In the mid-1960’s there was a comedy programme on TV about two young football-mad Geordies. It was called the Likely Lads and was one of my favourites at the time. It starred a young James Bolan and Rodney Bewes. It was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who wrote other successful comedy series such as Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
It was set in Newcastle and the two working class friends, Bob and Terry, had different outlooks on life. Bob (Rodney Bewes) aspired to be one of the middle classes, whilst Terry constantly accused him of being a traitor to his class. This “class warfare” was the basis of much of the humour in the sitcom, and was a common theme in comedy programmes of the 1960’s and 1970’s. There was a very famous sketch in the Frost Programme in 1966 which featured John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, and Ronnie Corbett, representing the upper class, middle class, and working class respectively. The beauty of the routine was enhanced by the heights of the actors who were very tall, medium height, and short. For me it was one of the all-time brilliant comedy sketches.
A few years after the Likely Lads finished it was reprised in 1973 with two further series entitled Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. My favourite episode was first aired on 20 February 1973. I remember the date very well for reasons I won’t expand fully upon, but West Ham had just beaten WBA 2-1 on the previous Saturday afternoon, with a 98th minute goal scored by Pop Robson, which was just desserts as West Brom had produced one of the most negative, time-wasting performances I have ever seen from a team. A scrapbook I kept at the time included a Sunday Telegraph report of the game where David Miller wrote “this wretched display by West Bromwich – hacking, arguing, and niggling throughout – will leave few of those present shedding tears at their imminent disappearance into the Second Division.” Another cutting in my scrapbook, this time by Sam Bartram in the Sunday People, includes the words, “Referee Kerkhof’s rumbling of the Albion time-wasting tactics was one of the few things that he did right all afternoon.”
The following Saturday, along with my fellow writer, Geoff Hopkins, we visited the Victoria Ground in Stoke, where we lost 2-0. My main recollection of that day was the long trip home, finally arriving at 4am before getting up to play Sunday morning football the following day.
Sorry, I digress. My favourite “Likely Lads” episode was called No Hiding Place. It consisted of Bob and Terry’s attempts at avoiding the score of an England international game being played in Bulgaria one afternoon, as they wanted to watch the highlights of the game at 10.20 that evening without knowing the score. In those days of course, there were fewer resources for finding out the outcome of games, but they still had to avoid TV news, radio reports, and evening newspaper coverage. The situation was exacerbated as they had a £5 bet each with another character in the programme that they could avoid finding out what happened before settling down to watch the game at night. This other person, Flint, played by Brian Glover, was intent on tracking them down; the comedy unfolded as they went to extraordinary lengths to avoid knowing what happened. The irony in the end was that the game had been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch.
I was reminded of the episode when trawling through the TV channels a couple of weeks ago and came upon it on one of those stations that constantly broadcasts old comedies. It brought back memories and I set myself a challenge to mirror the programme by avoiding the England v Scotland live game on Friday evening, and watching the highlights without knowing the final outcome.
I went to the cinema when the game was on, but I had to make sure I didn’t turn my phone on for the whole evening, and also drove with the radio turned off. I also had to be certain that when I got home I avoided the news on TV which followed the game, as they always like to tell you what happened (look away now if you don’t want to know – and then they give you about half a second to find the remote control!).
In my younger days I loved to watch international football. Perhaps it was because there were usually West Ham players involved? These days I am not too bothered, except perhaps for tournaments, but I have many memories of the England v Scotland encounters of the past, and I was keener to see this than usual. However, I was not that keen that I wanted to watch the whole game!
As it happened I succeeded in my personal challenge and settled down to watch the match without knowing the outcome. ITV condensed the highlights into about 20 minutes of football, and then a much longer discussion about the game. In what I saw England looked good going forward; they scored three headed goals with clinical finishes, but looked woeful defensively. Against better sides they might have conceded a few goals. Scotland, too, looked quite good going forward, but their finishing left a lot to be desired to say the least!
On the whole it was a good evening. An enjoyable film followed by brief highlights of the game which had the right result. I was glad I didn’t stay at home to watch the whole match. I did wonder to myself how hard it would have been these days, to avoid knowing the outcome of a game for around ten hours, as in the Likely Lads.
And whatever did happen to the Likely Lads? James Bolan has been a successful TV actor throughout his life, most recently in several series of New Tricks. Those readers with young children or grandchildren will know him as Grandpa, in Grandpa in My Pocket. Rodney Bewes has appeared on TV, the stage, and films, but not much recently that I can recall. Reputedly, the two actors have not spoken to each other since falling out in the 1970s.