A slightly bewildered middle-aged man, thoroughly dissatisfied with his life, is trapped in the corner of a trendy boutique as his wife tries on frocks. Everywhere he looks, beautiful, unobtainable women are in various states of undress. He can’t stop himself. He tries not to stare, but it’s all too alluring. His frumpy wife approaches, wearing an absolutely appalling, unflattering purple costume with white trim. She begins to babble on about this hideous article, the wedding tit will be so suitable for, it’s affordability and versatility. Finally she asks his opinion: “Bob? What do you think Bob? Bob?” He turns and, with a faraway look in his eye and with a mixture of sadness and resignation, he says, “I couldn’t give a shit.”
“I couldn’t give a shit.” When I first saw that scene in the film version of ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ I considered it one of the finest representations of male angst I’d ever seen committed to celluloid. Now, as an older and far more troubled man, it resonates even more. There comes a time in every relationship where you reach the ‘I couldn’t give a shit’ moment. Where you don’t just feel it, you actually say it out loud. This moment illustrates it so perfectly. The moment you slip and suddenly you’ve given up.
I know this is a lot to put on the shoulders of a sitcom to film transfer. You don’t get such profundity from Mutiny on the Buses or the Are You Being Served movie. I think that’s what makes it all the more special. You have no expectations from a big screen version of a TV show, even a fine show like The Likely Lads. Originally a show about two cheeky chappies from oop north and their wacky misadventures, it gradually changed tone. The seventies sequel to the original show ‘Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads’ had a much different taste to it. Even that title, ‘Whatever Happened to…’ has a sort of miserable, resigned quality. But the film transcends all that. It really tackles the male condition, especially the middle-aged male condition, with visceral relish. And it is so incredibly bleak.
Not just bleak in content. It looks so bleak. Comedies are always bright and shiny and the sun always seems to be shining. In The Likely Lads, it’s dank. It’s cold. It’s always raining. The wind howls all the way through it. There is a scene set in Whitley Bay, off-season, that is one of the grimmest five minutes in any endeavour. It’s Dryer-esque in it’s blustery starkness. Bob and Terry, lost and in trouble with their other halves, run away to the seaside resort they visited as children. There is nothing there. Nothing. They try to think desperately for something to do, consider going to Boots the Chemist because girls work there. Then realise it’s half day closing.
I mean, it is funny. It’s not just male menopause and drizzle. Bob’s the put-upon dreamer, married to the social-climbing Thelma and inexplicably carries a food mixer. Terry is a roguish ladies man and plain speaking male chauvinist. And there are some great lines: “I’d offer you a beer, but I’ve only got six cans,” is one of my faves. Plus you have Terry being scared of cows, the trouserless pair of them in a car while a middle-aged guest house owner screams “Rapists!” Monica in the lift. The cheeky milkman. The Finnish outdoorsy girlfriend. It’s Clement and La Frenais, they wrote Porridge! There’s loads of great stuff.
But it does have a pervading sadness to it. And frustration. Bob has lost direction. His old life is being (literally) bulldozed, he’s aspirational but he can’t remember what he’s supposed to be aspiring to and he’s in a middle-class rut. Terry’s divorced his German wife, he’s an aging playboy living in his dad’s high-rise and tries to sell washing powder out of a van. It’s 1976. There are no gadgets, no Top Gear, no internet porn. Just three TV channels, the pub and the evening paper. Bob and Terry were of a generation where you could actually turn into your dad. Overnight. They are both trying to escape, but find themselves being dragged towards it.
Even though Bob experiences the most in the film (his marriage crumbles, he nearly has an affair, he leaves home, his Vauxhall Chevette is mangled), it’s Terry who is most affected. He runs away. Or tries to. While Terry seems more content with his beer and fishing and occasional dalliances with shop girls, he’s the one who cracks and jumps ship, literally, to become a deckhand on a boat bound for Bahrain. “You know what it will say on my gravestone?” He says as he explains his decision: “None the bloody wiser.” What an incredibly depressing sentiment to come from the lead character in a comedy film. He doesn’t go of course. Bob gets drunk and trapped on the boat. Terry’s homesick before he leaves home and stays where he is. What’s next? Christ only knows.
I can’t think of another film that deals with this dynamic. The way male relationships change as you move from childhood into manhood; desperately trying to cling to the magical, adolescent component. It’s a horrible thing to let go of. To realise this is it, now you have responsibilities. You either have to jettison that spontaneity or feel guilty and pathetic for hanging onto it. I always thought I’d turn into Bob. Settled, mundane, happy. I’m currently more like Terry, which is surprising and slightly depressing. Especially as there are no shop-girls involved.
This article appeared courtesy of Holy Moly
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