David Behrens: What would have happened to the Likely Lads in age of fake news?

Rodney Bewes in his heyday
Rodney Bewes in his heyday
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The deaths of the actor Rodney Bewes and the singer David Cassidy stopped a few of us in our tracks this week – theirs were among the faces that helped define the social landscape of half a century ago.

It was a time when disobedience meant stubbing out a fag on the boss’s ashtray, and rebellion was turning down the secure job at the raincoat factory your uncle had arranged for you and fleeing instead to London, to try to live like Patrick McGoohan on the telly.

A sexual revolution was apparently going on, but the permissive society round my way extended little further than growing your hair half an inch below the tops of your ears.

The passing of Bewes was particularly reverie-inducing because he grew up in front of us, at least in the characters he played: from the Jack-the-lad who helped Billy Fisher filch a box of calendars from the funeral director’s office in Billy Liar to the newly married, home-owning and upwardly mobile Bob Ferris in the 1970s update of The Likely Lads. It was a path we recognised in ourselves.

I remember being apprehensive when I worked with him on a comedy panel game in the 1990s; he had a reputation for being “difficult” – possibly because he and James Bolam, his co-star in The Likely Lads, were said not to get on – but I found him diffident, pleasant and professional.

I hesitate to say that television today is not as good as it was in his day, because there were good and bad programmes then, as now. But I do wonder how the producers of the current topic of conversation, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! would have gone about pitching the idea to one of the great ITV showmen of that era – one in which singers were booked to sing, not to eat turkey testicles out of a paper box. At least these days they’re saved the expense of Jack Parnell’s orchestra.

What is beyond debate is that the boundaries of what is considered acceptable on television have broadened, and, worryingly, the safety fence that prevented the transmission of what was not acceptable has been removed. The main broadcasters are still reined in by the “light touch” regulation that was put in place at the dawn of TV – but producers outside the traditional system are not and are unlikely ever to be.

You and I may be able easily to tell a balanced and objective documentary on the BBC from a biased and mendacious travesty delivered via the internet, but a more impressionable viewer may not. This becomes even more worrisome when the content converges on the same screen and even the same remote control. Suddenly it is no longer obvious what is answerable in law and what is not.

It was a theme picked up by the broadcaster and Labour peer Melvyn Bragg at an event in Leeds on Monday celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Royal Television Society. Young people, he observed, had access to every conceivable type of video content on the screens in their rooms. Heaven only knew who was behind some of it.

This weekend, an exhibition opens in Bradford, where Billy Liar was filmed, dedicated to the normalisation of what President Trump likes to call fake news. The phenomenon can be traced back a century but until recently its distributors lacked the technology to propagate it instantly and internationally. Now, social media empowers the mistaken and the disaffected to share what corresponds with their view of the world and to pass it off as the truth. If, as Bragg pointed out, it is repeated often enough it becomes, like Chinese whispers, its own truth.

The Likely Lads, Bob and Terry, would be in their 70s now. Bewes had wanted to revive the premise and to see the two of them in retirement, and the prospect held some fascination because their journey might have reflected our own, if only in a hall of distorted mirrors.

According to Ofcom, the current light-touch regulator, the internet, not regular TV, is the most popular pastime for children today. That means they are consuming content on YouTube that has been created by literally anyone, professional or amateur, well-intentioned or not. Who is to help them weigh and evaluate it? In the hall of warped mirrors that is television today, the answer, as Bob Dylan sang when they were shooting Billy Liar, is blowing in the wind.