Spies of Warsaw writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais on their lifelong partnership

"It's like a marriage". The duo behind The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet discuss the teamwork required to write David Tennant's new Second World War drama


DICK CLEMENT: The first time Ian and I ever sat down to write together was in a pub in the Old Brompton Road. This was back in the mists of time when, if we were charged more than a shilling for a pint, we complained – how else – bitterly. I did the actual scribbling, on scraps of soggy paper. This tradition continued when we were first actually paid to write something. My calligraphy is more legible than Ian’s – he should have been a doctor – but I don’t think that is entirely the reason.


Our MO hasn’t varied much over the years – from The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet to Spies of Warsaw. We write together. Other collaborators, so we hear, work by e-mail or split the script up and say, “You do that scene, I’ll do this one.” If it works, fine, but it’s not for us. We discuss everything. It starts with the story: what’s the main thrust and where are the juicy scenes? Inevitably, while we’re kicking ideas around, some dialogue occurs to us, a crude form of actors’ improv. We step into character, throw out a line and a response may occur. If it’s any good we incorporate it when we do the actual writing.

A tape recorder might sound like a good idea for this stage of the process. We even bought a couple over the years but the batteries ran out, or we forgot to switch them on and the thought of wading through all the discarded drivel in search of a forgotten gem was too daunting and time-consuming.

So everything goes through a double-filter process, alternatives considered, choices made. But as I was always the one with the pen in my hand – here’s the true confession – I had the power to choose my version over Ian’s if it was a split vote. If he didn’t like it when he saw it on the page and raised a red flag, out it went – or maybe we found a compromise, another line, another adjective.

We switched to a computer a few years ago. Ian stared at the grey cube on the table with deep suspicion. When I started to tap the keys, he was appalled. “You’re not going to do that while we’re writing?” I certainly was, as the alternative was to transcribe everything at the end of the day after he’d gone home. He got grudgingly used to it, won over by the obvious advantages of instant print-outs and corrections, though it was a year or two before he walked round to my side of the table to take a look at the text on the screen.

There must be a deep-seated psychological reason why we’ve chosen these roles for ourselves. I fuss over nitpicking details, while he’s dealing with the big picture. I value our collaboration because having a partner is a built-in antidote to my natural sloth. There are days – many of them – when I don’t feel like writing at all, daunted at the idea of once again trying to steer a course round the Cape of Cliché or the Bay of Banality. Then I hear his car pulling up outside my house and realise it’s time to go to work. And it’s a rare day, six or seven hours later, when nothing has been achieved.

Disagreements are part of the daily working process, though out and out arguments are few. My wife occasionally hears raised voices from upstairs, but it is more often than not the two of us overacting. A lukewarm point of view always gives way to a more passionate one, sometimes his, sometimes mine.

Ian has one odd quirk: when he gets carried away he jumbles up the names of characters, saying Bob when he means Terry, for example. It was worse with Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, when if he said “Dennis” he might mean Neville, Barry, Bomber or Oz. I used to point this out until he got understandably irritated, saying, “You know who I mean!” He was right, I did, so I don’t do it anymore, unless we are pitching a project to other people, where I feel obliged to interject if I see furrowed brows of confusion.

We had few arguments on The Spies of Warsaw. Ian gave me Alan Furst’s novel one summer and I liked it so much that I went out and bought all his other books and read them back-to-back. It was the first time since adapting Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments that we had such great admiration for the source material. When that happens we try hard to include everything we admired in the first place. Before we started shooting in Poland, I asked Alan if he wanted to read our screenplay. He politely declined, saying that he trusted us and in any case he recognised that changes are inevitable when a novel is translated to the screen.

IAN LA FRENAIS: I first met Dick when I moved to London for what they would call now, my gap year, although mine was in its third, with Manchester University waiting with bated breath for my arrival. I wanted to go to Oxford but in those days that required an O-level in Latin which was completely out of the question. So I was in London for no other reason than that it was London in the sixties and that’s where Michael Caine, Jean Shrimpton, Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks lived. Also my mates Maurice and Brian had a flat next to an Indian restaurant with a spare bed.

Dick and I met in a pub and wrote sketch material together for a revue, then decided to continue on a spec basis while Dick was working at the BBC and I was not really working at all. We didn’t seem to have much in common at first except a love of cards, pubs and Just William books. Dick rode around on a Lambretta scooter with a copy of The Guardian in his coat pocket; I rode the top of the bus reading the Melody Maker. He married young, quickly had a baby and bought a house in Kentish Town believing it to be the next cool place. We are still waiting. So I travelled to him, establishing a pattern that’s mostly been the case ever since. It always seemed to be a Friday. We’d watch Ready Steady Go!, eat a meal, work and I would get the long midnight tube back to Earls Court.

Then we did The Likely Lads and everything changed, although it would be two more years of produced scripts before I changed “student” to “writer” on my passport application.

Dick had the best hand writing so wrote everything down with a ball point and I paced around – a pattern, too, that survived when the computer replaced the yellow legal pad. As a result Dick spends many hours at the Mac and has become a bit of a techie while I, the pacer, can just about manage accessing emails and the Newcastle United web site. But my knees are in better shape than Dick’s.

Routine has hardly ever varied. 9:30 to fiveish and sometimes Saturday mornings if we are behind a deadline or in production. Being on a film set or in a studio is what makes it all worthwhile and more than compensates for all the scripts that gather dust on shelves or clutter the computer desktop.

What strengths and weaknesses do we bring to the relationship? If you asked a married couple that question someone’s answer would be bound to piss off the other. So as our relationship is like a marriage, though he’s never given me children, it’s a question to avoid. Although I don’t like coming round in the morning with an overnight idea that’s greeted with a frown. He’s often right, of course.

How do we resolve arguments? There’s a roped-off ring in Dick’s garden and kick boxing is our chosen method of combat. Three, three-minute rounds and Dick’s wife Nancy is cut man and time-keeper.

We have, over the years, worked independently from each other and successfully, too. But we miss the comforting security of collaboration, the bouncing off of ideas, the companionship and the laughs. As you get older you think more about how long this can continue, but the prospect of retiring from our work, and each other, is too appalling to contemplate. I believe death is the only way that would happen.

We could, of course, like the actors in the film Quartet, end up in adjacent rooms in a genteel retirement home. I think I’d prefer the tube ride to Kentish Town.


Spies of Warsaw is on Wednesday at 9:00pm on BBC4