Homage to Clement and La Frenais, the writing duo who transformed British comedy

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson remain pre-eminent as writers of television comedy, but their closest rivals Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais — still with us and in their eighties — always possessed more variety. Until I’d wolfed down this genial memoir I’d not known that the script-writing-and-directing duo had adapted Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head for the screen. They also developed Lucky Jim as a television series and found Kingsley Amis pie-eyed, maudlin and testy, ‘jealous of his son’s success’. They wrote The Jokers and Hannibal Brooks for the disgusting Michael Winner (who once told a starlet: ‘What this part does not require is a diploma from Rada. What it does require is a great pair of tits. Let’s have a look at ’em, then.’).

Clement and La Frenais devised the role of a mother-fixated homosexual gangster for Richard Burton in a film called Villain. During pre-production meetings at the Dorchester, Elizabeth Taylor remained locked in the lavatory and was never seen. There was a huge yacht moored on the Thames at Wapping containing her pet dogs, which were not permitted ashore for quarantine reasons. Burton’s favourite viewing was a 16mm print of Carry On Cleo, where Sid James wore Burton’s Mark Antony costume, left over from Cleopatra.

When the writers met Peter Sellers in Vienna to make The Prisoner of Zenda, the Goon reminisced wistfully about his music- hall origins, when he’d enjoyed ‘the occasional skirmish with a chorus girl in some draughty room with a gas meter’. Finding themselves in Russia with Elton John they were amused to hear Elton tell the guide that he had ‘a bigger Fabergé collection than the Kremlin’.

In this easygoing opus, with its randomly dropped anecdotes, no grudges are aired or scores settled. The strongest they get is to tell us that Rodney Bewes enjoyed his fame too much and ‘went through a silly period’. Brigit Forsyth, in fact, tried to strangle him, forever regretting that ‘I didn’t have the strength to finish him off’. It is always the same when actors are given too much power. Bill Cosby, Will Smith, Kirk Douglas and Benicio del Toro (‘My character wouldn’t park there’) have tried Clement’s and La Frenais’s patience down the years. But they remain philosophical and became, and remain, crazily successful.

La Frenais, who was regularly mistaken for Dudley Moore, was from Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear. He toiled on the scenic railway at the funfair, ‘driving four dozen excitable infants around fairy grottoes at 10 mph’, before turning up in London as a part-time cleaner for an agency that employed out of work parolees and would-be showbiz sorts. It was a beginning.

Clement, marginally posher, was from Essex’s Southend. After a stint in the RAF he was hired by the BBC Overseas Service at Bush House, where each morning he played a scratchy record of the Albanian national anthem.

Having met in a Notting Hill pub, the two scribbled down sketches, which Huw Weldon said they should go off and film. The producer Dennis Main Wilson took an interest, and a series was commissioned. That’s how straightforward it could be in those days. ‘BBC2 was about to be launched and slots needed filling.’ Anyway, what was the competition? Documentaries with ‘some bloke in wellies telling you how to prune roses’.

This is how The Likely Lads, and later, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? came into being. In addition to their reliable jokes, Clement and La Frenais are good at creating male characters who, while stuck in a terrible job or run-down place (such as a prison cell), keep themselves sane by  daydreaming. Fletcher’s guiding principle in Porridge is: ‘Bide your time and keep your nose clean. Little victories, that’s what keeps you going in here.’ The authors are not wrong to salute the genius of Ronnie Barker, who ‘brought with him a sense of comedy before he said a word’.

Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was a brilliant ensemble piece, about a disparate group of British builders in Germany hoping for the good life. ‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ says Jimmy Nail’s Oz after he returns from a Hamburg brothel, ‘sex is in its infancy in Gateshead.’

With all these television triumphs, Clement and La Frenais moved to Hollywood, where executives, bafflingly, wanted to remake Porridge as a vehicle for Rita Moreno. They earned their crusts as uncredited script doctors for Bond films, secretly rewrote Pearl Harbor — starring Kate Beckinsale, the daughter of the late Richard (Godber) Beckinsale — and spent evenings with a boring Marlon Brando, who went on about Red Indians, and Sean Connery, who refused to be in a film about the Lockerbie disaster as it was ‘a controversial subject’.

Our authors, at large in California, pined for English beer, Marmite sandwiches and Branston pickle. They saw a lot of Michael Caine. They wrote unproduced scripts for biopics of Harpo Marx and Keith Moon, and devised a musical about Laurel and Hardy. I am sure another volume could be cranked out without any trouble.

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