Just recently I was driving into work, avoiding the horror of the radio breakfast shows, listening to a playlist of songs and sounds I assembled in a roughly chronological, but slightly meandering, order from my childhood.
Nostalgiafest by Darren Stephens
Playlist · 80 Songs · Available with an Apple Music subscription. Try it free.
It includes things like the sound of the Play School clock, and the theme tune to The Partridge Family, and also includes this song, which has been stamped on my brain for almost as long as I can remember:
Now, it might help here to note that I’m nearly fifty, born as I was in 1970, just as the Beatles were splitting up, and Dana was winning the Eurovision Song Contest(1), so I’m supposedly in the prime position for all of this wallowing nostalgia about flares and Spangles. But no, I think the 70s is far more interesting from a mass media point of view for a whole bunch of reasons. I’m not the only one, as the wonderful first volume of Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence’s book, Scarred For Life demonstrates. The seventies was an altogether darker, edgier and more experimental period for all this stuff than we’re often convinced of by the cosy packaging of the past that frequently happens now. This show is one of the very best examples of how well it was done sometimes.
Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads (WHTTLL) is probably one of, if not the, best spin-offs in the history of (British) television. The original series was a fairly broad mainstream comedy that ran in the mid 1960s, and almost by chance showed a society in flux, as lots of the certainties of the pre-war years were being overturned by a burgeoning youth culture, and mass consumerism. Lots of the seeds of what was to come later were planted here, including the interplay between James Bolam’s unreconstructed working class laddishness, and Rodney Bewes’ Bob, who was rather more aspirational. In fact, the casting of Bewes and Bolam together was inspired. Physically, they dovetailed perfectly, with Bewes’ boyish, wide-eyed and open features contrasting with the more pinched, beaten-down Bolam. Together, they worked perfectly.
The original series is fondly remembered, but the sequel, coming seven years later, takes things to another level entirely. In the intervening time, Britain had gone though Wilson’s devaluation Crisis, the Summer of Love, a lot of domestic politcal churn, Europe, and the prognostications over joining what was then known as the the EEC (before actually joining just eight days prior to the first episode airing), economic shocks caused by tensions in the middle east/. This was early 1973, so we still hadn’t got to the Oil Crisis, mass strikes and the Three Day Week. The world was in a state of rapid change, but it wasn’t all bad. WHTTLL begins just as Terry returns home after being in the Army, and a disastrous marriage to a German girl, Jutta, he met there, to a country very different to the one he left, and that he struggles to understand. Part of his struggle is about adjusting to Bob’s new situation. He is now a member of the ranks of junior managment in the firm owned by the father of his fiancée, Thelma. He’s part of the new younger middle-class, with a disposable income, a more “mannered” social life (encouraged by Thelma, who is a librarian), and a mortgage helped no doubt by the loosening of credit by the Heath government. The result is effecitvely a journal of the tussle between the old and the new UK: a tableau of a period of Britsh social history, right there on screen.
The first thing to consider is that, for the BBC at that time, it’s quite an unusual setting. One of the attractions for me was that, unlike so many shows on either of the “main” channels, this one was set in the north, in Newcastle, so it was very much a setting I could identify with, even as a child(2). There’s the rather heated friction of class conflict too. Sitcoms on the BBC were usually more sedate middle-class affairs, and tended to be much more chintzy, and that even lasted into the 1980s. All you have to do is think of Happy Ever After/Terry and June, The Good Life, or To The Manor Born to see that, though you might say that The Liver Birds does push against it quite well. Even Reggie Perrin, fabulous though it is, is a portrait of someone struggling with middle-class ennui. ITV, on the other hand, had a far more proletarian (or lower-middle at a pinch, though not as northern) sensibility, with the likes of Romany Jones, On The Buses, The Wackers, Yus My Dear…the list goes on. This even included characters like the Ropers in Man About the House, though they themselves were gentrified somewhat in their own spin-off. But even the BBC was inching towards a wider and more nationally diverse social mix, as the first series arrived just before Last of the Summer Wine (also 1973), and Peter Tinniswood’s glorious I Didn’t Know You Cared (1975).
There’s something almost achingly modern about the milieu, considering the modern penchant for the nostalgic. It’s a show about a couple of nailed-on Baby Boomers struggling in the then modern world in their different ways, and the changes in their relationship towards both it, and more importantly, to each other. There’s an undertow of not entirely wistful nostalgia, but something rather more gritty: a feeling of lost youth and squandered opportunities, while being weighed down by responsibility and the need to “grow up”. It’s pretty much the template for the idea of the “first world problem” dramas that have come later, and is way better than pretty much all of them
Looking at the opening titles, Bob is the epitome of the young professional, walking out of his rather continental European looking, new-build house, striding out in his work suit towards the Vauxhall Viva that’s parked on the drive. He’s a beneficiary of that relaxation of credit that allowed more people to buy homes (even before Thatcher’s great council house push), and the surburban estates that sprang up to satisfy those demands. Being DINKY(3), they are better off, and Thelma has coaxed him into a more middle-class social circle. They are a very much representative of the growing breed of suburban Britain, moving from heavy industry towards technical and managerial work. But Bob is still unsettled. He does broadly like his new life, but there are elements of what he has left behind that the misses, and tries in some small way to cling on to, sometimes in actions, but even occasionally in more tangible ways, such as in the episode Storm in a Tea Chest, where Thelma manages to throw away many of his treasured childhood possessions. In fact, it’s probably Bob’s sense of unease about moving in wider society that is the emotional and intellectual centre of the whole show, because many of the events of the series stem from his struggle to reconcile the two parts of his psyche. If that sounds pretentious, sorry, but it’s certainly something that anyone from a working class background will have wrestled with if they have gone through Higher Education or joined a profession, for example. There’s the constant questioning of how far you can change before you stop being you any more, and this series nails that existential unease.
Terry is, in essence, the past: a fossil. He’s been away from the forces of change that have worked upon British society, so he comes back from army service in Germany as an both an avatar of the old, and an outsider. He’s a member of a working class that is starting to shrink, as the likes of Bob eye “respectability”. Though Terry is often seen by Thelma, as well as his own sister, Audrey, as the “bad influence” on Bob, it’s funny how Terry so often acts almost as if he were Bob’s working class conscience, and the pull back to his roots, which is very often not that comfortable an experience for Bob.
The writing is so pitch perfect it hurts, and evokes the sense of time and place of not just then, but of an era they’ve left behind not all that long ago. It’s chock fiull of the little pieces of ephemera and the quotidan that truly represent how lives were lived. It’s fun to ruminate that the gap between those two series is far smaller than the gap between that point and now, so as large as the leap is then, the jump to now makes them considered together a period piece, but the fact that WHTTLL is in colour marks it out as more in tune with now. It’s a masterpiece for Clement and La Frenais and it’s staggering to think they wrote this and Porridge in such a period of creative fecundity. Porridge is its own little story, of course.comedy
Even the end titles are perfect, with that theme song playing over the footage of kids playing in the rubble of the old houses that were bulldozed to make way for the march of progress: the remains of an old life, now passed, being picked over. Now of course we know that, even though all that change did come, it was accompanied by rather less savoury elements. In retrospect, knowing about things like the role of T Dan Smith, and the reprecussions of Poulson scandal in all this urban renewal makes it even more poignant.
(1) In the case, quite literally. About 90 minutes afterwards, as it happens.
(2) See also the knowledge that Christopher Biggins’ character in Porridge, Lukewarm, is actually a native of Middlesbrough.
(3) DINKY — Dual Income No Kids Yet