The Millennium Bridge across the Tyne on the pound coin
I made my first trip to the legendary city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (or to give it its preferred modern moniker Newcastle-Gateshead, reflecting both the north and south bank of the river) last week for a conference on records management – and didn’t regret it. My limited knowledge of the north-east of England had been drawn largely from the popular stereotypes as depicted in Viz comic, The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedershen Pet. Much of this depicts a rather grim, violent place, but I discovered a thriving modern city proud of its industrial past, steeped in history and looking forward to the future. The city’s renaissance of the last few years is reflected by the recent developments on the south bank of the Tyne (ie the part known as Gateshead) such as the Sage theatre (which as one conference speaker pointed out resembles a giant silver slug), the former Baltic Flour Mill, now an art gallery and the luxury riverside flats which have sprung up.
And there’ also of course the marvel of post-modern engineering design, the Millennium Bridge, a curved bridge which lights up at night, regularly changing colour. It was only on receiving change at a corner shop which yielded a pound coin, on the reverse side of which was the bridge itself that I finally realised that this image had been in and out of my pocket for all these years.
And one popular stereotype is in fact true – they do go out in t-shirts in freezing cold, wet weather.
I was thrilled to hear that the classic situation comedy series of the 1960s and early ’70s The Likely Ladsis being relaunched as a stage show. Following the mixed fortunes of Bob Ferris and Terry Collier, two young working class men, played brilliantly by Rodney Bewes and James Bolam in an unspecified location in the north-east of England the show captured the spirit of the times and although it does seem dated, its humour has a timeless appeal.
Co-writers Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais (also known for Auf Wiederschen Pet and the other classic ’70s sitcom Porridge) appeared on the radio to promote their new venture which will feature fresh young actors rather than ageing members of the origianl cast.
The superior sequel Whatever happened to the Likely Lads?, made a few years after the original series ended is described by Stuart Maconie in Pies and Prejudice, his masterpiece of social and cultural history on the north of England as “the best British comedy series ever”. I wouldn’t quite go that far, as for me the inimitable Fawlty Towers holds its own at the top of the comedy premiere league. However, Whatever Happened would certainly feature in my all time top 10 greatest sitcoms alongside Porridge, Dad’s Army, Blackadder, The Young Ones, Father Ted, Red Dwarf, The Office and Peep Show – though not necessarily in that order.
In Whatever Happened the two characters’ paths diverge. Bob becomes the social climber who marries Thelma the sensible librarian and joins the ranks of the white collar professional, settling down to a life of middle class suburban domestic bliss. Terry by contrast has returned to the banks of the Tyne/Wear/Tees(?) after a spell as a squaddie in Germany with a failed marriage behind him and remains the salt of the earth working class boy, irresponsible and badly behaved – and this is where much of the comedy derives from.
However, the running joke throughout is that fact that Bob now thinks he’s superior to Terry, because of his new-found social status as expressed by his membership of the badminton club and skiing holidays, but in reality is no better and often just as badly-behaved. Deep down Bob still wants to chase women and get pissed down at the Fat Ox.
I’m too young to have seen the show during its original airing, but was inducted via the occasional repeat run which many other popular comedies of the era have enjoyed – and later on via DVD.
The show emerged out of the kitchen dramas of the ’60s, the new wave of British cinema known as social realism which broke the mould by depicting the everyday lives of ordinary working class people. The genre was concentrated particularly (but not exclusively) in the north of England, and thus became popularly known as the “it’s grim up north” film. Classic examples include Kes, A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar.
Part of the show’s appeal, along with that of many other programmes of the time is the cosy sense of false nostalgia it evokes, aided in part by its catchy, almost melancholic theme song (“Oh what happened to you, whatever happened to me…). We like deluding ourselves into thinking that life was better back then, things were simpler, people more down-to-earth, the world was a safer place, etc – total bollocks of course, but a nice thought all the same.
It would be interesting to see how Bob and Terry would fare as old men, 35 years after their last outing. Unfortunately a reunion is unlikely due to the bad blood between Bewes and Bolam – a disappointment for fans, but a common occurrence in comic double acts. Steptoe and Son, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore spring to mind. So whatever happens to those likely lads (if you’ll pardon the cliché) the memories of classic comedy will linger on.