Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Rodney Bewes: "In The Chocolate Box Of Life, The Top Layer's Already Gone. And Someone's Pinched The Orange Creme From The Bottom!"

Another part of year actual Keith Telly Topping's formative years has, sadly, left us. Rodney Bewes, who died this week aged seventy nine, found fame as the aspirational Bob Ferris in the 1960s BBC sitcom The Likely Lads and its subsequent 1970s sequel. Teaming Rodney with James Bolam, the series regularly drew audiences of more than twenty million. Despite the success and that of the - even better - sequel, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? and a more than decent movie adaptation, the two actors later fell out in spectacular style effectively ending the chance of the series being continued. It turned out to be the peak of Rodney's career and he later found himself reduced to playing a series of less distinguished roles.
Born in Bingley, Rodney was the son of Horace, a clerk with the Eastern Electricity Board showrooms in Bradford and Bessie, who taught children with learning disabilities. The family moved to Luton when Rodney was six, later returning to the North. He was something of a sickly child suffering from asthma. This led to him being largely home-educated by his parents and he developed a fantasy life by making model theatres out of shoe boxes and staging performances in them under the eiderdown of his bed. He also read extensively and ambitiously - including Dickens and the Greek classics. At thirteen, he saw an advertisement in his father's copy of the Daily Herald. The BBC were looking for a boy actor for its Children's Hour television production of Billy Bunter Of Greyfriars School. Rodney answered the advertisement and, although he did not get the part - which went to Gerald Campion - he was subsequently cast in Mystery At Mountcliffe Chase (1952), soon followed by other drama productions including a role as Joe in a 1952 adaptation of The Pickwick Papers. By the age of fifteen, he was living alone in a basement flat in London, where he joined the preparatory academy to RADA in Highgate, studying theatre in the mornings and switching to normal school work in the afternoons.
'All the kids were posh and they were the children of actors in the West End of London and I'm just this boy from Bingley and broad Yorkshire,' he later recalled. He spent three or four nights a week doing chores in the kitchens of the Grosvenor House hotel in Park Lane. His shift was from 6pm to 6am, after which he returned to Highgate, scrubbed the tables at the RADA school and then prepared food for lunch, before starting his lessons. Despite such patent determination, he did not succeed at RADA and was expelled by the principal, who wrote Bewes's mother a somewhat tart letter saying: 'I'm afraid that Rodney's talents lie in a direction other than acting.' In the later years of success, Bewes made light of this, pointing out sardonically that Alec Guinness was also booted out of RADA. After national service in the RAF, he managed to get jobs in repertory at Watford, Stockton-on-Tees, Hull, York, Eastbourne, Morecambe and Hastings. But he was determined to get on and showed some talent for networking. By his own admission, he 'made himself' meet the already successful fellow working-class actor Tom Courtenay, who had recently taken over from Albert Finney in the stage version of Billy Liar. The two began a lasting friendship and shared a flat together. Rodney managed to secure some small stage roles, as well as parts in TV productions including Dixon Of Dock Green, Emergency Ward Ten, The Plane Makers and Z Cars. He had a memorable role in the 1963 Nigel Kneale BBC play The Road as Sam Towler, an Eighteenth Century farm labourer who is driven mad by the screaming voices he hears in the woods which, in a shocking conclusion, turn out to be future echoes of terrified people fleeing from an impending atomic blast.
Rodney made his film debut in 1962 in Prize Of Arms, a story about a gang which attempts to rob an army payroll convoy. The film was notable for early performances by a number of later well-known actors including Tom Bell, Jack May, Michael Ripper and Fulton Mackay. A year later Rodney secured the role of Arthur Crabtree in the big-screen adaptation of Billy Liar, alongside his friend, Courtenay. It was the age of British cinema's so-called New Wave when filmmakers were turning their attention to gritty working-class dramas and desperate for actors with regional accents. Despite Bewes hailing from Yorkshire, rather than Tyneside, he was then cast as Bob Ferris in The Likely Lads, the first sitcom conceived by the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Contrary to common belief, the regional setting of the original Likely Lads series is never specified on-screen, merely that it is somewhere North of London. Indeed, Bewes often told the story of him asking Dick Clement where the location was and Clement getting a map, tracing a rough half-way point between the birthplaces of Bolam and Bewes and saying 'there!' It was Hartlepool. By the time of the sequel, however, Bob and Terry's homeboy turf was - perhaps reflecting La Frenais' own background, growing up in Whitley Bay - very definitely said to be 'near' Newcastle. The aspirational character of Robert Andrew Scarborough(!) Ferris was in stark contrast to that of his friend, Terry Collier, the workshy, cynical figure played by Sunderland-born James Bolam. Initially broadcast on the new BBC2 service, the series was later repeated on BBC1 to massive viewing figures. Three series - twenty episodes - were made, detailing the struggles of two street-wise, if accident-prone, boys employed in an electrical factory, trying to make sense of a changing world, while facing the usual temptations of beer, football and girls. Much of the comedy revolved around Bob's attempts to climb the social ladder in the face of constant derision from Terry.
