First screened in 1964, BBC sitcom The Likely Lads chronicled the exploits of Bob Ferris (Bewes) and Terry Collier (Bolam), two young Geordie Jack-the-Lad factory workers whose world largely revolved around having enough loose change for a game of snooker and a pint down the pub, one eye always open for any ‘bit of skirt’ that might attract their attention. The show ended in 1966 when Terry inadvertently joins the Army to join a bored Bob, who is rejected because of his flat feet. Terry - and the show - returned to huge acclaim in 1973. Retitled Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, it saw an older - but not necessarily wiser - Bob and Terry reunited in a Newcastle that was slowly changing, tearing down their childhood memories and leaving them adrift in the brave, if cold, new world of the 1970s. The series was often bittersweet, beautifully written and performed, an elegy to lost youth, middle class ambition, working class frustration and it’s rightly recognised as a textbook example of how to bring back an old series and old characters with integrity and intelligence.
Two years after the resurrected series ended in 1974, Bob and Terry returned for one last curtain call in the 1976 feature film The Likely Lads and, like many of the other 1970s sitcoms that made the transition to the big screen, it’s a broader and largely more slapstick affair than the TV series that inspired it. Yet The Likely Lads is not without its charms and it often touches on many of the same raw human truths that underpinned the show. Bob is still married to the sweet if overbearing Thelma (Forsyth) and apparently happily ensconced in the Elm Lodge housing estate. Terry is eking out a living driving an advertising promotions van and he’s moved into a flat in a tower block. He’s even found himself a girlfriend in the exotic Christina (Tamm), a Finnish beauty who works in a local boutique. The film deftly reverses the narrative of the series by presenting a listless Bob and a more contented Terry. Thelma sees an opportunity to encourage Terry to settle down, thus removing what she sees as the constant threat of her husband being drawn away from wedded bliss and arranges a weekend caravanning around Northumberland for Christina’s benefit. Much hilarity ensues and whilst it’s often unsubtle stuff - the last twenty minutes or so are classic bedroom farce material - Clement and Le Frenais’ script balances the need to open the show out and take it on the road but keeps the characters and their relationships true to those we’d grown to love in the classy TV series. It’s a fitting swan song for one of the great British TV comedy shows - Bewes (who died in 2017) and Bolam fell out shortly after the film’s release and never reconciled, scuppering any hope of a further reunion - and Network’s Blu-ray transfer is often astonishingly crisp and colourful.
One of this new release’s biggest selling points, however, is two long-lost black-and-white episodes from the 1960s, recently recovered from a private collection and restored and remastered. Far Away Places is great fun, Bob and Terry taking on second jobs to fund a planned exotic holiday (although Terry would be happier staying nearer to home) but A Star is Born is a creakier ‘pub talent show’ episode, which is not nearly as funny or engaging. At a time when consistently good new genuinely funny British sitcoms are rarer than cat’s eggs, The Likely Lads is a welcome reminder of the days when British TV really knew how to tickle the nation’s funny bone.
THE LIKELY LADS (1976) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: MICHAEL TUCHNER / SCREENPLAY: DICK CLEMENT, IAN LE FRENAIS / STARRING: JAMES BOLAM, RODNEY BEWES, BRIGIT FORSYTH, MARY TAMM/ RELEASE DATE: APRIL 1ST