It’s a weird sensation, but there’s often no more sober a reminder of one’s own mortality as when the death is announced of a famous face whose countenance is inexorably bound up with dim and distant formative years. Over the past 24 hours, two such deaths have been announced and both make me feel unaccountably sad. I never met either in person, but actor Rodney Bewes and pop star David Cassidy were in the room when I was opening my eyes. The former was one half of a sitcom duo, whereas the other was the luminous pin-up of the moment. Just turned five, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’ and ‘The Partridge Family’ were twin telly treats; one was rooted in a Northern English reality I recognised, whilst the other was a Californian fantasy that nevertheless sold an alluring illusion, one that said a bunch of kids could be in a successful band with their mother yet still lead ordinary suburban lives. Well, why not?
Both Rodney Bewes and his ‘Likely Lads’ co-star James Bolam had made their initial marks as big-screen sidekicks to one of the rising stars of early 60s ‘Kitchen Sink’ cinema, Tom Courtenay – Bewes in ‘Billy Liar’ and Bolam in ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’. In 1964, the pair came together in the first attempt to transplant the vogue for the North to the small screen for comic effect; the success of ‘Steptoe and Son’ had legitimised the sitcom as a vehicle for serious actors rather than music-hall comedians, and ‘The Likely Lads’, launched along with BBC2, was a refreshing break in the new channel’s otherwise highbrow schedule. Penned by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, ‘The Likely Lads’ was the first outing for a writing partnership that went on to define comedic portrayals of male friendship, as demonstrated in later successes such as ‘Porridge’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’.
Sequels years after the event are usually cynical affairs manufactured to exploit sentimental longing for the past and are about as effective in recapturing lost magic as high-school reunions. However, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’, which first aired in 1973, actually surpasses the original series by carrying Bob and Terry into their uncertain (and far more interesting) thirties.
James Bolam’s Terry returns home from an overseas sojourn in the Army with a fresh chip on his shoulder, having missed the Swinging end of the 60s and arriving back in Ted Heath’s Three-Day Week Britain. He strolls bewildered through a landscape in which the close-knit back-to-back communities have been swept away by concrete tower-blocks. And with them have gone the characters constituting Terry’s carefree youth, now subdued by marriages and mortgages. Even worse, Rodney Bewes’ Bob has moved up the social scale, engaged to middle-class Thelma and living on a new housing estate, leaving his single life (and background) behind, much to Terry’s chagrin.
‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’ is as potent a study of the crossroads between youth and middle-age as any TV drama has managed, let alone sitcom. The sacrifice of adolescent hopes and aspirations on the altar of a system that will dispense material rewards yet still dump those who submit to it in the cultural vacuum of the suburbs is handled with humour and humanity. Terry is an inverted snob, clinging to his beer and football whilst Bob tries to better himself with wine and badminton clubs, reflecting a now-lost world of social mobility and the belief that things can only get better. For Bob and Terry’s generation, things could get better; but it depended how far one was prepared to compromise. I can imagine Bob ending up as a divorcee with an ulcer after putting the work in, whereas Terry seems the type to eventually win a fortune on the Lottery after bumming around for decades.
When Bob and Terry were engaged in their class war, a graduate of a US TV ensemble piece had already progressed to solo status in the singles charts. A product of an American acting dynasty, David Cassidy made his name towards the end of his teens playing the whiter-than-white Keith Partridge alongside his real-life stepmother Shirley Jones and the impossibly beautiful Susan Dey. ‘The Partridge Family’ capitalised on the earlier success of ‘The Monkees’ by blending sitcom and pop, the main difference being that Cassidy was the only member of Mrs Partridge’s mixed brood with any musical ability. His was the sole Partridge voice on any of the Partridge Family hits, and his launch as a pop idol in his own right was inevitable.
At a time when home-grown pop stars were dabbling with a decadent dressing-up box, David Cassidy and his bedroom wall rival Donny Osmond appealed to the British pubescent female craving for the cute, the cuddly and the unthreatening. Both were more successful here than in the States, inspiring the kind of hysterical reaction unseen since Beatlemania; but whereas Donny Osmond was genuinely clean-cut, David Cassidy soon became irked by his image and attempted to trash it by appearing half-naked on the front cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ and ripping ‘The Partridge Family’ to pieces in the accompanying interview.
His US career stalled thereafter, so he concentrated his efforts on the far more receptive UK. However, his career here climaxed in tragic fashion when a 14-year-old fan was crushed to death during a concert at the old White City Stadium in 1974. Cassidy withdrew from the stage as a result and his recording career gradually declined as he returned to full-time acting.
What do you do when you’ve been David Cassidy, though? You can’t just vanish back into the chorus-line. After a brief brush with the charts again in 1985, he spent the rest of his life appearing on the nostalgia circuit and struggling with his own demons; a long-running battle with alcohol and then the onset of dementia was followed by liver and kidney failure at the age of 67. Rodney Bewes was a decade older than Cassidy, but he too remained linked to his youthful self in the public eye. His falling-out with James Bolam not long after they ceased to be Likely Lads was never resolved, but even the knowledge of their sad spat doesn’t sour the pleasure of watching the two of them together on DVD in a series that grows richer in its poignancy as the decades drift by. And there’s a kind of immortality in that, at least.
© The Editor