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A Likely story

Monday marked 55 years to the day that The Likely Lads was first broadcast. Stephen Griffin enjoys their creators’ joint autobiography

19 December, 2019 — By Stephen Griffin

Rodney Bewes and James Bolam in Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads? Photo: Topfoto/ArenaPAL

ASKED how he wrote comedy with partner Denis Norden, Frank Muir’s reply was typical: “We have a very long pencil.”

To those of us interested in such things, it was a frustrating response. Unlike novels or plays, writing comedy is odd in that it’s often the product of a pair of writers.

And we comedy nerds are fascinated by how the likes of Galton and Simpson, Took and Feldman, Esmonde and Larbey and Cook and Mortimer worked in tandem to create the likes of Hancock, Steptoe and The Good Life? We’re embarrassingly interested in the alchemy that produced Julian and Sandy and George and Mildred.

Apparently Galton and Simpson worked in a room next door to Spike Milligan, Johnny Speight and Eric Sykes, one doing all the typing, the other pacing the floor. David Croft and Jimmy Perry wrote alternate episodes of Dad’s Army and Hi De Hi, meeting before and after completion to dream up plots and add or subtract material.

All of which brings us to More Than Likely, the joint memoir of the creators of Porridge, The Likely Lads and Lovejoy, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

This immensely readable namedropathon is a constant delight. Writing alternate chapters, as you’d expect from the authors of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, it’s a delightfully illuminating affair.

As well as apprising us of the many projects that fell on stony ground, our guides are particularly good at shining a light on the magpie element of their craft; how they borrow characters, situations and even dialogue from experiences.

Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement. Photo: David M Benett/Getty Images

The first film director they worked with, Michael Winner, for example, was later the inspiration for a cigar-chomping bully of a film director in The Further Adventures of Lucky Jim, the writers’ days sharing a hut with others during their National Service informed the communal living of both Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and a line Clement’s bridge partner said gave The Likely Lads’ Thelma her biggest laugh.

The book is also a reminder that Clement and La Frenais’s output is not confined to the small screen. They’ve enjoyed success on stage – they wrote the book for the musical Billy and adapted John Wells’ Dear Bill columns as Anyone for Denis? – and in the cinema let’s not forget they wrote The Commitments, The Rock and Never Say Never Again.

For that reason their name dropping is of the highest order: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, Kirk Douglas, the Rolling Stones… the great, the good and Michael Winner are all present and correct.

Apart from advising Tracey Ullman to drop The Simpsons from her eponymous show, theirs is an unblemished record. Their heroes may be Galton and Simpson, but they’re right up there. And their ability to entertain is just as evident in print.

There is, naturally, no shortage of anecdotes. I love a good theatrical landlady story and Peter Sellers’ gay dresser, an old pro named Jeffrey, has one of the best.

Jeffrey told of a terribly “refined” Leeds landlady who not only banned female company in her establishment but alcohol, music or any sort of fun. She regarded theatrical types with suspicion, convinced they lacked any morals. One evening, Jeffrey returned to the house prematurely because he’d forgotten something. On letting himself in courtesy of a key placed under a flowerpot, he walked into the kitchen only to find his landlady in flagrante delicto, spreadeagled across the kitchen table, her skirts hitched up while a young decorator had his wicked way with her.

Not moving, the landlady eventually regained her composure and said: “Oh Mr Jeffrey, you must think I’m a terrible flirt.”

It’s a line straight out of Joe Orton.

More Than Likely is very much a memoir rather than autobiography. Don’t expect too much washing of dirty laundry, it’s much more about their professional lives.

But it’s a great reminder that Clement and La Frenais are true pioneers.

Influenced greatly by the kitchen sink dramas of the 60s, they took the genre to the small screen with The Likely Lads. It’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking that series was.

More Than Likely. By Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £20

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