‘I didn’t know we were playing ‘I-Spy With My Little X-Ray Eye’!’

The finest British sitcom characters are wrapped around sadness. Middle-aged men (for the most part) who feel that life has left them standing and they no longer control or even recognise the world around them. Think Basil Fawlty keeping the outside world at arms-length in his Torquay stronghold, Brian Potter trying to recapture former glories and being thwarted by his over-reaching ambition at every turn, and Edmund Blackadder who is obviously far more intelligent than his contemporaries (whichever time he’s in, although I don’t recognise the first series as even being Blackadder, since it stinks on ice) but will always be at the mercy at the vanity and stupidity of his social ‘betters’.

Theres a saying that Comedy is Tragedy plus Time: with the best British sitcoms the Comedy lies the Tragedy Of Time.

When you’re a 10 year-old, contemplation of the passing of time, existential angst and the drone of the treadmill are not things which occupy too much of your thinking. What does occupy a lot of time is football and telly, and ‘No Hiding Place’ is the perfect blend of the two. Except that theres no football in it. The majority of the episode involves Bob (middle-class aspirant: Rodney Bewes) and Terry (Geordie Mark E. Smith-a-like: James Bolam) trying to avoid hearing the result of the England-Bulgaria match, so they can watch it later that evening on TV. Their nemesis is Brian Flint, played by (one of the unsung-heroes of British comedy) Brian Glover, who hounds them from place to place attempting to tell them the score and win a bet with the pair.

Bob and Terry are life-long friends (the eponymous ‘Likely Lads’) who have been separated for the last five years due to Terry (mistakenly) joining the Army. Recently reunited, the intervening years have treated them very differently: Terry is still the same person, but all the subsequent changes in civilian life have passed him by, so when he returns to Newcastle he disguises his fear of change with cynicism and sneers at what he considers to be Bob’s nouveau-riche snobbery. Bob, in the meantime, has become nouveau-riche. He now works in an office-job for his future father-in-law, and is moving into a new-build estate outside Newcastle city centre. He is well-and-truly upwardly-mobile, and he has been doing very well in the interim since Terry left England. Now he finds himself, if not exactly falling back into old ways, then occasionally mourning the passing of care-free irresponsible youth, of which Terry is only too quick to remind him.

The hairdressers sets the scene: Terry assuming all the staff are gay and can consequently know nothing about football (‘Ever see a homosexual striker?’), being confused at the treatments on offer, and glad of the chance to do a runner when Flint appears. From here to the pub (the scene of Terry’s magnificent one-word comebacks to Bob’s list of countrys which highlights perfectly the differences between the two of them-Bob’s aspirations giving him a laissez-faire attitude to other cultures, while Terry, even though better-travelled, is still suspicious and fearful of outsiders), then to Terry’s sister’s flat, church (where Terry cheats at a game of I-Spy), and finally Bob’s new house, all the while being pursued by Flint.

The beauty of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads lies in the characterisation: the love of two childhood friends who are eternally linked but who can no-longer live in each others pocket; the associated sadness, fears and loss which this entails, and the difference between acceptance of those changes and the reluctance to do so. Time moves very quickly for some, and incredibly slowly for others.

Did I mention it was a comedy?

The acting is top-draw; soft-lad Bob, beautifully played by Rodney Bewes, is a snob who retains our sympathies. Despite all his best efforts he cannot fully escape his past, even though he knows he must, but it is this constant struggle which gives the characters their conflict. Terry, stuck in the past and terrified of the present, could easily have been Andy Capp-lite, but James Bolam plays him with a charm that belies his constant sniping and criticism.

Any episode of ‘Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads’ is worth watching: this episode is the jewel in the crown.

Oh yeah, KILLER theme tune too….

(Written to: ‘Too Late To Stop Now’ – VAN MORRISON, ‘Social Living’ – BURNING SPEAR)



Happiness is a cigar called ‘Hamlet’ 

 This is what the ad-men used to tell us, once-upon-a-time, in order to sell us nicotine (the ultimate capitalist drug). There are a lot cleverer people than me who have written many studies about the troubled Dane, but I don’t think too many would think he defined ‘happiness’. Advertising, however, has never been particularly logical.

