In the first of a new web series looking at the impression football has made on fictional television, MATTHEW CRIST looks back at a classic episode of one the 1970s’ most loved comedies.
Few things depict the 1970s as accurately and as brilliantly as: “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?” The fashion, the haircuts and the economic wasteland that is the North East at the time; still struggling to come to terms with its place in a post-industrial, post-war Britain.
But amidst stories of social mobility, unemployment and lost love there is one theme which is consistent throughout and still rings true today, some forty years or so since the show first aired; a love of football; something which is captured brilliantly in the seventh episode of the first series – “No Hiding Place.”
“The Likely Lads,” which was created by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and aired on the BBC between 1964 and 1966 followed the exploits of Terry Collier (James Bolam) and Bob Ferris (Rodney Bewes), old school friends who grew up in the Newcastle area and enjoyed a relationship more akin to brotherhood than best mates.
However, their relationship (and the series) reached something of a temporary hiatus when Collier joined the army and travelled the world as a result of his military service. Five years on and Collier is home once again and struggling to come to terms with the huge changes that have taken place in his absence in the follow-up series: “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?”
By now, though, many of the pair’s old stomping grounds have long since been reduced to rubble and the characters of that time have also departed the scene as the legacy of the swinging sixties is demolished in order to make way for the far more sensible seventies.
Back on Civvy Street, Terry is still the same person he always was with all the subsequent changes having blissfully passed him by while he was stationed in his Famagusta barracks. Bob, on the other hand, has become everything Collier despises, working in an office for his future father-in-law, and moving into a new-build estate on the outskirts of town.
One thing still unites the duo, however, and that’s their undying love of football. So when England face a tricky away fixture in Bulgaria, which is not televised (of course it isn’t, this is Britain in the ‘70s, remember?) they decide to avoid the score at all costs so they can enjoy the highlights of the game which are to be shown that evening.
But despite there being no mobile phones, no internet, no satellite TV, and pretty much no anything when it comes to keeping abreast of the latest developments in world football, this turns out to be trickier than first thought; especially when their old acquaintance, Flint, (played by the brilliant Brian Glover) becomes aware of their plan.
After making a bet with Collier and Ferris that they won’t last the day without hearing the score line from Sofia, Flint goes out of his way to track down the pair, taunting them with whatever snippets of information he is able to gather in a pre-digital age.
The game of cat and mouse begins in Bob’s somewhat nouveau-riche hair salon, in which Terry accuses all the staff of being homosexual or having no interest in football (this is the 1970s, remember?) and continues across town as the two seek refuge in a number of different locations.
First up is The Black Lion, one of their favourite watering holes, or at least one of the few ale houses that hasn’t been closed down, as we are treated to some classic, but highly amusing 1970s international stereotyping with Terry discussing the dubious qualities of Britain’s foreign friends. Koreans: “Not to be trusted,” Russians: “Sinister,” Egyptians: “Cowardly,” Italians: “Greasy,”… you get the picture.
In a bid to avoid Flint and his state-of-the-art transistor radio the lads then rock-up at the home of Terry’s sister, Audrey, but they are still not out of reach of the technological advancements of the time, namely the telephone, so when Flint calls the house looking for his prey, Bob and Terry are forced to seek sanctuary in the local church.
But even here they are not safe as their personal confessions and games of “I Spy” are interrupted by their persistent pursuer who even has time to deliver a topical “Gospel according to Sir Alf” from the altar before they show him a clean pair of heels and make off, still none the wiser when it comes to events in Bulgaria.
Running the gauntlet of a High Street TV rental shop (remember them?) with its dozens of sets on full display in the window, a one legged newspaper vendor and the ever defiant Flint, whose silence is only ensured by an early pay-out on the bet, the lads finally make it back to Bob’s.
Settling in for the night, complete with bottles of Brown Ale and still blissfully unaware of events behind the Iron Curtain, the boys finally make it through, unscathed, to that night’s broadcast; only to find out the game has, in fact, been rained off. (Wah, wah, wahhh…!)
Essentially, “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?” is a comedy, but it is also a great microcosm of British society, not just then, but now too. The great fondness between two childhood friends who are forever linked but who can no-longer live in each other’s pocket; the fear of loss and the reluctance to accept change.
And although very much ensconced in the 1970s, with all the outrageous fashion and equally shocking political incorrectness of the time, the fact that almost five decades later those watching the Saturday evening news are still told to leave the room if they don’t want to hear the football results before Match of the Day comes on shows that in football, if nothing else in life, the more things change, the more they stay the same.