The third series of The Likely Lads ended in 1966 Bob impulsively deciding to join the army and Terry rushing to join him, only to discover that his friend has been discharged because of flat feet (a radio adaptation was also made the following year). Rodney played a number of subsequent TV parts including episodes of Man In A Suitcase, Virgin Of The Secret Service and Father Dear Father and also appeared in films like Spring & Port Wine, Decline & Fall Of A Birdwatcher and a star-studded musical version of Alice In Wonderland in which he played The Knave Of Hearts.
He spent a year as 'Mister Rodney', who was one of a series of human straight men for the titular puppet fox on the BBC's Saturday early-evening children's programme The Basil Brush Show before creating and starring in a hugely popular - although now somewhat forgotten - ITV sitcom Dear Mother ... Love Albert! out of improvisations on the letters he had sent his own mother when he was living in London as a teenager. It showcased his skills as a scriptwriter and only ended when, in 1973, Rodney teamed up again with Clement, La Frenias and Bolam for the series that will almost certainly end up being the defining moment for all four, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?
The series saw Terry return from five years in the forces to discover a much-changed world, particularly in the case of Bob who has now bought his own house and car, secured a white collar middle management job and is engaged to the boss's daughter, the much-mocked Thelma (the excellent Brigit Forsyth). To a considerable degree, the comedy was built upon a basis of class observation, a theme very familiar to British TV audiences in the 1970s, a period of continuous industrial strife. Whereas Bob, Thelma and Terry's sister Audrey (Sheila Fearn) have adapted to the various changes that the last five years have brought, Terry's absence in the army results in him being left behind, a relic of the attitudes of the mid-1960s. It was a huge hit - generally considered to be one of the few TV sequels to actually surpass the original that it was based upon - as viewers followed the sparing between Bob, trying to improve his lot by moving away from Inkerman Terrace into a semi-detached life with Thelma on the Elm Lodge Housing Estate. Terry, meanwhile, was desperately trying to cling onto his roots as the Swinging Sixties rapidly turned into what one critic described as 'the sober and soon-to-be-unemployed Seventies.' And to constantly throw a metaphorical spanner into the new-found martial happiness of his old friend. Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? concerned change on all levels, literal and metaphorical, most obviously seen at the beginning of the fourth episode, Moving On, in which Bob takes Terry on a nostalgic tour of some of their old stamping grounds from the previous decade, most of which are now lone gone, replaced by multi-story car parks. (The location filming in Newcastle and Gateshead is almost a character in and of itself.) To emphasise continuity, the opening section of the title credits included a montage of black-and-white stills photos of Bob and Terry in scenes from the 1960s series, presented as if in a photograph album, accompanied by Mike Hugg's theme tune (with La Frenais' memorably bittersweet lyrics: 'Oh, what happened to you?/Whatever happened to me?/What became of the people we used to be?'). The photo album, it turns out, is the one which Bob gives to Terry during his Best Man speech at Bob and Thelma's wedding reception in the episode End Of An Era with the words 'Bob Ferris, this is your life!'
Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? remains one of this blogger's favourite TV shows, not just for geographical reasons but also because it was (and remains) a quite brilliantly scripted comedy with some very perceptive things to say about life and relationships. The opening episode - Strangers On A Train - for example is, effectively, a thirty minute duologue as Bob and Terry stumble into each other on-board an Inter City from London to Newcastle after five years of estrangement. It is, by turns, hilarious, touching, political and cleverly subversive.
Part of the success of the series - which ran for two series, twenty six episodes, plus a quite brilliant 1974 Christmas special - was the double act of Bewes and Bolam, whose on-screen chemistry was a masterclass of timing and pathos. Who, for example can forget the end of the series' most famous episode, No Hiding Place when, having spent an entire day trying increasingly desperate measures to avoid hearing the result of an England football game and win a bet, the pair sit down to watch the TV highlights only to discover that the match was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch?
Off-stage Bewes and Bolam had enjoyed a broadly warm relationship whilst making the two series. 'We were great friends,' said Bewes. 'When my babies were born, his was the first house I went to.' In 1975 there was a film spin-off, The Likely Lads, which proved to be the last time the pair worked together. Far better than the standard small-to-big-screen transfers of the era, the movie - filmed almost exclusively in and around Newcastle - includes some of Clement and La Frenais' most memorable dialogue; not just the famous 'in the chocolate box of life' scene but, also, Terry's wistful reflection on the concept of Working Class sentiment, 'an indulgence for Working Class people who've cracked it through football or rock and roll!' Soon afterwards, Bolam - who was famous for guarding his privacy - was reportedly incandescent with rage when Bewes let slip to a newspaper that Bolam's wife, the actress Susan Jameson, had become pregnant. Bewes told the story as an amusing sidebar during an interview believing that it was already public knowledge; he said that Susan had announced she was pregnant to James whilst he was driving and that Bolam had 'almost crashed the car.' After a fraught phone call the two never spoke to each other again. 'There was this dreadful silence. He put the put the phone down. I called him back, He didn't answer. He hasn't spoken to me since,' Rodney said. Bolam, in fact, was so incensed by the incident that he refused to appear on a 1980 edition of This Is Your Life, which featured his former acting partner.
