Updated: Apr 26, 2019
The year is 2001, Ant and Dec are just making their transition from children's TV to prime time, and ITV were experimenting with formats for them. Most of the formats were traditional 'Ant and Dec type' shows, precursors to Saturday Night Takeaway, and others were presenting roles, but the most interesting and unusual of all these formats, if you can call it that, was a remake of The Likely Lads...
Only ten out of the twenty episodes of The Likely Lads made in the 60s have survived. The series later returned in the 70s, becoming Whatever happened to the Likely Lads? (all episodes survived, thank goodness!).
It became a sitcom sensation, achieving viewing figures of 27 million in its heyday. James Bolan and Rodney Bewes were The Likely Lads, two Geordie working class blokes, one who had just come out of the army, and the other aspiring to be middle class. Both moaned to each other about their conflicting views and the state of modern Britain.
It was as popular and as culturally significant as Only Fools and Horses at the time. However, due to its lack of repeats, its importance to the sitcom climate fades from memory. This issue, which Rodney Bewes attributed to James Bowlan, was a result of their 40-year-long feud, but that's another story...
Perhaps it was Ant and Dec's similarity to the pair, most notably Dec's similarity to Rodney Bewes, that inspired the remake. Remakes of classic sitcoms are a tricky business with only Still Open All Hours really making a true success of it. This remake went one step further, remaking one of The Likely Lad's most iconic episodes: 'No Hiding Place', in which the boys make a bet that they can go the entire day without hearing the football results so they can enjoy watching the game on TV that evening.
The script is almost identical to Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais's original, with only minor details updated, and actually looking at this remake today some of the language feels quite homophobic and xenophobic for 2001.
Ant and Dec were perhaps a touch young for the roles at the time, making Dec's frequent line 'you have been away a long time' unconvincing. The fact that you can compare performances, scene by scene, was a tough ask for Ant and Dec, but personally I think it holds up very well, especially in the church scene where they really hit their stride.
The show also features Jon Thompson as Flint and a small cameo by Rodney Bewes himself. Dec said this about the remake in the Ant and Dec autobiography:
'We shot the episode on location in Newcastle and in a studio in London and it received mixed reviews, but the people who really mattered to us - the people of Newcastle - said nice things. And as long as our fellow Geordies were happy, then we could rest easy.'
A big problem with this remake was the generation gap. Ant and Dec had a lot of young fans who almost certainly weren't familiar with The Likely Lads, and remaking such an iconic show, never mind episode, was an uphill battle. It was going to be a tough ask to convince Likely Lads fans that this was ever going to work.
Ultimately, considering its status in Comedy history, it was almost akin to asking a team to remake The Fawlty Towers episode: 'The Kipper and the Corpse'.
There's a certain 'what if' feeling to watching this now. 'What if Ant and Dec had continued with sitcom?' We may never know what would have happened, Ant and Dec may never have achieved the same status, but a proper sitcom or sketch show is something that would have been interesting to see.
Why ITV didn't commission a series is unclear. The episode was billed as 'a tribute' and there was a certain ambiguity as to whether they were pitching for a series.
Whatever the case, it was the same year that Takeaway and I'm A Celebrity debuted, so maybe those successes made the decision for Ant and Dec/ITV. Love it or hate it (and remakes do tend to provoke that sort of response), this is a very interesting piece of comedy history:
Written by Rhianna Evans