This isn’t a rant about advertising, or capitalism. This is an attempt to write a few words on something that brings a smile as I go about my daily business. It may be an advert, although that is highly unlikely as TV (or ‘Satan’s Box of Lies and Untruths’ as its known in my house) advertising is not something I find humour in, and this is an attempt to be positive and joyful. I find it far too easy to be cynical about most things, and quick to dismiss things out of hand, thereby denying myself the pleasure for pleasure’s sake.

If you’d told my Black Sabbath/Iggy Pop-loving 16-year old self that 30 years later I’d be singing the praises of Caravan I’d have (only metaphorically, though only just) spat in your face.Caravan??CARAVAN?? The band so faceless and woolly they were like four (or five.Sometimes six!!) Eric Olthwaites in the same group. Once, many years ago, I’d been given a Caravan album by someone who confused the rock albums I adored so much, with lukewarm shit. I hated the long running times, I hated the air of smug, middle-class twattery (even though I was quite willing to accept David Bowie as an inter-galactic pan-sexual rock god, there was no way I wanted anything to do with poshos in cheesecloth and patchouli with their Tarquins and their  croquet hoops), and I hated the flutes.

Though never a full-time prog-rocker, I was aware of the concept. I quite liked Yes, because, for all of Jon Anderson’s gibberish they rocked out a great deal, but Genesis and ELP passed me by, and I couldn’t grasp the joke-free end of the spectrum (Gentle Giant??).

BUT it was Year Zero, and Caravan and the majority of their pals, to all but the faithful, were missing, presumed B.O.F. in The Punk Rock Wars, and it now shames me to say but I happily put the boot in myself at times. I never mourned them. Like an idiot cousin or an exotic STD I put my prog dabblings out of my mind and denied its existence if anyone ever asked

Times change and the album I played most this week is WATERLOO LILY by CARAVAN.

Dividing hardcore fans as either ‘too jazzy’ or ‘not jazzy enough’, it marks the transition between the blend of pop, English folk, jazz and classical music of  In The Land Of Grey And Pink and the poppier ‘For Girls Who Grow Plump…’.It’s certainly a lot jazzier than ‘ITLOGAP’ but that makes it sound like the kind of album Steely Dan would’ve made if they were born in Kent. The shuffle of ‘Nothing At All’ is the sort of blues that used to crop up at least once every Dan album, although here it is an extended groove, split in two by the funk of ‘Its Coming Soon’. What could have been an over-long extravagance is kept entertaining throughout by the guitars, piano and Lol Coxhills sax solos. Pin-sharp and never out-staying their welcome, this is a joy from start to finish.

The charm of early Caravan is that they are not the virtuosi you expect to find in prog: although they are good musicians all willing to step forward when required, they are much better as an ensemble, letting the music breathe and flow. What they lack in virtuosity they make up for in wonderful harmonies, and the quality of ‘milkman’ melodies McCartney stopped writing around 1967. Dave Sinclair had already left (for the first time) and had been replaced by Steve Miller whose jazz playing is superb throughout,making it a more focussed album than its predecessor, although the five-part symphonic centre-piece ‘The Love In Your Eye’ is still in the set today. There are a couple of beautiful pop songs on the LP, which led to accusations of being (horror) ‘commercial’. Depending on your point-of-view, ‘Aristocracy’ and ‘The World Is Yours’ are either timeless sunshine-pop, or dated soft-lad public-school toss, easily replaceable by ‘Where Have All The Boot Boys Gone?’

Caravan make music for the sheer joy of making music: they are consistently inventive, never boring, and inimitable in their way of conjuring up a kind of virtual Englishness which we all think we can recall but which never really existed. They are far more interesting to me than Iggy Pop is these days, and I would recommend this album as a perfect introduction to a band who are only now getting the kind of widespread critical acclaim which eluded them at the time.

(Written to:’Waterloo Lily‘ – CARAVAN. Naturally)