British Actor

James Bolam has proved one of the most popular and enduring character stars of British television comedy and drama, capitalizing on his northern background and on his natural, pugnacious charm in a variety of roles over a 30-year period. Bolam had the good fortune to begin his screen career at a time when there was a tremendous vogue in British theatre, film, and television for working-class northern drama. With his punchy but vulnerable Geordie persona and undisguised accent, Bolam was a natural choice for such worthy though relatively plodding films as The Kitchen, which was based on the play by Arnold Wesker, and John Schlesinger's North Country feature A Kind of Loving. Subsequently, among other films, he supported fellow-northerner Tom Courtenay in Otley and played second lead to Alan Bates in Lindsay Anderson's In Celebration (a David Storey play set in the mining towns of Nottinghamshire in which he and Bates had already appeared on the Royal Court stage).

It was as a favourite of television comedy and period drama audiences, however, that Bolam (a former trainee chartered accountant) was destined to make his mark. Cast as the girl-chasing, anti-establishment cynic Terry Collier opposite Rodney Bewes's diffident and socially-aspiring Bob Ferris in the long-running and warmly realistic comedy series The Likely Lads (1964-66), written by Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, Bolam cut a fine line between pathos and brash northern cockiness. In his scorn for Bob's middle-class pretensions, Bolam's workshy proletarian Terry typified northern prejudice and aggression, but in his overt sensitivity to any rejection by his aspiring childhood friend and drinking partner, he became both endearing and sympathetic, as much a victim of a hostile class system as his soul companion. The friendship between the two characters was in many situations their only defence, coupled with a shared nostalgia for time-honoured northern ways. The series, which relied heavily on the writing of Le Frenais and Clements as well as upon the innate charm of Bolam and Bewes, was significant in that it raised issues of greater relevance to the viewing public than was attempted by virtually any other sitcom of the time (and, indeed, by many in succeeding decades).

The underlying theme of nostalgia for the values of the old north, and the comedy inherent in two northern lads trying to keep their friendship alive while coming to terms with the realities of life, was underlined in the even better later series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (1973-74), in which the pathos was strengthened by an awareness of time passing. This revival, which took up the lives of the two friends after Terry's return from four years in the army and Bob's assumption of bourgeois respectability (and engagement to the self-willed Thelma, played by Brigit Forsyth), proved as well written and as pointed as the first series, the friendship tottering and swaying as the two men argued heatedly about their conflicting views on such issues as class, sexual equality, and self-advancement.

Though identified primarily with northern working-class characters, Bolam has managed to vary his diet by escaping from the straitjacket of television comedy on several occasions. Particularly notable was his success as the indomitable entrepreneur Jack Ford in the long-running between-the-wars period drama set in South Shields, When the Boat Comes In, which extended to four series and finally ended with Ford's death in the Spanish Civil War. Jessie Seaton, women's campaigner and Ford's love interest in the series, was played by Bolam's offstage wife, Susan Jameson.

To underline Bolam's versatility, he also appeared with success in a BBC production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It, and in the 1980s forged a new variation on the sympathetic but single-minded northerner theme as Trevor Chaplain, the inquisitive jazz-loving schoolteacher investigating corruption in Alan Plater's The Beiderbecke Affair and its sequels.

A long-established favourite of low-brow television comedy, since the days of The Likely Lads, Bolam has continued to enjoy success in such unchallenging fare as Only When I Laugh, an unexceptional hospital sitcom that nevertheless lasted four series, Room at the Bottom, Andy Capp, Executive Stress, Sticky Wickets, and, most recently, Eleven Men Against Eleven (1995) - a comedy thriller in which Bolam played the beleaguered manager of an ailing Premier Division football team, under crooked chairman Timothy West.

-David Pickering




James Bolam
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

JAMES BOLAM. Born in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, U.K., 16 June 1938. Attended Bede Grammar School, Sunderland; Bemrose School, Derby. Married Susan Jameson; children: Lucy. Trained as actor at Central School of Speech and Drama, London; stage debut, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1959; established reputation as television star in the long-running series The Likely Lads, 1965-69, and the sequel Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, 1973; subsequently consolidated reputation as popular star of situation comedy as well as playing straight roles and acting in films. Address: Barry Burnett Organization Ltd, Suite 42-43, Grafton House, 2-3 Golden Square, London W1, U.K.


1964-66 The Likely Lads
1973-74 Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?
1976-81 When the Boat Comes In
1979 The Limbo Connection
1979-83 Only When I Laugh
1985 The Beiderbecke Affair
1986 Executive Stress
1987 The Beiderbecke Tapes
1987 Room at the Bottom
1987 Father Matthew's Daughter
1988 The Beiderbecke Connection
1988 Andy Capp
1991-93 Second Thoughts
1994 Sticky Wickets


The Kitchen, 1961; A Kind of Loving, 1962; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1962; HMS Defiant, 1962; Murder Most Foul, 1965; Half a Sixpence, 1967; Otley, 1968; Crucible of Terror, 1971; Straight on Till Morning, 1972; O Lucky Man!, 1973; In Celebration, 1974; The Likely Lads, 1976; The Great Question, 1982; The Plague Dogs, 1982 (voice only); Clash of Loyalties, 1983.


Second Thoughts, 1988.


The Kitchen, 1959; Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun, 1966; In Celebration, 1969; Veterans, 1972; Treats, 1976; Who Killed `Agatha' Christie?, 1978; King Lear, 1981; Run For Your Wife!, 1983; Arms and the Man, 1989; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1989; Victory, 1989; Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, 1990; Glengarry Glen Ross, 1994.


Grant, Linda. "The Lad Most Likely to..." The Guardian (London), 12 August 1995.

Ross, Deborah. "What Really Happened to the Likely Lad?" Daily Mail (London), 17 July 1993.


See also Likely Lads