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The Likely Lads – Time Capsule Snapshots of Faded History

A while ago I wrote about the photozine From the Archives: Progress that was published by The Modernist and which collected archival images of building demolition in Northern British city Manchester.

The images in it brought to mind early scenes of demolition in the 1976 film The Likely Lads which is a spin-off of the television sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-1974), with both having been written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. These scenes, as with much of the film and series, are set in the Northern city of Newcastle and they show the terraced streets in which lead characters Terry and Bob, who have been friends since childhood and are now middle-aged, grew up and which are now being demolished. Bob, who has moved away and is attempting to live a more middle class lifestyle mourns and laments the loss of the streets and his roots, while until recently Terry still lived there and is just glad of being able to move to a modern block of flats with all mod cons rather than having to head out in the middle of the night to a freezing outdoor toilet. He lambasts Bob’s romanticising of a life that he was quick to leave behind and which Bob somewhat revealingly doesn’t want his own children to live:

Bob: “Worse for you than for me. I only spent my childhood here. You’ve lived here all your life.”

Terry: “It’s taken that long to pull the bugger down. It was condemned the year I was born. Me dad used to say, we’ll not be in here long. Only temporary, he said. That’s why we never re-papered the front room.”

Bob: “You must feel some nostalgia though. These streets are ugly but they have a kind of beauty.”

Terry: “Working class sentiment is an indulgence of working class people who have cracked it through football or rock and roll. Or people like you who moved out to the Elm Lodge housing estate at the earliest opportunity.”

Bob: “Well, I didn’t want my kids brought up in these streets.”

(Terry and Bob enter the pub set amongst the terraced streets, which was previously their local and is serving its final drinks before also being demolished.)

Joe (the pub landlord): “You’ll come and see us in the new one, won’t you?”

Terry: “Of course we will. What’s it like?”

Joe: “Bloody sight better than this one.”

Bob: “I mean, nobody cares! Nobody really cares. Nobody’s moved by the occasion.”

Terry: “Well those residents are. Moved to a high-rise.”

Bob: “Soulless concrete blocks.”

Terry: “What do you mean? It’s got a modern kitchen, a lovely view and an inside lavatory.”

Bob: “These streets had poetry.”

Terry: “Well there’s not much poetry at four in the morning, padding down the yard to a freezing outside bog.”

Bob: “You missed my point Terry, you missed my point.”

Filmed during what appears to be a real world demolition operation they are humorous and also achingly nostalgic scenes deeply imbued with pathos and their conflicting views of urban regeneration and the resulting banter between Terry and Bob are something of a concise summation of the push and pull, pros and cons related to architectural demolition, regeneration, tradition and modernity.

Both the film and the original two series of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads offer snapshots of a changing urban landscape and the contrasts between older terraced housing and new modernist / Brutalist architecture.

This is particularly so in Episode 4 of Series 1, in which Bob drives Terry, who has recently been demobbed after spending five years travelling the world as a member of the army, around the city to visit the haunts of their youth, the coffee bars and clubs they used to go to. None of these places still exist as they have all been knocked down and replaced with various examples of Brutalist architecture.

At one point they stand atop the Brutalist designed Trinity Square multi-storey car park:

Bob: “Know where we are now?”

Terry: “Well, vaguely. I just can’t place it.”

Bob: “Beneath this great pile of concrete is what used to be the Go-Go Rock Club. Members only, licensed till three, closed on Sundays, the North’s premier music Mecca.”

Bob: “The Go-Go? Gone?!”

Terry: “Gone, but not forgotten. At 3am under a full moon, you may see a headless guitarist, drifting through empty parking lots, playing ‘Roll Over, Beethoven’.”

Terry despairs at the loss of his youthful hangouts due to urban regeneration, which somewhat conflicts with his later appreciation of modern housing’s conveniences in the series’ film spin-off. As mentioned previously, in The Likely Lads film he considers his new multi-storey home to be very much an improvement on the older terraced houses he used to live in. However this notably positive view of them could now be tempered by historical hindsight, as in the mid-1970s such developments had necessarily yet begun to be as affected by the social dysfunction, issues with maintenance and so on which would afflict some similar developments in later decades.

There are a number of layered intertwinings between the real world, history, film and television in relation to the car park Terry and Bob visit. It was somewhat controversial, with some considering it iconic and others viewing it as an eyesore, and reflecting the changing cycles of trends and urban regeneration it was demolished in 2010 in order to make way for a new version of the ideal town centre which were intended to include a retail and student village. The car park had a glass and concrete rooftop box built 124 foot above ground level that was intended to be a nightclub and which was used in the classic 1971 British gangster film Get Carter. Somewhat ironically in context of Bob and Terry’s mourning the loss of the imaginary Go-Go Rock Club that was once on the site the rooftop box was never actually used as a club.