'It's this actor's ego thing: he thinks he is important,' Bewes once said of his former friend. 'Actors aren't important. I'm not important; I have fun. I think Jimmy takes himself very seriously as an actor.' In one of his last interviews, Bewes told the Daily Mirra: 'I would love to be friends with [Bolam], but he doesn't want to be friends with me. I can't be like Jimmy, I can't be that angry - we're different animals.' In 2010, Bewes also complained about his former co-star's very public refusal to allow The Likely Lads and Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? to be repeated on network television (their 1964 contract stated that both must give approval), preventing him earning anything from any potential repeats; 'he must be very wealthy; me, I've just got an overdraft and a mortgage.' Whilst Bolam - who, ironically, had spent the period immediately post-Likely Lads struggling against typecasting whilst Rodney was enjoying great success in Albert! - went on to star in the BBC drama When The Boat Comes In, as well as the comedy Only When I Laugh and, more recently, New Tricks, Bewes' career, on the other hand, never again scaled the heights of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?
Rodney pursued his own cheerful and idiosyncratic path through stage farces and one-man shows, which he wrote himself or adapted from writers like Jerome K Jerome and George and Weedon Grossmith. There were bit parts in films like Jabberwocky and The Wildcats of St Trinians, TV roles in Just Liz, Spender and Heartbeat and he was able to use his abilities as a serious actor in a 1980 adaptation of the Restoration play, 'Tis Pity She's A Whore. Earlier in his career he had appeared in productions of She Stoops To Conquer and there was a role in a 1984 production of George Gascoigne's play Big In Brazil at the Old Vic in London, with Prunella Scales and Timothy West. In the same year he appeared in the Doctor Who story Resurrection Of The Daleks manfully trying - along with the rest of the cast - to make some sense of Eric Saward's vastly over-complicated script. His character's final line before a selfless suicide to save Peter Davison's Doctor's life, 'I can't stand the confusion in my mind,' rather summed up a story that had much going for it but, rather, fell between several stools. It was to be one of his last significant appearances on the small screen.
Rodney had some stage success with his one-man shows, Three Men In A Boat and Diary Of A Nobody, which he toured for more than a decade. He won a Stella Artois Prize for the former at the 1997 Edinburgh Festival. In 2015 he gave an autobiographical show there, An Audience with Rodney Bewes ... Who? His amiable, though occasionally forthright, autobiography, A Likely Story, was published in 2005.
His second wife, the designer Daphne Black, acted as his helper, setting up the stage and the props for his various performances. Rodney never gave up on the idea of a revival of The Likely Lads, feeling that the characters of Bob and Terry were still relevant even forty years on. Interestingly, Clement and La Frenias also had ideas for a third dip into the pairs' lives in the 1990s. 'Bob would have probably lost his job and gone bankrupt,' suggested La Frenais. 'Terry, who'd gone though life without much ambition, would have no doubt received two hundred thousand pounds for an unspecified injury received in a drunk-driving accident. And Bob would just keep saying "Terribly unfair! So terribly unfair!"' It would probably have been every bit as brilliant as the two previous series but Bolam wasn't interested and so the writers instead used some of the ideas in the later series of another one of their North East-based hits, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. 'Instead of being the Likely Lads, we'd have been the Unlikeliest Granddads,' Rodney suggested. 'We would have been sitting on a park bench in a pair of grubby grey anoraks, feeding the pigeons and grumbling about youngsters.' In 2002, he appeared in a non-speaking, but very funny, cameo in Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly's A Tribute To The Likely Lads, a 'cover version' of the No Hiding Place episode which, whilst not entirely devoid of charm, wasn't a patch on the original. Asked why he did not try more serious acting, Rodney was apt to quote a pub landlord admirer who told him, after Rodney appeared in a serious TV classic - probably 1982's BBC Play Of The Month adaptation of Sheridan's The Critic - that he had switched channels because it was 'very wordy.' Rodney became the subject of an unlikely running joke on an episode of Qi in 2010 when the similarity between him and a character in a painting depicting the death of Leonardo Di Vinci led Alan Davies to suggest that Rodney had, in fact, invented a time machine and was going back through history murdering geniuses for some unknown, but probably nefarious, reason. Although Rodney's reaction to this is unrecorded, one imagines he would have very much enjoyed the joke. His final TV appearance was, of all things, in a 2012 episode of MasterChef. His first marriage, to Nina Tebbitt, ended in divorce and in 1973 he married Daphne, an artist and textile designer. She died in 2015. He is survived by their four children, a daughter, Daisy, and triplets, Joe, Tom and Billy.