Thursday, June 19, 2008

Little Victories

For writers impatient to break into television, the continual realisation that there is no one simple way of getting their foot in the industry’s door has to be disheartening. In a way it’s like Willy Loman asking his dead brother Ben how he made his millions only to be told, “When I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle. And by twenty-one, I walked out. And by God, I was rich!” What kind of answer is that?

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais in Conversation, at the BFI Southbank’s National Film Theatre, were quick to illustrate the old adage that, from their experience, it simply comes down to being in the right place at the right time. Introduced to each other as friends of friends in a Notting Hill pub, when the pair decided to start writing together they at least had the advantage of Clement already working at the BBC.

He was on the Corporation’s directors course, the final part of which saw him given a studio for one day, £100 spending money and carte blanche to make whatever he wanted. Rather than waste the one opportunity they might have to produce something relevant, the pair took a sketch they had already written and expanded it to half an hour. It became, in embryonic form, The Likely Lads.

Typically the tape then sat on a shelf with people watching it occasionally but doing nothing more about it. With BBC2 about to go on the air, the channel needed content and though it had been near the bottom of any list, Clement and La Frenais found themselves with a six-episode commitment. As Frank Muir, then the Assistant Head of Light Entertainment, mentioned to them not long after, the show had been picked up simply because it was inexpensive to make.

Even then, their comedy about two young Northern lads stumbling their way through life was still only seen by the select audience that received the BBC’s new channel, rather than the country at large. Once the characters appeared in a sketch written for the 1964 Christmas Night with the Stars television special, and the first series was then screened on BBC1, The Likely Lads’ popularity took off. As Ian La Frenais noted, it was the first time they heard the phrase “repeat fees”, which they liked very much.

Over the course of their ninety minutes on stage, peppering the conversation with typically amusing anecdotes as they discussed their work in film and television, comedy and drama, the one constant was that neither Dick Clement nor Ian La Frenais appeared to take anything for granted. After their initial success it wasn’t until they had the three series of The Likely Lads and their first feature film script under their belts that La Frenais finally give up his day job in market research.

Neither did they immediately have all the answers. When Prisoner and Escort, one of two half-hour comedies the pair had written for Ronnie Barker’s Seven of One series, was given a full series, the initial idea was for career criminal Norman Stanley Fletcher to be the Ernie Bilko of the British prison system. Once Clement and La Frenais visited Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton Prison they quickly realised it couldn’t be solely played for laughs.

Neither seemed sure how to get a handle on the series until, talking with an ex-con about prison life, the one-time jailbird mentioned the “little victories” that helped get him through his sentence. Whether it was simply getting an extra dollop of mashed potatoes in the prison dining hall or finding a way to get one over on the screws, every little thing helped make every day behind bars that more tolerable. With that, Clement and La Frenais had the key to their series.

As good as the writing was, La Frenais quickly pointed out that what made Porridge was the formidable acting talent of Barker, Richard Beckinsale, Fulton McKay and Brian Wilde. The success of the first series took the pair to Hollywood where they were invited by ABC to remake it as On the Rocks. Typically they arrived in America to discover whatever reputation they enjoyed over here meant absolutely nothing over there. What made the pair visibly prickle were their memories of the studio’s working practises.

For On the Rocks each episode was filmed twice in front of different audiences, after which additional pickups would be shot. Whereas an episode of Porridge filmed at Television Centre would invariably finish in time for everyone to be in the BBC bar by nine o’clock, wondering where they were going to eat that night, in Los Angeles they wouldn’t leave the studio until one in the morning. It obviously wasn’t their only frustration. Although the series was a moderate success, the pair turned down the opportunity for a second year.

Though they stayed in California it was Franc Roddam coming to them with the idea for Auf Wiedersehen, Pet that got them established in the hour-long drama. Roddam put them in contact with a brickie who had to leave recession-hit England for a job in Germany and La Frenais flew to the continent with him to see what was happening first hand. Before they were through the airport the brickie was arrested by the Polizei for past misdeeds, with their per diem for the whole trip managing to keep him out of a jail cell.

That they were going to write the series was obviously a no brainer, but neither of them knew how it would connect with the viewing public. After the show premiered on ITV the pair went to Anfield where Liverpool were playing Newcastle and the terraces echoed to the sound of: “We all agree, Oz is better than Yosser!” After that experience they figured it had sunk into the national conscience. The second series, La Frenais admitted, didn’t work as well because the story wasn’t as pure. Any contrivances aside, the cast and crew also had to deal with the unexpected death of actor Gary Holton.

Back in the 1970s, both Clement and La Frenais decided a return visit to Bob and Terry in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was essential, even if it meant concerted arm-twisting to get James Bolam back on board. The resulting two series, showing the changes the characters had been through from their late-teens to mid-twenties, proved to be better than the original with its wistful, bittersweet comedy. When it came to resurrecting Auf Wiedersehen, Pet sixteen years on, neither of the pair were sure it was a good idea until they saw the audience reaction to a skit written for a charity gig put on by Jimmy Nail and Tim Healey.

Shooting the original series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet at Elstree, at a time when the studio was also playing host to Never Say Never Again, Clement and La Frenais bumped into its director, Irvin Kershner, who voiced his reservations about the script. The pair suggested they take a pass at the script and Kershner obviously seemed agreeable to the idea but they weren’t brought on board until the film was already under way.