Some of the sites Terry and Bob visit seem to be somewhat desolate or desolated industrial areas and it is difficult to tell if they have been cleared for intended regeneration and new developments or if they are a harbinger of the closing down of industry in the North which would gain pace in the 1980s.

There are some holdouts against regeneration, such as the chip shop above, but when the camera pans out it becomes clear that it is merely a forlorn and isolated remnant and it stands alone amongst the electricity pylons, with the buildings that once adjoined it having been demolished. Elsewhere a local river they once fished at is now a polluted edgeland site since “they pulled down the flower mill and built a chemical factory” and the fish are long gone.

As an aside, the above right image of the chip shop is reminiscent of the above cover photograph from Peter Mitchell’s Strangely Familiar book, which documents sections of Northern city Leeds in the 1970s – the photograph was also used as the cover for the Bob Stanley and Pete Wigg’s curated English Weather compilation album which centres around the time when British music transitioned from psychedelia to prog. The below quote from text which accompanied English Weather seems somewhat apposite in relation to The Likely Lads and some of the topics discussed in this post:

“The autumnal sound of Britain at the turn of the 70s, looking out through wet window panes to a new decade with a mixture of melancholy and optimism for what might come next.”

Elsewhere at times there is an almost dystopian air to some of the very utilitarian looking high-rise redeveloped areas shown in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and any signs of greenery and nature are few and far between, bringing to mind 1973 science fiction film Soylent Green where the last few plants in a densely over populated city are kept in special enclosures. However despite these sometimes bleak images, it should be remembered that the series is a comedy and while it sometimes contains a certain melancholia the next set of (often deadpan) laughs are not far away.

The intertwining of the old and the new and also a related sense of how Bob’s upwardly mobile lifestyle has diverged from Terry’s is particularly present in the series’ opening sequence and credits.

In one section of the opening sequence the screen is split into four images, one of which show Bob wearing a three-piece suit standing proudly and somewhat smugly in front of his house on the new estate and the other images feature examples of Brutalist / modernist architecture. In another split screen image Terry is shown vainly trying to hail a bus on older terraced streets while another image, which is also featured in the credits, shows part of a demolished older house, the empty windows of which frame newer tower blocks off in the distance.

The Likely Lads film is full of period details and contains a number of time capsule snapshots of a world that is only a few decades away but seems very far removed from contemporary times. This is particularly noticeable in the scenes set in a supermarket, in which 1970s food looks to almost purely be processed, contained in cans and there appears to be little fresh or chilled produce.

It also contains a notable historic snapshot of a Northern British seaside town and fun fair in later sequences when Terry and Bob attempt to escape from their day-to-day troubles and life’s restrictions by going on holiday. The fair’s attractions are hand painted and nearer to outsider or folk art than the glossy hyper realist artwork which often features at fairgrounds today.

Shot during winter at Northern seaside town Whitley Bay, these scenes wonderfully capture the bleakness of such places during their off-season but rather than being purely grim, for some viewers (myself included), they also contain a nostalgically evocative character and they are lightened by the deadpan humour of Terry and Bob’s dialogue:

Terry: “I have the feeling that we’re the last two men on Earth. Shall we go on the beach?

Bob: “It’s too cold.”

Terry: “We’ll go to the pictures?

Bob: “Cinema’s closed. They’re twinning it.”

Terry: “How about the ice rink?”

Bob: “Doesn’t open till Easter.”

Terry: “I noticed a church hall back there. The senior citizens are having a bring and buy.”

Terry: “Something to keep up our sleeve.”

Elsewhere the film decamps to the countryside, where Terry and Bob have jointly gone on holiday with their partners (although only under duress and at the insistence of their beaus). As in the Carry On comedy franchise films Carry on Camping (1969) and Carry on Behind (1975) and the slightly bizarre comedy romp The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (1976), the latter of which I have written about previously at AYITC, the British countryside subsequently becomes the setting for various period sitcom tropes of fish out of water, restrictive spouses and roaming eyes. However, while thoroughly entertaining The Likely Lads film is deeply imbued with a certain kitchen sink-like realism and an ongoing philosophical debate and pathos about missed opportunities and life’s pathways which add a certain depth to it and prevent it from rarely becoming purely knock about comic farce.

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