Rodney Bewes

Friday, 22 February 2008 09:10

Whatever Happened to Bob Ferris?

 

It's 1996. I'd just witnessed Rodney Bewes in a Thursday Theatre Matinee. Funny Money is a West End hit - a farce in the traditional vein you would expect from author and actor Ray Cooney. Having not seen Mr Bewes practising his craft for some time, I considered it important to see him in action - and it was well worth it. As usual with plays of this genre, a chance happening, in this case the discovery of a briefcase full of cash, leads to one lie after another, each making the scenario more complicated and implausible than the last. I enjoyed it, as did the rest of the audience. The cast (which included Henry McGee, Trevor Bannister, Bill Pertwee and Carol Hawkins) obviously enjoyed performing it, too, as every now and then that famous theatrical sport of "corpsing" (the action of not quite stifling laughter brought on by the performance of another cast member) was evident.

To the stage door I go for my appointment, and I'm escorted down some very uninspiring passages into the underworld beneath the Playhouse Theatre. Rodney greets me, explaining we'll have to wait a little while, as he has to share a dressing room with Henry McGee, and he's not quite decent yet. "This is what used to be the boiler room, you know. They sold off the original dressing rooms as office blocks or something", Mr Bewes notes, with some bewilderment, and perhaps just a twinkle of Bob, his character in "The Likely Lads", coming to the surface. I could hear Bob finishing off the statement in my head - "so unfair, so very unfair".

Time passes, and eventually the dressing room is vacated. One side of it is Henry's - the mirrored wall and table in front of it neat, uncluttered, with just a few sticks of make-up lined up in a row on a napkin. Rodney's side, by contrast, is cluttered with memorabilia - photos neatly arranged on all the mirrors, books, notepads, allsorts acting as triggers of inspiration for him. He proudly shows me the recent Evening Standard review of the new series of The Liver Birds, a justifiably savage attack by Victor Lewis Smith. Highlighted is a section where he compares these new episodes, to the repeats of Whatever happened to the Likely Lads on BBC2. As far as Victor is concerned, there's no comparison - the vintage classics win hands down, and are still fresh.

"I'm sending that clipping to Ian La Frenais, one of the writers of The Likely Lads. I think it's time we did another series of it". Rodney's face beams with expectation. He loved making the series, and in this time of revivals, The Likely Lads has serious justification to consider itself worthy of an update.

A combination of Rodney's enlightened and liberal Bob Ferris, and James Bolam's reactionary and straight-talking Terry Collier, The Likely Lads made their first appearance in the 1963 Christmas Night with the Stars, introduced by Jack Warner. The two characters spent the entire seven minute scenario arguing about Rupert Bear annuals, with Terry quizzing Bob's encyclopaedic knowledge of them. After all, who WAS in Rupert's magic garden?

 

This taster introduced the audience to the characters they would meet in the first series they would appear in - called just The Likely Lads. Filmed between 1964 and 1966, 20 episodes were made of the story of two Newcastle lads trying to get on in life, of which only seven still remain in the BBC archive - so much material from that era has been lost forever. In fact, Mr Bewes informs me, those seven themselves were originally "junked", and only turned up thanks to recent searches through foreign film vaults. "The shows were screened for a long while on merchant navy ships, and some episodes ended up in an archive in Gibraltar. It's a part of my past that's gone in those lost ones, which we'll never see again".

Bolam and Bewes used to drink real Newcastle Brown Ale during show recordings, and things got very merry when more than a couple of retakes were required of certain scenes in the pub!

The final episode of that original series saw Bob thinking of joining the Army, Terry deciding to sign up, too, only for tragedy to strike when it turns out that Bob has been discharged because of his flat feet!

Soon after the end of that first series, Rodney helped Basil Brush get his own programme, as a spin-off from The David Nixon Show, where the excitable fox with the incredible laugh and his "Boom Boom!" catch phrase had originated. "I wrote and produced The Basil Brush Show, and was the first co-presenter. We were very popular with our audience because there was a lot happening each week. We'd have a collectors' item section, a weekly serial that always ended with a cliff-hanger, and an anarchic pop group in the middle. Arthur Brown set his hair on fire one week, and that was all the children could talk about for ages - they thought it was great. These days it's just psychedelic madness - perhaps the people in charge just don't know much about children - you can be anarchic without shouting at them.

"I remember ringing my mother at one stage and telling her I wasn't going to do any more, because I was going to do a film with James Mason, and my mother asked whether I was making the right decision. She thought Basil Brush was more important than any international production".

Rodney was then able to get a series off the ground with Thames TV. Called Dear Mother, Love Albert, he wrote, produced and starred in it as Albert, a character who wrote letters home to his mum every week, which were an embellishment of the truth, to say the least. Rodney also sang the signature tune for the series, and even used to be involved in the post-production editing. "They wouldn't let you do that sort of thing now - everything's done by committee. Then, you could arrange a pilot episode over lunch with one decision maker". The show was a hit, being a mainstay of the ratings Top Ten. He did three seasons of this series, followed by a sequel just called Albert.

Then came the offer to reprise his role of Bob Ferris in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, which would see the duo re-united, with Terry returning from his stint in the Army, to take on the 1970s together.

"It meant giving up Albert, but I was so fond of playing Bob, and loved the premise enough for us to begin again".

The new version had a longer run than its predecessor, ending with an extended Christmas Special in 1976. In colour (the original series being in Black and White), the show has a timeless quality to it which has earned it the right to regular re-screenings. The classic episode No Hiding Place, seeing the duo trying to avoid hearing the result of an England football international before seeing the late night highlights on TV, always seems to get a re-run when big soccer occasions are on the horizon. And One for the road remains a poignant indictment of the perils of drink-driving.

"One day, an Indian guy recognised and approached me in Putney, just in the Street, and told me that after he'd arrived from Uganda, having fled from Idi Amin's regime with just a suitcase, he said 'you gave me my first smile in a strange country, when I had nothing', and thanked me. It was such a nice thing to say that the Likely Lads had done that for him".

Rodney has been acting for nearly 50 years. He believes very much in promoting anything that he is involved with - whether it be a new stageplay, a new TV appearance, or something from his past that he is rightly proud of. I remind him of his role in the Doctor Who story Resurrection of the Daleks from the Peter Davison era of the early 1980s.

"It was sheer joy to do. The atmosphere on the studio floor was terrific - I took my children to see the recording, and there were actors shooting machine guns off, and my children were picking up the blanks and keeping them as souvenirs. It was great that they could do that, studios are so sacred normally, but it was remarkable that the crew were so laid back and happy while doing their recording to allow them to be there. I think that atmosphere comes through to the viewer, and is probably one of the reasons for the show's enduring appeal".

Rodney has been recently touring with his one man show Three Men in a Boat, having done it for three and a half months first off in 1995. "If it's just you on stage, and they've paid money to come and see your performance, you have to be so many extensions above good. It'll be brilliant to do it in London - the original book was written in 1889, but it doesn't sound dated at all, and is still funny to a modern audience".

"I'm on a real high at the moment. I know that the writers of The Likely Lads, and indeed I'm sure the BBC, would like to do some more of them, but whether they could get it together is something else. I'm not sure whether James Bolam would do it. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the writers, live in Hollywood now, and they've been working with Sean Connery on The Rock. That's one of the appeals of this business, you never know what's just around the corner".

 

 

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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