Clement and La Frenais have been part of the television landscape for more than five decades. Their names trip off the tongue in the same way as Galton and Simpson, and Perry and Croft. So it’s fitting that these monarchs of mirth are at Buckingham Palace – not to supplement the OBEs they received in 2007, but for a brand-new sitcom.
Dick Clement, 79, and Ian La Frenais, 81, have generated big, lasting laughs with comedy classics The Likely Lads and its sequel, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, then Porridge (there’s a rebooted series in the autumn) and Auf Wiedersehen Pet. In Los Angeles where they now live, the venerated pair have polished scripts for films including The Rock, and won awards writing sketches for Tracey Ullman and adapting Roddy Doyle’s book, The Commitments.
They visit the UK four times a year and are back to promote a mini-series for Gold, Henry IX, their first TV comedy since the final series of Auf Wiedersehen Pet aired in 2004.
The three-part sitcom is set in Buckingham Palace but filmed on location at West Wycombe House in Buckinghamshire. It gives us an alternative UK monarchy headed by Henry IX (Charles Edwards) who is having a midlife crisis, trapped by the trappings of royalty.
The theme of confinement sounds familiar (Likely Lads Bob and Terry were straitjacketed, respectively, by impending marriage and unemployment, Norman Stanley Fletcher by prison, Pet’s British builders stuck in a Düsseldorf hut and so on). But while the writers concede the theme runs through their work, Clement says it’s common to many comedies, from Steptoe and Son to Only Fools and Horses. And La Frenais has fun with any attempts to pigeonhole their work: “Everyone in our Palace is trapped, just with better carpets. Trapped with 160 bedrooms!” He sees the situation in Henry IX as more of a midlife crisis.
The pair stress they are not antimonarchist. Clement says, “This is not a comment on the real royal family. People may make comparisons if they want to, but none are intended.”
The series has a classy look to it, as Clement points out: “We want to give enormous credit to Vadim Jean because he directed them really beautifully. Lots of little touches embellish the script, particularly his linking shots. We wrote scenes like a motorcade going off with three black cars and thought, ‘Well, probably the budget won’t allow for that.’ He managed to do all of that and get really great production value.”
The cast of Henry IX could be considered sitcom royalty, too, including as it does Don Warrington (Rising Damp), Annette Crosbie (One Foot in the Grave), Pippa Haywood (Green Wing) and Sally Phillips (Miranda). But Clement admits to being stymied by the three-episode run. “When you’ve got a good cast like that and you’ve gone through the hard part, the gestation, you want to keep doing it. We’d love to do some more.”
But then, as he stresses, casting is always vital: “It’s the best favour you can do yourself. And the obverse is also true: if the casting’s wrong, it’s hell, absolute hell. But the original Porridge was an impeccable cast. It was a fantastic group of people.”
An occupational hazard
And on that score, last summer the pair contributed a half-hour update of Porridge for the BBC’s 60 years of the sitcom season. From 1973–77 the show had starred Ronnie Barker as cynical inmate Fletch in the fictional Slade Prison; it spawned a Bafta-winning series, Going Straight (1978) and a feature film (1979).
Clement and La Frenais were thrilled the public took Porridge to its heart once again last year, and were “more than happy to go back inside” when the BBC commissioned a full series.
La Frenais says, “It’s being recorded in the classic BBC1 way with four cameras in front of a live audience, which we haven’t been involved with for a long time.”
In the new series, expected to air in the autumn, Kevin Bridges plays Nigel Fletcher, grandson of Ronnie Barker’s Norman Stanley Fletcher in the original.
“The old Fletcher is working class,” adds La Frenais, but his grandson isn’t because he’s had a taste of everything: five-star restaurants, hotels, snorkelling in the Seychelles…” Clement interjects, “Which of course were on the proceeds of stolen credit cards.”
And the writers are especially proud of the new, inverted central friendship. Where old Fletch passed on the benefit of his dubious experience to his naive young cell-mate Godber, new Fletch is like a son to his older oppo Joe (Dave Hill). “That relationship with Dave and Kevin is working beautifully,” says Clement.
And to think that the original Porridge might never have happened. The pilot story, Prisoner and Escort, was one of seven separate comedies in a 1973 Ronnie Barker series called 7 of One – and one of two scripts written by Clement and La Frenais. The other was I’ll Fly You for a Quid. Barker was keen to develop the latter, about a family of Welsh gamblers, but La Frenais says, “He deferred to us.”
