Book review: More Than Likely: A memoir

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.

TV review: The Other One

Following the sudden death of family patriarch Colin (Simon Greenall), the Walcott family are soon in for another rude shock. For, it soon emerges that in addition to his union with the now bereaved wife, Tess (Rebecca Front) and their grown-up daughter Cathy (Ellie White), Colin was conducting a secret affair. He has thus also left behind a chain-smoking mistress, Marilyn (Siobhan Finneran) and another daughter, also called Catherine (Lauren Socha), known as ‘Cat.’ Cat is almost exactly the same age as her twenty-something half-sister.

Understandably furious, middle-class Tess embarks on a series of ill-considered relationships with men, played by actors from Drop the Dead Donkey. The already neurotic, Cathy, meanwhile, continues with her career and her unpromising engagement to the nice but fatally weak-willed Marcus (Amit Shah). Much to her mother’s horror, she soon also develops a close friendship with her more confident, wrong-side-of-the-tracks half-sister.

It is this essentially good-natured heart to Holly Walsh and Pippa Brown’s series, which follows up the pilot first aired in 2017, which really elevates it to the level of one of the best new British sitcoms of recent years. The cast, particularly Ellie White, are all brilliant and there are a number of excellent supporting characters, notably Stephen Tomkinson’s sinister climate change denying ex-Geography teacher and Caroline Quentin’s barmy but eternally optimistic auntie. Quentin’s character indeed, would warrant a spin-off series on her own.

And despite all the jokes about class, Marcus’s disastrous ‘dick pics’ disaster and the essential betrayal at the heart of the Walcott’s marriage, there’s a real sweetness to the developing relationship between the two Catherines which makes this a joy to watch.

More please!

All episodes available on the BBC iPlayer,

Eight UK TV comedies than either soared or flopped on the big screen

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A decade after The Office finished, Ricky Gervais’s most famous creation, the excruciatingly awkward “chilled out entertainer” David Brent is to return, this time on the big screen. Gervais is adamant that Life On The Road which focuses on Brent’s post-Wernham-Hogg existence as a salesman cum wannabe musician is NOT a full blown Office sequel. But which other small screen British comedy characters have attempted to break out into the world of cinema? And which have triumphed and which have failed?

1. Kevin & Perry Go Large (2000)
Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke’s sex-starved teenage creations followed the “going on holiday” formula favoured by many British sitcom movie adaptations ranging from On The Buses to The Inbetweeners, this time going to the party island of Ibiza where they run into a malevolent club DJ played by Rhys Ifans.
VERDICT: Neutral

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2. The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005)
With a tricky postmodern plot in which the creators of the TV series decided to destroy their own creations, the Royston Vasey cast made an awkward transition to celluloid, the cast later moving onto work on dark TV successes Sherlock, Psychoville and Doctor Who.
VERDICT: Failure

3. Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie (1997)
Loved by some, hated by others, Rowan Atkinson’s hapless hero performed well in his feature debut directed by the late Mel Smith. A sequel, the self explanatory Mr. Bean Goes On Holiday appeared a full decade later.
VERDICT: Success

4. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)
A-ha! Norwich’s favourite son played by Steve Coogan was transposed to a siege setting in this enjoyable film version of a dramatic event in the egocentric local radio DJ’s life. Partridge seems cooler and even slightly younger than in recent TV outings although never loses his essential naffness. Long suffering PA Lynn (Felicity Montagu) and Sidekick Simon (Tim Key) return although Mike the Geordie (Simon Greenall) appears to be killed off. A sequel is expected.
VERDICT: Success. “Lovely stuff” (not my words. The words of Shakin Stevens).

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5. Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie (2014)
Despite receiving appalling reviews, the movie version of the gender-bending Mrs. Brown’s Boys proved a modest hit with fans of the controversial and (let’s face it) truly awful BBC sitcom.
VERDICT: Failure

6. In The Loop (2009)
This well received version of the excellent BBC political sitcom kept its most memorable character, foul mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) but other regulars from the series such as Chris Addison appeared under new names to accommodate the “Special Relationship” themed storyline. Tom Hollander crops up as an inept minister while American actress Anna Chlumsky made an appearance paving the way for her role in the US sitcom Veep (also largely penned by Armando Iannucci).
VERDICT: Success

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7. Guest House Paradiso (1999)
Certainly very very very close to being the film version of slapstick sitcom Bottom starring Ade Edmonson and the late Rik Mayall (and yes, it still hurts to write that). But technically the names were changed. And this wasn’t very good.
VERDICT: Failure

8. The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)
Proof that British sitcoms really can work on the big screen, the tale of four sex-obsessed lads going mad in Crete was a big hit, despite resorting to the overused “holiday” formula (see also: Holiday On The Buses, Kevin and Perry Go Large, Mr. Bean Goes On Holiday). It also doesn’t end properly. It enjoyed the biggest box office opening weekend for a British comedy film ever, however, and the sequel (out now) seems to be doing even better
VERDICT: Success

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