It's 50 years since a sparkling new sitcom was first broadcast on UK television. Starring James Bolam and Rodney Bewes, the highly-anticipated BBC1 offering was called Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? and it was set in our part of the world.
We'd first met the young Terry Collier and Bob Ferris back in the swinging sixties in the first outing of the Likely Lads - a standard, period, black and white romp, telling of the humorous scrapes of two working-class pals living 'somewhere up North'. If that series comes across as a little dated and rough around the edges by today's high-production TV standards, its sequel 'Whatever Happened To...' has fared much better with the passing of time.
Filmed in colour, beautifully written by Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, with Bolam (as Terry) and Bewes (as Bob) turning in career-best performances, the 1973 Likely Lads was both funny and occasionally poignant with the pair, older but not necessarily wiser, navigating the sometimes awkward twists and turns of a rapidly changing decade.
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If Terry still lived with his mother and was content with his modest, working-class lot, Bob and his bossy new wife Thelma (brilliantly portrayed by Brigit Forsyth) craved the new middle-class world of dinner parties, badminton, and fondue evenings - and lived in a new-build semi. The ensuing tensions over class-consciousness made for some fine television, with La Frenais and Clement shining a light on the concept of upward social mobility a full six or seven years before it became much aspired to in Margaret Thatcher's Britain of the 1980s.
Notwithstanding the fact Bewes hailed from Bradford, and Bolam from Sunderland, the show's striking title sequences also told us Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads was unmistakably set on Tyneside - unlike the original 1960s series. As Whitley Bay-born La Frenais recalls: "Newcastle was never mentioned. There were no Geordie accents on television at the time. People knew the show was set somewhere ‘up North’, but didn’t know exactly where. It might have been Hartlepool, Teesside or Wearside. Nobody really knew."
When Whatever Happened To... hit the TV screens, La Frenais realised his ambition "to put my home town on the map”. He adds: "That was when the show came of age and it was definitely set in Newcastle. The title sequence begins and straight away says ‘this is Newcastle. In fact, this is Newcastle and it’s changing'."
At 8.30pm on Tuesday, January 9, 1973, sandwiched between the film Doctor At Large and the Nine O’Clock News, BBC1 unveiled the new series. The first episode Strangers On A Train saw Terry and Bob travelling separately on board a train travelling to Newcastle and meeting up by accident for the first time in years.
Backed by the nostalgia-laden theme song Highly Likely - as written by La Frenais and Manfred Mann’s Mike Hugg – the show's opening and closing title sequences depicted 1970s Newcastle under transformation. The scenes were filmed around the city in the summer of 1972 and featured locations in Byker, Ouseburn, the city centre, Cruddas Park flats, Gloucester Street in the West End - as well as Highfields Estate in Killingworth, the fictional Elm Lodge Housing Estate where Bob and Thelma lived.
Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? would be a huge hit, running between January 1973 and December 1974, over two series and a Christmas special. There were some memorable episodes. In No Hiding Place, Terry and Bob go to to extraordinary lengths to avoid hearing a football score before finally settling down to watch the match on TV later that night, only to find it has been postponed and replaced with ice skating from Bulgaria. In The Great Race, the lads challenge each other to a cycle race in rural Northumberland (with Terry carrying Brown Ale in his water bottles) and all manner of cheating ensues.
Despite the success of the show, and his own brilliant performance as the sometimes laddish, sometimes wistful Terry Collier, James Bolam would appear ambivalent about the Likely Lads. In a 1973 Chronicle interview, he complained: "I’m not Terry Collier. I’m me, Jimmy Bolam, the actor. I hate it when the public confuses the two. I go into people’s front rooms as Terry, but I want it to end there." And two years later, after arriving late for a special reception laid on by Newcastle City Council, Bolam shocked guests by declaring: "I got the last possible train in - and I'll get the first one out. There is no special sentiment about coming to the North East. A job is a job. I'd rather be at home in Fulham."
There were a handful of BBC Radio 4 Likely Lads episodes in 1975, before Bolam and Bewes reunited one last time a year later for a spin-off, shot-on-location, eponymous feature film. There was never any chance of another Whatever Happened To... series, La Frenais later revealed, and the film would be Terry and Bob's last hurrah. Soon after, a misunderstanding led to a fall-out between Bolam and Bewes and they famously never spoke again.
If Bolam in later years remained reticent about the success of the Likely Lads, Bewes was always effusive about the show and his time working in the North East. The actor told the Chronicle in 2013: "I really enjoyed filming the series back in the 1970s. It was such fun. We had a wonderful time and I'm very fond of Newcastle."
Rodney Bewes died in 2017, a week before his 80th birthday. Ian La Frenais, now 86, lives in California, United States. James Bolam, now 87, lives in South East England. Fifty years on from the broadcast of the first episode, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? remains an enduringly memorable and endearing piece of comedy television, and one which still resonates strongly for many in this part of the world - and beyond. "Tomorrow's almost over, today went by so fast. Is the only thing to look forward to the past?"
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