A Geordie and an Essex lad met in an Earl’s Court pub and scribbled lines together for a sketch on an ale-sodden beer mat. Their mutual ambition was to become professional writers, have some fun and make people laugh.
Safe to say, they have accomplished that a thousandfold, and to this day continue to practice their craft at the very highest level.
Meet Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, both OBEs, two likely lads whose enduring and prolific careers continue to blaze a trail in the worlds of Hollywood, Drury Lane and anywhere else that is home to the art of storytelling. Together, they have made thousands of hours of television, predominantly in the UK but syndicated and shared wherever folks need a good laugh, which surely is everywhere.
Describing those early pub meetings at the beginning of ‘More Than Likely’, their recently published and brilliant memoir, they state, “It began a career that, amazingly, has lasted longer than Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, Rolls and Royce.”
These two witty, hard working writers have since put pen to paper every day for more than 50 years. And if you grew up in Britain from the 1960s onwards, chances are you owed much of your tears of laughter in front of the TV to the minds of these two. They have succeeded in writing award-winning scripts for TV, film, theatre, musicals and documentaries and have worked with a who’s who of talent past, present and no doubt future: Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, George Best, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Ronnie Wood, Tracey Ullman, Daniel Craig and Dave Stewart — they have worked with them all and more.
Their debut hit was ‘The Likely Lads’, first broadcast on the BBC in 1964, and they are also the duo behind the follow-up, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’, plus ‘Porridge’, ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’, ‘Lovejoy’, and ‘The ‘Rotters’ Club’. They’ve written feature films including ‘Otley’, ‘The Commitments’, ‘Still Crazy’, ‘Flushed Away’, ‘The Bank Job’ and ‘Across the Universe’ – and there are also numerous other uncredited projects, including two Bond films that they’ve been pulled in to save. Their elemental comedy genius is the kind that makes us feel good and can be returned to any time we need a lift. They’re the blues-beating brothers, the super-savvy masters of levity.
We are proud at Mr Feelgood to share a little of their lessons learned, wisdom won, and the energy and driving ambition that keeps these two lovable gentlemen reaching for their keyboard every single day. So, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, ‘Who The F*** Are You?’
Who the f*** are you?
DICK: I’m a Brit who has lived in California since the seventies, but still feels totally English. Not posh, completely middle-class (Essex). My first ambition was to be an actor. No one ever paid me to do it, but my early efforts for the BBC’s ‘Ariel Players’ led me into writing, which in turn led me into directing. I was lucky enough to form a relationship with my writing partner which has endured to this day. Even luckier to have a totally supportive wife with one adopted daughter and four children from my first marriage, all thriving with sons and daughters of their own.
IAN: I’m a storyteller and have been blessed to be one for over fifty years. Blessed, too, with a great partnership with Dick and an enduring marriage to my wife Doris and support of Michael who has proved to be not only a great son but a best friend also.
How are you feeling right now?
DICK: On the business front, frustrated, waiting for green lights that are forever amber. At the same time, I’m well aware how fortunate I am to have got this far, and bitching about relatively minor problems is totally counter-productive.
IAN: Frustrated with projects delayed, cancelled, postponed, mostly because of Covid. Six movies, three series and two stage plays. But, hey, I’m in great health and have a very positive state of mind thanks to meditation. And the Euros were great.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
DICK: I was born in the upstairs room of our house in Westcliff-on-Sea. I was the youngest of five children so my mother knew what to do and had no need of hospitals. When war broke out, the family was evacuated to Worcester for a while, leaving Dad behind in the Home Guard. We returned when the Allies seemed to be winning and my brother John could tell the difference between a Messerschmitt and a Heinkel by the sound of its engines. I was too young to be scared and enjoyed air-raids, when the whole family snuggled into a steel shelter downstairs. Once peace was restored, the concrete blocks on the beach were removed, an occasional mine was blown up and we could swim in the sea and play cricket on the mud when the tide went out. I was free to roam about much as I liked, returning home at mealtimes. Cricket was a big deal at my school and Trevor Bailey taught me English. When I was eleven, Essex played the Australian touring team. They scored 721 in a day, including four centuries, one by Don Bradman. Essex were all out for something like 52. I remember Westcliff fondly but haven’t been back there in years because all my family moved away, my sister to Surrey, my mother to Portsmouth, my brothers to East Anglia and me to Los Angeles.
IAN: I was just watching an interview with Paul McCartney in which he said he had a lovely, happy childood and he assumed everyone else did. So it was a shock to find out his new pal John (Lennon) had a miserable one. Like Paul, mine was happy and harmonious. Seaside town, beaches and ballrooms, dodgem cars and sexy girls licking candy floss. Holidays in the Yorkshire Dales or the Scottish Borders. Loving parents. Wish I could find one dark, traumatizing incident but I can’t. I’d like to live it all over again but know how to chat up girls better.
What excites you?
DICK: Getting something made. If you’re a novelist, at the end of day you have a novel. (All right it probably takes a bit longer.) But script writers just have a script. Architects can’t get any satisfaction from blueprints; they want to see their building built. We are the same, anxious to get casting done, argue with producers about budgets, and hear the sound of carpenters hammering nails into sets. Or there’s the theatre. Early on I co-wrote the book for a hit musical and sitting in the circle waiting for the curtain to go up is as exciting as it gets. Apart from sport of course. I was quite prepared to go loopy if England had managed to beat Italy in the Euro final. Okay, roll on the World Cup. But come on, Chelsea won the Champions League, who saw that coming?
IAN: A greenlight on any of the above projects, preferably all of them. When you spend months in writing isolation, it’s a marvelous rush to be in a rehearsal room for the first read though of the script. Everyone’s nervous – writers, actors, director, but also adrenalized. Bad coffee, stale muffins and secret drags on someone’s cigarette. But we’re all about to go into production.
