Saturday, 13 July 2013

Football and Comedy: Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads (1973)

Football and comedy. Mention the two words together in a conversation with a football fan and you'll often get the same response: 'Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads.'

The reason is simple. As British sitcoms go, very few encapsulate the dedication to football and the mental anguish of the common supporter like the episode entitled 'No Hiding Place.' For those of you unfamiliar with  this TV classic, here's the back story.

Terry Collier (played by James Bolam) and Bob Ferris (Rodney Bewes) are old pals that grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Having enjoyed and endured a relationship of virtual brotherhood for many years, their time together reached a temporary hiatus when Collier joined the army and travelled abroad as a result of his military service.

Five years on, Collier returns home to Newcastle and is reunited with his old pal Ferris, but their home town has changed beyond comprehension. Many of the old buildings have been pulled down, former friends have moved on and the swinging Sixties have made way for the sensible Seventies. Terry is struggling to understand what has happened to the world he left behind, and when we pick up the story in this episode, even a trip to a hairdressing salon proves to be an eye-opening experience...

Surely one of the greatest TV theme tunes of all time, accompanied by a title sequence that illustrates the history of Bob and Terry's friendship. Their younger years featured in The Likely Lads which ran for three series on BBC television between 1964 and 1966. Some of the pictures shown in the titles derive from this series.

A never-more-70s hairdressing boutique welcomes the arrival of Bob and Terry, the latter alarmed that (a) it's not a barber's shop anymore, (b) women work there, and (c) getting your hair washed appears to be the new norm. As for manicures...

The first mention of football as Gary, one of the hairdressers, asks Bob who he thinks will win the Bulgaria v England match taking place that day. It's a lunchtime kick-off, but highlights of the game aren't due to be shown until that same evening. Ah yes, those dark, distant days when even an international match wasn't guaranteed to be shown live on TV...

Terry and Bob are planning to avoid the score all day in the hope of adding some excitement to their televisual banquet later that night, but will they make it?

In through the door walks Flint, an acquaintance of Bob and Terry and a man they can well do without seeing. Flint almost lets slip the latest news from Bulgaria, but our desperate duo exit quickly from the salon before hearing something unfortunate.

Incidentally, Flint is played by Brian Glover, a well-known actor back in the day and someone with his own football connections having played PE teacher Mr Sugden in the film Kes.

Oh dear - the secret's out... "2-0!" shouts Flint as Bob and Terry flee the scene. They arrive at their favourite pub, The Black Horse and come to terms with what they've just heard. Here we get a great piece of dialogue about the way football scores are discussed. "People don't go around saying 'nil-two' do they?" says, Bob, and you have to admit, he's got a point...

Luckily for the fellas, it's all a ruse; the match hasn't even kicked off yet, and Flint was merely pulling their leg. What a rotten thing to do...

Time for some casual international stereotyping now as Terry discusses the dubious qualities of Britain's foreign neighbours. Be it Koreans, Russians, Egyptians, Italians, French, Germans, Spaniards, Danes or Americans, they've all got negative qualities that Collier can't stand.

Such matters are cast aside, however, when Flint walks in and bets the lads that they won't be able to avoid the score until 10.20pm. Their first test comes when Flint turns on his portable radio...

Bob and Terry take refuge at the home of Audrey, Terry's sister. Further insinuations ensue about the ability of the Bulgarians to provide a decent playing surface for football along with various references to Enoch Powell and Pan's People that date the episode beautifully.

And then the phone rings... Audrey goes to answer it, but the boys are too shrewd and don't bother waiting to find out who's on the other end of the line. Just as well - it sounds like Flint...

The local church is the next place of sanctuary for Bob and Terry, but there's still six hours to pass and desperate times call for desperate measures. Personal confessions, games of I Spy and the Eurovision Song Contest are all discussed, but yet again Flint arrives to cause panic where once was calm.

The sequence ends with another topical football reference as Flint delivers 'The Gospel According To Sir Alf'.

Further problems arise as Bob drives the pair home in his car past a TV rental shop and then a one-legged news vendor bearing a placard. But what will it say? 'England Victory'? 'England Flop'? Time for some excellent ingenuity on the part of our persecuted motorists...

Finally Bob and Terry arrive back at Bob's new house to watch the match. With less than ten minutes to go, their frustrating ordeal appears to be at an end. With bottles of beer at the ready, their relief at having avoided the score - and Flint - is palpable... but Flint finds a way to collect his winnings in the end.

It's the moment they've both been waiting for and the TV's switched on. Football awaits... but who's this? It's Corbett Woodall, one time BBC newsreader who throughout the Seventies reprised his role in a number of programmes including Steptoe and Son and The Goodies.

Unfortunately on this occasion, he's the bearer of bad news. Instead of European football, they're about to see the European Figure Skating Championships. Suddenly, that 'England F...' headline makes sense - much to the disdain of The Likely Lads.


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