Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais - creators of classic comedy shows such as Porridge and The Likely Lads - talk about their career

Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement pictured last year.
Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement pictured last year.
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Don’t mention the R-word. “The very word ‘retirement! I mean, what would be the point?” Ian says in a Skype call from Dick’s sun-drenched home in LA.

Both in their eighties, Dick and Ian have been part of the TV landscape for more than five decades.

Porridge was one of their greatest creations.

Porridge was one of their greatest creations.

The pair live two streets apart, Ian’s ‘commute’ consists of popping over to Dick’s, who in turn, makes the coffee.

It’s another R-word that counts: “If we can still be relevant to an audience, to people who commission, there’s no point in retiring,” Ian says.

Of their iconic TV hits he says: “It’s like being a recording artist. Somewhere in your past you have three or four fantastic albums. It doesn’t mean you’re going to keep it up but you keep trying for relevance.”

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They have been writing partners longer than Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Laurel and Hardy, and Morecambe and Wise.

“It’s a sort of marriage,” says Dick. “I remember when Ian met my soon to be wife, Nancy, for the first time. He said, you’ll see a lot of him, but not as much as me. That was fairly prophetic. It’s a relationship. And obviously during our career we’ve done independent things - Ian created Lovejoy on his own without me – so, you know, we’re not totally tied at the hip, but on the other hand it’s endured for a very long time, we’re not going to break it up now.”

Essex-born Dick Clement was a radio studio manager in the 1960’s when he met Ian, from Whitley Bay.

“I got into TV after quite a while and got into a director’s course, and at the end of it they said we’ll give you a studio, a £100 and a crew for the day – make something. I could have shot a pop group or something but I decided to take a sketch that we’d written and expand it.”

Their sketch eventually became The Likely Lads. “It sat on a shelf for a while and then somebody looked at it just before BBC2 was starting up, and called us in and said, ‘Do you see this as a series?’ What are you going say? We had no idea if it was a series, we had no idea if it had a life beyond this little test, but of course we said, ‘absolutely’. So we walked out with a commission to do six scripts, and we were suddenly writers. That was a wonderful piece of good luck and the timing was fantastic.”

Their memoir More Than Likely brings to life with flair and humour the people that inspired them, originally called Between the Lines – it’s a series of anecdotes, half written by Dick, half by Ian (as they “can’t write prose together”).

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Memorable encounters include Hollywood stars like Richard Burton, Michael Caine, Ava Gardner, Sean Connery and Daniel Craig.

Dick explained: “We started off thinking of the most interesting people that we met – not always stars – but people are interested in them. We wracked our brains for the most amusing and illuminating stories about different people. But they do vary, one of them is about the Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, which is one of the most chance encounters that made a very interesting chapter. We cover our hits as well obviously, we just wanted it to be as entertaining as possible.”

The kernel of inspiration behind their early iconic series was, they came to realise in the writing process of their memoir, their time doing National Service.

“Without knowing it at the time as we were very young men, it was a fantastic learning experience for the writing that we did later,” Dick said. “We could have never have written Auf Wiedersehen Pet or Porridge if we hadn’t been in a hut with a bunch of disparate people.”

Ian agreed, “In retrospect, we didn’t realise it for years, because when we first met we were 23 - we had no experience of life or people except National Service which we did through the ages of 18 to 20 - so it’s quite remarkable that that was the root to our interest in people and life, our observational powers. It’s an enormous depth we owe to it but we had never realised it until we looked back years later. People said, how did you write Porridge when you’ve never been in a prison cell or Auf Wiedersehen when you’ve never been in a hut, well we did, we had the equivalent, we spent two years in the hut in the military serving Queen and country.”

Back to 2019, the pair are more active in movies, re-writing other people’s scripts, as well as juggling many projects.

“We should emphasise,” Dick said, “even though we’ve written a memoir, we’ve not stopped at all. We’ve got at least three or four television series ready to go, we’ve got a big meeting this month - a director is flying in from Copenhagen to pitch it with us - we’ve got another one where we’re waiting for a major star to commit.”

Projects on the go include a movie about The Kinks, a screenplay about Keith Moon (‘Full Moon’) that Dick says is their favourite screenplay they’ve done – “the one that got away, we’re battling away on that.”

There has, Ian says, never been a better time to be a screenwriter, thanks to the rise of streaming services. The pair did four years with HBO writing Tracy Ullman’s sketch show, Tracey Takes On, but their focus now is on drama and film. What is the secret to screenwriting success?

“The rules of screenwriting haven’t changed,” Ian said. “Content has changed, tone has changed, censorship has changed, but the same rules apply: three acts for a movie. It works every time.”

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Dick added: “Introduce us to people we like, get them in trouble, and get them out of it. Of course that’s far too simplistic but there’s an awful lot of truth in it.”

LA is a long way from Ilkley - the pair moved to Hollywood in the ‘70s to write the American version of Porridge. They fly to Britain at least four times a year.

Ian recently did a road trip in the Yorkshire Dales with Auf Wiedersehen Pet actor, Jimmy Nail.

“Dick and I landed in Manchester, we’d been in Northern Ireland with Liam Neesam, and I said to Jimmy, why don’t you meet me in Manchester and we’ll have a few days in the Yorkshire Dales. It was lovely.” They stayed at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate. “I had an aunt and uncle who lived just outside Harrogate in Killinghall, they had a pub there. I had many holidays there when I was a kid.”

They feel both British and American. “It’s a nice feeling,” Ian said. “London and LA. Beverley Hills and the Yorkshire Dales – what a life!”

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Wednesday 16 October, 7.30pm, Kings Hall. Ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk

Ilkley Literature Festival runs 4-20 October featuring Simon Armitage, David Suchet, Prue Leith, Clare Balding, Gyles Brandreth and Alistair Campbell with over 150 author events.

More Than Likely is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson today.