Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?: a melancholy masterpiece of a TV theme tune

James Bolam Rodney Bewes Likely Lads
‘What about that glam descend, kidder?’ James Bolam and Rodney Bewes in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Few British sitcoms have ever balanced comedy and melancholy as perfectly as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? It didn’t deal in black humour in the latterday manner of Human Remains or Nighty Night – there was sharp, witty writing, slapstick humour, it dabbled in farce – but equally, there was no mistaking the way every episode was shot through with wistfulness, nostalgia and regret. It was there in Bob and Terry’s tendency to lapse into reminiscence at the slightest provocation; in Terry’s inability to settle back into civilian life after five years in the army; and in the late Rodney Bewes’s face, which seemed to naturally arrange itself into a mournful expression.

And it was there in the music that accompanied the credits, the work in part of the show’s co-author Ian La Frenais. La Frenais was clearly quite the frustrated songwriter, almost invariably getting a hand in the themes for the programmes he wrote, often with deleterious results (witness Joe Fagin’s appalling 1984 hit That’s Livin’ Alright, which began life as the closing theme to Auf Weidersehen Pet). But this time he and co-writer Mike Hugg of Manfred Mann came up with one of those TV themes that appeared to immediately bury into the viewer’s brain.

Unlike Dad’s Army or Porridge, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is not perpetually repeated, apparently at the insistence of Bewes’s co-star James Bolam; it was last shown on terrestrial TV 20 years ago. The theme never became a hit: despite the invention of a fake band called Highly Likely to promote it, it barely scraped into the Top 40. Yet everyone who saw Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? seems to remember the music, perhaps because it hits exactly the same sweet spot between melancholy and uplift as the programme it bookended. It is only the song’s chorus – in truth, the rest of the song is a bit of a disjointed mess, which may account for its failure to storm the charts – but in eight lines and 30 seconds, it manages to capture perfectly the programme’s themes.

The lyrics are remorselessly downcast, reflecting the central characters’ tendency to boozy nostalgia – “It’s the only thing to look forward to – the past” – but they appear to be sung by a rousing chorus of voices: there’s something of the football terraces about it. There’s also a string arrangement you would describe as soaring were it not buried deep in the mix.

Like the show itself, the music is very much a product of its era: between its clomping beat, liberal application of echo, a chord pattern that is simultaneously triumphant and oddly wistful (not unlike the kind of chord sequence known as a “glam descend”, found everywhere from Metal Guru to All the Young Dudes), and arms-around-your-mate singalong quality, it might easily have been the handiwork of Slade.

Dejection, camaraderie, longing, the early 70s: its theme is Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? in a nutshell.