British Comedy

When the BBC's second television channel began in 1964 it was generally intended to provide the sort of minority interest factual and cultural programming which was being marginalised by the struggle for popularity against the commercial channel, ITV. It was also intended to advance the technology of television by transmitting on the new 625-line standard which would pave the way for the introduction of colour. To receive it, viewers needed to buy a new television set--and to sell the new sets in large enough numbers, the new channel needed some popular programming.

In the field of comedy, The Likely Lads provided the perfect vehicle, being both innovative yet within the tradition of popular entertainment. It launched the comedy career of the writing team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and proved one of the infant channel's most enduring successes.

The protagonists are two young friends, Terry Collier and Bob Ferris, recently out of school and starting out in their first jobs. Their interests are predictable--girls, drinking, football and fun. However, they are a new breed of working class heroes. They have some money in their pockets and the "swinging sixties" are getting underway. The very first scene of the very first episode, "Entente Cordiale" sees them coming home from a holiday in Spain--the sort of thing that had been unavailable to their kind in earlier years but which was to come to be taken for granted by their generation.

The setting, the Northeast of England was also fairly new--to television, anyway. In many ways, The Likely Lads was television's response to the portrayal of north country youth in such films of the early 1960s as A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar. Indeed the two young actors chosen for the lead roles--James Bolam as Terry and Rodney Bewes as Bob--had begun their careers in minor roles in these films.

As the series progressed the two characters emerged and their differences were to form the basis for the comedy and the development of the show. Both the lads have a sharp intelligence but use it differently and reach different conclusions about what they want out of life. Terry is a cynic. He knows his class and his place in society and his sole aim is to get what he can, when he can. Bob has ambitions. He thinks he can make a better life for himself but lacks confidence. Terry's crazy schemes scare him, but it is usually his friend who comes off worse.

There were three series of The Likely Lads between 1964 and 1966, a total of 20 episodes. In the final episode, "Good-bye to all that", Bob decides to join the army. Missing his friend, Terry signs up too, only to find that Bob has been discharged for having flat feet and that he, Terry, is committed for five years.

So, the likely lads went their own ways and the actors into different projects with varying success. But, with the spread of colour television in the early seventies, the BBC instituted a policy of reviving its biggest comedy successes of the 1960s. Following Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part, the decision was taken to bring back The Likely Lads. However, unlike the other two sitcoms, The Likely Lads was not the same as it had been. The new title, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, reflected the fact that seven years had passed since they last appeared. The actors were older and the characters had aged with them. Terry had seen the world (Germany and Cyprus) with the army. Bob had been successful at work and, as the series opened in 1973 he is buying a new house and is about to marry his childhood sweetheart Thelma (Bridgit Forsyth) and settle down to a respectable middle-class life.

Terry's return, and his withering contempt for what he sees as Bob's betrayal of his working class roots, threatens to spoil Bob's plans and ruin his marriage, which takes place as the series progresses. At the same time, the shifting economic circumstances of the Northeast are reflected in Terry's feeble attempts to find employment or any sort of a role in a place which has changed so much in his absence.

Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? provided, amongst all the laughs, a social commentary equal to anything found in the serious drama of the time. Two series were made 1n 1973 and 1974, a total of 26 shows. The actors, particularly James Bolam, tried subsequently to shake off their roles, but there are still many in Britain who wonder what Terry and Bob are up to now.

-Steve Bryant


The Likely Lads
Photo courtesy of BBC


Terry Collier............................................. James Bolam Bob Ferris............................................. Rodney Bewes

PRODUCERS Dick Clement, James Gilbert, Bernard Thompson


The Likely Lads                            20 25-minute episodes Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?                                                                          26 30-minute episodes
                                                       1 45-minute special



December 1964-January 1965                        6 Episodes June 1965-July 1965                                      6 Episodes June 1966-July 1966                                      8 Episodes


January 1973-April 1973                               13 Episodes January 1974-April 1974                               13 Episodes 24 December 1974                              Christmas Special


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 British Programming; La Frenaise, Ian