An unofficial remake of Thunderball, with Sean Connery returning to the role as James Bond, while watching the rushes Clement noted that there wasn’t a logical reason in the script for Bond to jet off to the Bahamas. With the crew already out their filming, La Frenais was despatched to Nassau to sort out that particular plot point. Although they already had over a half-dozen screenwriting credits to their name, it was this uncredited rewrite that really got them noticed in the industry, eventually leading to Connery bringing them onboard to rewrite The Rock.

Although enthusiastic about their work, obviously some films worked out better than others. The Commitments and Still Crazy were two they were proud of, along with the film versions of Porridge and The Likely Lads, but not everyone had always gone to plan. Still, there seemed to be some compensation along the way; some little victories to be had.

Peter Sellers may have treated the crew of The Prisoner of Zenda badly but Clement and La Frenais escaped his wrath having spent two weeks in Nice with the actor, prior to filming, reminiscing about The Goon Show and old music hall acts. 1971’s Villain saw them exposed to the full-on celebrity might of Burton and Taylor. When Richard Burton wandered around the studio asking, “Has anyone seen my wife?” a sparks shouted down from a gantry, “What does she look like?”

Over the evening we learnt about their scriptwriting arrangement. Clements was assigned the role of designated writer, first on legal pads, then typewriters, and finally a computer while his partner sat across from him reeling off ideas. La Frenais admitted to resisting technology until the mid-1980s when he adapted Lovejoy for television. Thirty-odd pages into the first script, his wife called him for dinner and he switched the machine off, without pressing that special SAVE button.

Although they’ve had a pretty good run of late, the pair confirmed that for every script that has gone into production, two more sit on the shelf unfilmed. Having recently entered the world of animation by co-writing Aardman’s Flushed Away, and followed it with the musical Across the Universe, their latest project is the animated Ruby Tuesday, featuring music songs by The Rolling Stones.

Having bounced between different genres over the past forty-odd years, Dick Clement has decided that the work can be divided into two categories: stories set before the advent of mobile phones, and stories set after the advent of mobile phones. In the end, the only advice La Frenais could give was that in their experience, good comedy comes from character and situation. For them, coming up with a joke first and trying to build a scene around it would simply be ruinous and the quickest way to fail.


At 11:57 pm, Blogger potdoll said...

great post wish i'd have gone now

At 12:35 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Shame you couldn't make it Dolly. They were very entertaining. And we were sitting right behind Jimmy Nail.

At 7:53 pm, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

Great write-up. wasn’t until they had the three series of The Likely Lads and their first feature film script under their belts that La Frenais finally give up his day job in market research.

Nice to know that the economics of the business were ever thus.

Seeing their shared career laid out like that, it's striking that their greatest TV successes were all focused on the lives and relationsips of working class men.

It's very hard to find anything on today's schedules that even tries to be relevant to that vast section of the audience.

At 9:07 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

They had a couple of experiences writing scripts for Michael Winner at the beginning of their career. Remember Hannibal Brooks with Oliver Reed? They wrote that. It’s the film that got Winner noticed by Hollywood.

For that first film, The Jokers, Winner put them up in one of his many Mayfair flats. Of course they were still had the day jobs so it was very rare that the pair would be there writing at the same time. When Winner would check in, whichever of the pair was there at the time would say the other had popped out for sandwiches or cigarettes.

Clement said that the reason Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was important to them was because back in those days the years between late-teens and mid-twenties was when working class men would start to see changes in their lives as the larks gave way to sorting out which direction their life would take. Funny as it was, that was an incredibly poignant series at times. Also, he said they both went on separate holidays during which each of them came up with the idea for the sequel.

And yeah, their best work is very relevant to real life, which is why it can be repeated again and again. I’m always amazed to be reminded there were only eighteen episodes of Porridge.

One other thing....

They talked about working to deadlines and the difficulty of not having deadlines. Apparently there was a survey taken after the recent WGA strike to see if the writers had been writing the great American novel or the great spec screenplay during their downtime...

80% of the writers surveyed did fuck all during the strike.

La Frenais said that during their daily picket outside 20th Century Fox the pair of them would discuss the play they were writing.

A theatre company had contacted them asking whether it would be all right for them to adapt The Likely Lads for the stage. Rather than let someone put together what would be a best-of compilation from the existing episodes, Clement and La Frenais decided to write it themselves and basing it around the time of... I think, the second show.

The reason they are here in the country now is because I think it’s the first read through or rehearsal they’re going to. Oh, and they came over on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, so I guess they’re doing all right.

One other anecdote from them... Obviously they started their early careers in the early 1960s and by the time they were finding success in television it was the period of the “Swinging Sixties”. La Frenais recounted a time he was driven down the Kings Road in (I think he said) a Studebaker with Anita Pallenberg wedged against his knee.

So there were the occasional perks, but I think for both of them it was the work that was important. That’s probably why they’re still getting scripts made and having people knocking on their doors.

At 12:27 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

I like the idea of two 70-year-old millionaires manning a picket line in LA, smoking Cohibas, surrounded by young actresses rallying to the cause.

Finally, a career path that makes sense.

At 12:36 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Yeah, that's something to work towards. Good on them.

Actually, even after all the years in the business, either they're not completely thick skinned or they do hold the odd grudge.

In the past some people must have criticized their dialogue for sounding mid-Atlantic, so La Frenais said that halfway through the voyage over here they spent part of the day writing just so the accusation could be true.


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