A Tribute to the Likely Lads

Saturday, May 11, 2002 by

Ant and Dec’s tribute to The Likely Lads caused much rumblings in advance of the programme’s transmission. From the Radio Times Alison Graham lambasted the programme for daring to revisit the grounds of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads‘ greatest triumph (the sublime episode “No Hiding Place”). And this reviewer felt moved to grumble that Ant and Dec would be better served by a vehicle written especially for them (and wished he could recant it after realising he’d placed himself publicly in Graham’s camp).

Nevertheless, upon witnessing the genuinely nostalgic title sequence coupled with the excellent Tony Rivers theme (and it was a smart move to keep this version) expectations were momentarily raised. Ant and Dec are great performers, whose TV career thus far has shown a shrewd self-awareness and an ever-present wit. Going on past experience they can both act a bit too. Moreover, they have developed a double-act which feels like it’s borne of a genuine long-term friendship (and if the press is to be believed, it is). As such, their shtick feels comfortable, familiar and homely. They should have been perfect for the roles of Bob and Terry.

The episode opened with the characters in a coffee shop. The business of ordering a coffee in convoluted detail is already an old routine, so it was a shame that the programme relied on this for its opening laughs (and they seemed suspiciously loud in the mix). Every updated reference and scene from the original 1973 episode is obviously going to bring undue attention to itself in a project like this, prompting the au fait viewer to ask why the changes have been made. The swap from a hairdressers to a pseudo-Starbucks seemed pretty sensible, however – an effective signifier of a rising undercurrent of bohemia in the 21st century.

Alas, played against this Ant’s interpretation of Terry Collier was under-nourished. Firstly the performance was one-note, all dialogue projected as though he was on stage. It felt as though Ant couldn’t find a hook to his character and so opted to raze the lines and hope for the best instead. Secondly, this Terry Collier just didn’t seem as though he had years in the army behind him. This is perhaps due to the baggage Ant brought to the part and arguably not his fault. Nevertheless, Terry’s ennui, nostalgia and cynicism for changes in Newcastle just didn’t ring true on any level. Similarly his mild homophobia fell flat. In the original series this theme served to underline that Terry was lost in a world becoming more liberal. Transplanted to the present day, Terry’s suspicion of the “puffs” just seemed like disagreeable ignorance.

Bob Ferris’ character faired better however, but partly because he’s more of a caricature anyway. Where Terry is bitter, Bob is frustrated – far easier to portray in comedy.

The realisation of the programme as a whole was competent, although somehow half-hearted. The sets were all bona fide sitcom and reassuringly cheap, whilst the sound quality seemed a little patchy. John Thompson’s character was purely there to drive the plot, but that could be a criticism levelled at the original version too. Most of all the programme was lacking in pace. With an atmosphere stilted and shorn of any sense of improvisation, this tribute felt more like a script read-through. Ironically if the lads had been less reverential to the source and allowed more of their own ebullience to shine through the whole thing could have been far more successful. Instead everything felt like it was on rails, chugging along to deliver a denouncement that was half-botched anyway (the revelation that the football had been cancelled and figure skating was on the telly instead should have been prefaced by the info-dump that Terry hates the sport).

In the final analysis, this reviewer finds himself still – unwillingly – in the Alison Graham camp. Ant and Dec are great on telly, easily ITV’s best commodity. But they were ill served here. By all means let’s see them in a sitcom – but one where they can be their own men.


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