing day?
Ian: 9:30 till quarter to five.
Dick: I put the coffee on at twenty past nine. He turns up at 9:30. We work until about 12, 12:30, something like that. If there's any football on around mid-day we allow ourselves a bit of that with our lunch, then make another coffee and go back to work till around 4:30 - then he goes home. That's the typical day. I type it on the computer. We print pages out, he proofs them, we change anything that we don't like.
Ian: A really exciting day!
The waiting you mention sounds like the most frustrating part of the process, even after being in the business for nearly 60 years?
Ian: Oh God. On hold. Everything on hold. Everyone goes through the same thing, of course. That's why we always have so many projects on the go at the same time - you can't just focus on one or two.
We'd like to do a mini-series about The Kinks. We wrote a feature on them, and there's a possibility of adapting it to a mini-series, which we'd be very excited to do. We'd also love to adapt Jonathan Coe's new novel, Middle England, about Brexit and that - we previously did his novel The Rotters' Club. Then there's a soccer series in the works, a Second World War thing... We just hope that something goes.
It's very disheartening to go through piles of uncommissioned scripts. There are so many pages there. But that's alright... we'll keep on going!