What scares you?
DICK: Nuclear war, especially when I was growing up. Donald Trump trampling on Democracy and the legions of idiots who believe his blatant lies. Global warming. Bolsonaro trashing the Amazon Basin. Not Hell. I’m not going there and nor is anyone else.
IAN: Ill health. Secondly, being irrelevant. I would handle both very badly.
What is your proudest achievement?
DICK: To quote Gladys Knight, ‘To Keep-On Keepin’ On.’ In other words, maintaining enthusiasm for what I do. Painters still ‘keep on’ paintin’; conductors ‘keep on’ conductin’. That’s what I plan to do, rather than look back on greatest hits. Though from time to time I get a letter, or I meet someone who thanks me for the great pleasure I’ve given them over the years, and it’s very gratifying. That was the whole idea, after all.
IAN: Still being relevant. Dick and myself’s durability is a source of great pride. The guys who write obits are still updating us every year.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
DICK: Getting divorced, especially with four kids whom I adored then and still do. No one in my family had ever got divorced so there was no trail of breadcrumbs to follow. It was the one time in my life when I turned to therapy, not an automatic resource for people from Westcliff. The key sentence that resonated with me was: “You won’t find any happiness until you choose a path and stick to it.” So I did.
IAN: Living through marital hard, challenging times, mercifully well behind us. And changing a tire.
Who was your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
DICK: Can I have two? The first was Walter Strachan, who taught French and German. My French is passable, the German mostly forgotten, but he also instilled in me an appreciation of beauty. More importantly he swung a key vote in my favor at a staff meeting that I only found out about later, which I describe in detail in ‘More Than Likely’. (Shameless plug.) The other is Frank Muir, who was my boss at BBC Light Entertainment and I’m appalled to find that I didn’t give him his own chapter. Frank assigned me to direct the second series of ‘Not Only… But Also’, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, which gave my career an enormous boost. What did he teach me? To believe in myself but never to lose your sense of humor. What a lovely man he was.
IAN: I never had one. A friend’s mother put her hand on my teenage thigh and whispered through gin flavoured breath that I was an artist and a creative soul. She was right!
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
DICK: Why do I find it so hard to think of fictional heroes? George Smiley? A lovely fellow, but you couldn’t face taking him to dinner. I like Ratty from Wind in the Willows for his non-judgmental character, which is shared by Winnie the Pooh, but if I chose him, you’d all think I’ve lost it. I have to give a nod to William Brown, of the Just William books, which still make me laugh. I’m going to go for Billy Fisher, from Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, hopeless but endearing. Real-life is easier. Start with Nelson Mandela. What a man – to come out of years of imprisonment, not bent on revenge but forgiveness. David Attenborough, for his passion for life on our planet and his attempts to fight against how we’re mucking it up. Oscar Hammerstein II, because I wish I could use words as well as he did and for writing about how ‘You’ve got to be taught to be afraid… of someone whose skin is a different shade’ – in 1949! And if there’s still room in the boat, Eric Morecambe, James Thurber and Michelle Obama.
IAN: Just William and Billy Fisher (Liar). Dick and I would nick plots from Richmal Crompton’s brilliant eleven-year-old hero with socks permanently around his ankles and ink stained fingers. Loved the novel Billy Liar. I think it spoke to me like The Catcher in the Rye spoke to American youth. Also loved the stage play, the movie, and had the joy of writing with Dick the stage musical which starred Michael Crawford and ran at Drury Lane for over two years. Ghandi in real life, probably because of my attachment to India where my wife and I go twice a year. I love the old newsreels and pictures of him when he visited the Lancashire cotton fields and this spindly, saintly man in a loin cloth became a hero of the British working class.
What is the your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
DICK: A sleeveless cable-knit tennis sweater because it means I’ve got a game.
IAN: A dark suit.
What music did you love aged 13 — and do you still love it now?
DICK: It was 1950 when I was thirteen, pre-Beatles and almost everything. I liked Nat ‘King’ Cole and Benny Goodman and still do. Most of the other stuff came into focus later.
IAN: Whatever vinyl records my parents owned. Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Big Bands, but not bloody Mantovani. By 15 it was modern jazz, by 20 rock n’ roll as it is today.
What is the most inspiring book you have ever read?
DICK: Can I have two of these as well? The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, maybe because I read it when I was 18 on my way to America for the first time. It stirred my social conscience. The other is Catch-22. I just re-read it and found it as brilliant (and unfilmable) as the first time.
IAN: The Journey Home by Radanath Swami. As a young American man he left the sixties counter-culture and Detroit riots behind him and flew to Europe. Then walked or hitched to India. When he arrived, bedraggled and emaciated at the Indian/Afghan border he was refused admission and told India had enough beggars. He persisted and is now the head of the Krishnas in Mumbai and a world wide inspirational speaker.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
DICK: The Third Man.
IAN: The Third Man, and I bet Dick says the same.
What is your favorite word or saying?
DICK: Residual. Runner-up? Upgrade.
IAN: It’s all good. Favorite word I like to hear? Upgrade.
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
DICK: Who’d have thought he’d last this long?
IAN: He was a great right back.
And finally, a quickfire five favorites…
DICK: A 1967 Ford Mustang convertible.
IAN: My wife would never permit a car that wasn’t eco friendly, but I yearn for a Maserati Levante SUV.
DICK: Chelsea. The Los Angeles Dodgers.
IAN: Newcastle United FC.
DICK: Lunch on the terrace of La Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul de Vence with friends and family.
IAN: With close friends. Preferably in London or the South of France.
DICK: A hair brush.
IAN: Rosemary water.
DICK: Dry-clean only.
IAN: Paul Smith.