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Unlikely end to Rodney's career

By Mark Andrews | Nostalgia | Published:

AT the height of his fame, Rodney Bewes partied with Mick Jagger, stayed in Paris with Omar Sharif, and drove around swinging London in a green Bentley or a white Porsche.

Yet he always gave the impression that he was more content rocking up at provincial theatres around the West Midlands in an old Mondeo, with his devoted wife Daphne helping him carry his equipment.

Back in the1960s and 70s, Bewes and James Bolam were the rock-stars of television comedy. Their appearances in The Likely Lads, and its sequel Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? were watched every week by 27 million viewers, and their profile was on a par with that of The Beatles. Indeed Bewes once recalled being approached by a member of staff in a London nightclub, who told him Paul McCartney would like to join him for a drink.

Yet in many ways the two actors' careers were the exact opposites of the characters they played in the hit sitcom about two young lads growing up in the north-east of England. Bolam played Terry Collier, a cynical reactionary who lived with his mother and could not break free from his roots, while Bewes's Bob Ferris was a dreamer who got engaged and bought his own home as he sought to move up in the world.

However, off-screen the reverse was the case. For Bewes, The Likely Lads was the pinnacle of his career, while for Bolam it was the stepping stone to a career as a serious actor. While Bewes was content to bask in the reflected popularity of his character Bob Ferris for years to come, Bolam was keen to forget about his years as cynical reactionary Terry Collier, moving on to gritty First World War drama When The Boat Comes In, and later on The Beiderbecke Affair.

When asked if he thought he would be best remembered for his role in The Likely Lads, Bewes said: "Actually it is the only thing I am remembered for. But at least I'm remembered for something."

When his agent announced that Bewes had died this week at the age of 79, the biggest surprise for me was that he had an agent at all. Whenever he was in the area on tour, he would telephone me to ask if we could give his show a bit of publicity, and then on the day he would turn up in his ageing Ford with his scenery on a trailer behind.

In his later years, he did several tours based around the life and works of Walsall-born writer Jerome K Jerome, and spoke on several times about his fondness for Stourbridge Town Hall in particular.

“It’s a little gem hidden in a traffic island,” he once said, referring to the town’s infamous ring road.

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“You go round and round in circles looking for it, and then inside this great big traffic island you find this gem of a little Victorian theatre, it’s a lovely setting and they are lovely people.”

He also appeared at Lichfield Garrick Theatre – and telephoned a colleague the following day to jokingly complain about the sandwiches at the venue.

One of his favourite works was Jerome's first book, On The Stage – And Off, saying it captured so well the life of a jobbing actor struggling to make his way in the world.

While Bolam enjoyed a long career in television, Bewes was happy with a much simpler life, although he was always angered by Bolam's refusal to allow The Likely Lads to be repeated on mainstream TV, depriving him of an income in his later years.

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Each show featured several scripted "mistakes" – he said it was a constant source of amusement to read the press reviews highlighting these as genuine errors afterwards – and he loved mingling with Likely Lads fans in the bar after the shows. He joked that his wife ­– who died two years ago after suffering a stroke – had changed her name to "Poor Daphne" because she was always clearing up while he was reminiscing about the show.

Well into his 70s, he was still paying his mortgage and overdraft, and remarked that he was often amused by the reaction of other people when they saw him travelling by bus.

He said his absence on television since the days of The Likely Lads also meant that people were surprised that he no longer retained his youthful looks.

"One woman came up to me and said 'I didn't know your hair was grey', and I told her I had died it for a part I was playing."

Right up until the end, he was troubled by his rift with Bolam, who had refused to speak to him since he made an ill-judged joke on the radio in 1976 about his co-star becoming a father.

Bolam, who was intensely private about his family life, was reputed to have nearly crashed his car when he heard Bewes being interviewed on the radio.

Bewes, who was a father of triplets, joked in the interview about how Bolam's wife broke the news to him about her pregnancy.

"She told him 'You know Daphne had three babies at once . . . well, I’m just having the one!’," Bewes blurted out in the interview, and realised straight away that he had overstepped the mark.

Bewes telephoned him to apologise, but he slammed the phone down immediately, and the pair never spoke again.

Bewes tried to bury the hatchet with his own friend, but said that all attempts were rebuffed.

He told the Star how he would have loved to remake The Likely Lads, along the lines of two elderly friends who had never really grown up or moved on in their lives, but Bolam would have none of if.

He joked that he had a table cloth he would put over his TV when New Tricks, a detective show starring Bolam was on TV, but beneath the self-deprecating humour there was also an underlying sadness that one off-the-cuff comment had come between them in such a way.

He was also saddened by the fact that while The Likely Lads represented the pinnacle of his career, it was something that Bolam wanted to put behind him.

“He doesn’t want to talk about The Likely Lads at all,” he said, shortly before his death. "He hates it. He thinks it affected his career as a great actor.

“Terry was the best part he could ever be offered. It's what made him."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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