When the news broke about the death of actor Rodney Bewes (November 21 2017), I was like many, naturally very sad. But to some extent , it wasn’t a surprise. He hadn’t looked well for a long time. But I was also the sad to know that one of the great BBC comedy double acts would never be reunited.
I am of course talking about The Likely Lads, in which Bewes, playing Bob Ferris, starred alongside James Bolam’s character, Terry Collier. The story of two working class lads from Tyneside that first aired on December 16th 1964 ,written by the prolific partnership of Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais. He series showed the ups and downs of the Terry and Bob’s foray into adult life – work, women and drinking – lots of drinking!
The series became a huge hit for the BBC, and was one of the first examples of a comedy set in the North of England. However like most good things, it came to an end, a week before the World Cup Final, on 23rd July 1966. However this was not to be the end of the boys, and in 1972 the BBC commissioned a follow up – Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads?, airing on 9th January 1973. This new series enabled us to see what had become of Terry and Bob and it was as equally successful, spawning a Cinematic version (however at this time this was not uncommon – just about every TV comedy had been made into a film, in a desperate attempt to save the British Film industry). There was only to be that one series on television. Most of us think there was more , but that is probably because they were repeated so often over the years. However Whatever..hasn’t been on terrestrial TV since 2008, and I will explain why later on.
What made the series so popular was the way that people could relate to the two lads. Bob with his aspirations to move into the middle class, and Terry’s stubborn refusal to have anything to do with such pretention. I first watched Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads back in the late 1970s, on a repeat , when I was about ten years old. I was immediately drawn to it’s warmth and humour . Having a Mother who is from Tyneside helped too!. The fact that the BBC fimed so many of the locations up in Tyne and Wear added to its appeal.
I think the other thing that made it so appealing to people is that everyone knew a Terry or a Bob. For some they may have recognised the traits in themselves. Indeed it is the 1970s series that has more power than its Sixties genesis. Somehow the humour was darker. The constant conflicts that Bob and Terry had illustrated how far their characters were growing apart from their working class roots. Bob Ferris desperately trying to claw his way from the terraced streets of his childhood and adolescence, whilst Terry Collier steadfastly hung on, almost with dewey-eyed sentiment to his working class-ness.
When the series came to close, it was generally accepted that this would not be last we would see of the Likely Lads, but as the years passed, this was not to happen. But why?
I did some research into this and apparently it was over a phone call made between Rodney Bewes and James Bolam, in 1976. According to an TV interview with BBC Midlands Nick Owen in 2008, Bewes recalled it was to do with an newspaper article at the time. The actor said he had made some comment to the paper with reference to Bolam, that the actor had taken offence to. Bewes had said it was a nice comment, nothing nasty , but Bolam , who has always been fiercely protective of his private life, clearly felt a line had been crossed. To the day Bewes died, the two had never spoken. Bolam went on to star in the BBC’s historical drama series ‘When the Boat Comes In’ (also set in Tyneside), ITV’s ‘The Biederbeck Affair’, and then in 2008 through to 2012, in the hugely successful ‘New Tricks’ . The terms Bolam drew up with the BBC at the time of New Tricks included a agreement that Likely Lads would not be repeated in any of its incarnations (apart from the movie, which the BBC didn’t finance or produce). He demanded this as he allegedly felt he didn’t want to be over exposed. This spelt a big problem with Rodney Bewes as it would mean he would not receive repeat fees. It appeared to him that Bolam had injured him twice over.
Bewes sadly didn’t do as well with his career outside of Likely Lads. He is noted fondly by fans of Doctor Who for two episodes of the story ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ he appeared in back in 1984. Other than that he had worked hard in theatre and toured a one man show in 2008.
In some ways this sat as sad poetry to the parts that Bewes and Bolam had played back in the day. For more than ten years the two of them had been firm friends , enjoying time together both on and off set , with each other’s families.
I guess one day a drama documentary may be made, reflecting on that famous relationship, but I doubt it will ever be made whilst Bolam is alive.
I guess we will never know what happened to Terry and Bob, unless someone decides to recast – but who else could really do Terry and Bob? They owned those parts. Yes, back in 2002 the TV entertainment duo of Ant and Dec reprised the roles using original scripts, but it wasn’t the same, brave as it was. It is worth mentioning that Rodney Bewes made a cameo appearance in one of the four episodes made. James Bolam was notable by his absence.
So what do you think? Whatever happened to Terry and Bob? The natural environment to picture them would be sat opposite each other in the pub – obviously a Wetherspoons…Terry woudn’t be seen dead in a trendy pub paying, “Five quid? For a PINT?!”. But chances are that it would be set in an old peoples’ home, allowing a feast of scenarios to be explored. The fact that Bob would find himself back with the person who so often had derailed his ambitions would wonderful to see….but alas it will never be.
Mark Amies 2017