The Likely Lads (1964 – 1966) was something of a ground-breaking series. Fifty years on, its impact may have dulled, but back then a sitcom that revolved around two men who were not only young and working-class but also came from the North was decidedly unusual.
Dick Clement (born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex) and Ian La Frenais (born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear) were two writers with different outlooks and temperaments. But something about their partnership simply clicked (it’s still going strong today).
Despite the fact that the show was recorded in London, the scripts seemed to catch the authentic feel of working-class life and the show ran for three years. That it was later rather overshadowed by the sequel series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, is easy to understand. The Likely Lads was made in black and white, so repeats have been more infrequent (plus quite a few of the episodes were wiped and no longer exist). And to be honest, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is just a better show – the scripting and performances are sharper and the fact that Bob and Terry are a little older is also important. They’re far from middle-aged, but they’re also no longer the “lads” from the original series.
The Likely Lads seems to take its cue from films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Like the central character in that film, Bob (Rodney Bewes) and Terry (James Bolam) work in a factory and live for the weekends, where they can spend their weekly wages on beer, football and girls.
Even in the early episodes, Bob and Terry are very different characters. Terry never really changes (not even when we meet him again in the 1970’s) but Bob is always keen to “get on”. This is made plain in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – Bob has a fiancé, a nice new council house and enjoys foreign holidays (a rarity at this time).
But even as early as The Other Side of the Fence (series one, episode four, original tx 6th January 1965) Bob’s desire to better himself comes to the surface. He has a chance to leave the factory for a job in the office. It offers better pay and prospects, plus the females are rather nice as well ….
The class/social divide between the factory and office workers is sharply defined. Terry, waiting for Bob to leave the office for the day, spies the departing office ladies. They’re a clear class apart from the sort of women he’s used to, but that doesn’t stop him chancing his arm. Sally Anne (Didi Sullivan), who works in personnel, seems quite responsive whilst Bob has already fallen for Judith (Anneke Wills) who’s the secretary to Bob’s new boss. The problem is that Judith is in a relationship with the oily rep Nesbit (Michael Sheard).
Despite being born in Aberdeen, Sheard manages a credible Northern accent and is suitably nasty as Bob’s rival in love. Judith is friendly and helpful to Bob and as played by the lovely Anneke Wills certainly catches the eye. Is this the reason why Bob attempts to make a go of his office job?
Although you might have expected Terry to be more cynical about Bob’s social climbing, that’s not really the case. Although it is true that after Bob invites Terry to be his guest at the plush office social he can’t help but stifle a grin at the sight of Bob dressed in a dinner jacket and bow tie. The fact that most of the other men are similarly attired cuts no ice with Terry, it’s just not the sort of thing that they do.
The evening turns sour when Nesbit gleefully tells Terry that he won’t be able to attend the dance – the function is for office staff only, so Terry (as factory fodder) doesn’t qualify. Terry doesn’t seem terribly put out, but this slight upsets Bob so much that he jacks in the office job there and then and decides to go back to the factory.
In a way this is rather depressing, the class barrier seems to be still firmly in place as we see the working-class interloper (Bob) returned to where he came from. But this blow is softened when Bob says he never wanted the job in the drawing office anyway because he’s no good at drawing (the truth or a lie to make Terry feel better?) The real result occurs just after this, when Sally Anne and Judith decide to go for a drink with Bob and Terry.
Helped by the appearances by Michael Sheard and Anneke Wills, The Other Side of the Fence is entertaining enough. Bob’s misadventures in the office could be seen as a warning that it’s a good idea to know your place, suggesting that his attempts to better himself were always doomed to failure. This may be too critical a reading though and since they end up with the girls, everything in the Likely Lads’ world comes right in the end.