TV comedy writers vary in their habits. Some work best writing in groups (as with many US shows, ensembles like The Fast Show and Monty Python). Others seem to work best alone (the late John ‘Only Fools…’ Sullivan, Simon ‘Men Behaving Badly’ Nye, Roy ‘Summer Wine’ Clarke). Others work best in twos, bouncing ideas off each other and finding comfort in their shared humour.
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are definitely in this final category and since the mid-1960s have achieved a record of success which has established them as legends in their field.
In the 1960s, they achieved their first major sitcom triumph with The Likely Lads. In addition to the writing itself, they also deserve unexpected credit for selecting James Bolam and Rodney Bewes for the key roles, Dick poring through Spotlight and eliminating anyone who looked like they could only be “serious, romantic or menacing” and being attracted by the fact both had been in films (Bewers had been Billy Liar, Bolam was in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). Controversy has long reigned in comedy circles over the Rodney Bewes and James Bolam’s real-life relationship with recent revelations suggesting the late Bewes may have been very difficult to work with. But they were undoubtedly the perfect choice for the time.
In the 1970s, Clement and La Frenais struck gold again, producing a full-colour follow-up, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? With the writing now focusing on how the two previously fairly interchangeable young friends were. by their thirties. gradually drifting apart – Bewes’ Bob marrying the woman Clive James described as “the dreaded Thelma” (the excellent Brigit Forsyth) and growing into a potential Thatcherite of the future while Bolam’s Terry remained much the same, even still living with his elderly mum, Clement and La Frenais produced a sequel which, for once, surpassed the original.
The hits kept on coming. The prison-based black comedy Porridge starring Ronnie Barker may actually be their greatest work of all while in the 1980s they scored major hits with Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Lovejoy. The last of these isn’t mentioned much at all here surprisingly, although its star, Ian McShane, who they also worked with on the 1971 crime thriller, Villain, is mentioned quite a bit.
In the meantime, of course, they’ve had their fair share of failures, unrealised projects, creative successes which received insufficient attention (their excellent 1998 rock reunion comedy film, Still Crazy and the mostly unseen Beatles-music inspired film musical, Across The Universe spring to mind) and disasters.
They have written more than you think.
They’ve also travelled around the world a lot and met many interesting and often famous people. Which is what this book is mainly about. It is not a straight cradle to grave biography, so much as a selection of anecdotes about the many famous people they’ve met on their travels e.g. Tracey Ullman, Marlon Brando, Anne Bancroft and George Best. If that isn’t your sort of book, then I’d probably give this a miss. But they have met lots of genuinely interesting characters over the years and they are good anecdotes. Clement and La Frenais are clearly good natured coves and are very rarely spiteful about anyone. They even seem to have found the famously volatile Peter Sellers okay to work with although Michael Winner does come across as having been a bit of a knobhead.
Each chapter is written either by Dick or Ian, with the other man occasionally inserting his own thoughts at the end. It’s a format which works well. Surprisingly, bearing in mind their long successful history together the very occasional chapters which they both collaborated on here actually work less well. This includes a slightly tedious opening chapter in which they construct self-indulgent fictional scenarios about how they first met, before revealing the commonplace but perfectly agreeable real one (they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend in a pub in Notting Hill).
Now both well into their eighties, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais often sound as if they consider themselves at the mid-point of their careers and are fully expecting to be writing together for decades to come. It is a good attitude from two inspiring likely lads who have done much to enrich our lives during the last fifty-five years.
More Than Likely: A Memoir. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Published by: W&N. Paperback published: September 15th 2020.