At first the writers regretted settling on Porridge. La Frenais explains, “We said it would be so much easier to be in the Welsh valleys than trying to get plots in prison.”
“Then we went round prisons,” adds Clement, “and got very depressed because the reality is they’re not fun. So we’re trying in the new series to be fair about that…”
Oh, what happened to you...?
So with Porridge returning, could we see the Likely Lads ever coming back? Between 1964 and 1974 James Bolam and Rodney Bewes played Terry and Bob in 46 episodes of North East misadventures, as well as a Christmas special and a film in 1976. “No I don’t think so,” says Clement, firmly. “Years ago, we wondered what had happened to them and made ourselves chuckle by thinking that probably Bob had worked extremely hard all his life and then gone bankrupt. Terry had done sod all then won the lottery or something.”
“No, no,” corrects La Frenais, “Terry had a car crash and ended up getting a fortune in insurance. Bob had a daughter at uni and a son working as a roadie for Oasis. We didn’t quite work out what Terry’s children were doing…”
That's living all right!
Another smash hit for the duo, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, ran to four popular series and a two-part finale in 2004. The original 1983 series saw jobless construction workers flee Thatcher’s Britain in search of employment in Germany.
Once again, casting was crucial, and the show made household names of its magnificent seven including Jimmy Nail, Kevin Whately, Timothy Spall and Tim Healy. Nail’s casting in Newcastle for the role of roguish brickie Oz was an unforgettable moment for the writers…
“Jimmy walked into the casting session,” recalls La Frenais. “I mean, basically walked in off the street. He was working as a glazier at the time. And he said, ‘What’s this then? What’s going on?’”
Clement continues, “I just looked at him across the room, and before I’d heard him say a word I just said, ‘Oh PLEASE let him be able to act just a little bit because he looked like the Oz in my mind. That doesn’t often happen. And the thing about Oz was, we wrote him as a character we really did not approve of. He didn’t send money home… he was a bad lad. And the weird thing is the audience just took him to their hearts and forgave him everything."
“We didn’t soften him,” continues La Frenais. “And the more dislikeable we made him the more we were asked to write more Oz!”
The series turned a page in the writers’ careers, too, as Clement elaborates: “Yes, we never thought of Auf Wiedersehen as a comedy. We were delighted when people laughed but we didn’t feel that we were subjected to the tyranny of ‘Where’s the laugh on page one?’ And writing to that 50-minute format is very different from 30. That was quite liberating, actually.”
The bank jobs
You would think that juggling two new series – Henry IX and the new Porridge – would be enough for the elder statesmen of comedy, but not a bit of it…
They’ve written a film about the 2015 Hatton Garden raid by elderly men. What was the appeal there? “Trapped in a vault, aren’t they?” laughs La Frenais. And the “one last job” scenario, perhaps? “Yes,” he adds, “but it’s about relevance. They all felt like yesterday’s men – irrelevant and incompetent and obsolete.”
Clement says, “Just after it had happened someone said to me, ‘Have you heard about this? You should write that, it’s right up your street.’ Having done The Bank Job [their 2008 heist thriller with Jason Statham], the similarities are there. Again it’s an ensemble piece, it’s four or five guys. And they happen to be old, which is interesting.
“There’s a lot of competition for this story because I’ve seen the trailer for one film based on it, which doesn’t look very good, and there are at least two others in the works.”
So do they portray the burglars sympathetically? “We don’t sugar-coat them,” says Clement. “I mean, we make it clear that they were hard guys. But at the same time we found quite a bit of humour in it, just about the situation. Our intention will be to make it tense and exciting first but with humour being a trace element.”
In the pipeline
But that’s not all. Also in the works are a documentary about the 1960s narrated by Michael Caine, a war film, a play about Harpo Marx, a TV cop show set in the 60s and another one about a Spanish football team. Plus one project they don’t want to jinx by revealing any details about. “You can’t ever just have one project, you’ve got to have at least six,” says La Frenais.
His colleague adds, “We also have one that we didn’t originate but we’ve been helping with. It’s about the Scottish women who won gold for curling.”
“Trapped in a little Ayrshire town,” La Frenais chips in.
So, no prospect of closing the laptop for good yet? “No, I really don’t want to do that,” says Clement. “I say to my wife, ‘What would I do? I’d probably drive you crazy.’ It’s good to be busy. It keeps your brain working, it keeps you functioning and I think it’s healthy.”