Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais - Auf Wiedersehen Anniversary
PUBLISHED: 12:14 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013
It's the 25th anniversary of the smash hit drama Auf Wiedersehen Pet this month. In an exclusive interview, comedy scriptwriting legends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais - who penned it - take a trip down memory lane WORDS BY MICHAEL HAMILTON
The very first episode of Auf Wiedersehen Pet went out on ITV on November 11, 1983, and it quickly became one of the best-loved TV series ever with 16 million viewers at its peak. The fine acting of Tim Healy (who played Dennis), Jimmy Nail (Oz), Kevin Whately (Neville), Timothy Spall (Barry), Chris Fairbank (Moxey), the late Pat Roach (Bomber) and the late Gary Holton (Wayne) captured the hearts of the nation. The show was nominated for a BAFTA in the best drama category that same year. Now ITV are planning to re-run the first series to mark this anniversary and there will be a DVD boxed set in the shops before Christmas. The brilliant writing duo Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, from Whitley Bay - the pair also wrote The Likely Lads and Porridge - live in Hollywood but I caught up with them to mark this milestone in the show's history, when they were in London last month. MH: Tell me how it all came about in the first place. Dick: The movie director Franc Roddam, who's originally from Stockton, came to have lunch with us in Hollywood and he knew about all these North East brickies working in Germany because there was no work for them in the UK. It was Franc's idea really. We immediately thought it was right up our alley.We then pitched it to Central Television and got a deal to do 13 hours there and then. It was incredible; we had this commission to do an enormous series. It wouldn't happen today. Ian: Franc's friend Mick Connell, a bricklayer himself, had done it for real. He had been out in Germany and he became our technical advisor He was the inspiration for the series. I went out to Germany with Franc and Mick to research it and Mick was promptly arrested as soon as he set foot on German soil for unpaid court fines from the last time he was there! Dick: That was a good start. Anyway, anytime we needed guidance for what went on in Germany we used to call Mick. But the funny thing was that Mick was not on the phone back home in Stockton and it was long before the days of mobile phones. So we had this arrangement where we would call him at a phone box at the end of his road. Because of the time difference with us in being in Los Angeles it was inevitably 11 or 12 at night when we would phone. Mick was loitering outside this phone box in Stockton one night and the cops came up to him (he was known to the local police too) and they said: 'What are you doing hanging around here Mick? And he said in his deadpan Teesside accent: 'I'm waiting for a call from Hollywood.' Ian: He was promptly hauled off to prison for loitering with intent - and seconds later the phone rang. MH: Tell me about going out to Germany to do the research for the show. Ian: I went out to Hamburg and Dusseldorf to scout for the series. In the scene where Bomber loses all his money playing cards - that was what happened to Mick in real life. Another time I was in a Dusseldorf club with Gary Holton.We were deep in discussion about the script over a bottle of wine when this German couple started making love on the floor.We just drank our wine and ignored them. It was the most expensive bottle of Blue Nun ever - I think they charged us 100. I guess the floorshow was why it was so expensive! MH: Do you remember the first time you met Jimmy Nail? Dick: Martin McKeown was the producer and Roger Bamford directed it. During casting they called us and said: 'We'd like you to come over.' It sounded like they had something exciting to show us. I walked into the room and there was Jimmy. He was exactly the Oz I had in my mind. I prayed: 'Please God let him be able to act a little bit.' Ian: Of course he was a singer in a band in Newcastle called The Crabs so he knew a bit about playing to an audience. His sister Val McLane was an actress too. Dick:We were assured there must be something in the genes. MH: It's often said Jimmy was just playing himself. Is that fair? Dick: There was some truth in that. He was a Geordie and he had lived the life. I think he had even been a brickie in Germany too. He was very raw. Jimmy did feel to some extent almost a fraud. He actually said this to Timothy Spall. He said: 'I can't believe I'm being paid to do this.' Tim just said to him: 'You are home.' It was actually a very touching moment. Tim was saying to him this is what you were born to do. He may have been less experienced than the other actors but he was perfect for the part. Tim was very instrumental in making Jimmy feel he belonged. It was very astute of Tim and helped cement the team. Ian: Oz wasn't just a shock to the average viewer, he was a shock to the average casting director! He was one of the first politically incorrect figures. That's why people liked him. That's why we liked writing him. MH: Did you find any of the characters difficult to write for? Dick: I didn't really find any of them difficult to write for. Ian supplied the Geordie dialect of course, not me. Neville, Dennis and Oz had very distinct voices from the start. Ian: There weren't many shows that had seven people in them in those days. And the characters were all so different. So you could understand why everyone wanted to watch them every week, especially with that regional spread.Wayne always reminded me of Ronnie Wood and it's not just the haircut. Gary Holton had been in a band called the Heavy Metal Kids who were apparently big in Sweden - which is every failed rock star's alibi! Dick: Dennis was the put-upon one who everyone was always looking towards for leadership, a leadership which he was reluctant to give. I always felt he was a heart attack waiting to happen. He had a bad marriage, everyone pressurising him. I thought he could blow up very easily. Oz was the irresponsible lout and joker at the beginning.We didn't design him to be particularly funny. He was a terrible character really, a monster. He wasn't sending money home to his wife and son. But the audience reaction told us he was enormously popular. Neville was the chronic worrier. The one line I always had in my head with him was: 'How much is all this going to cost?' That worried frown and what will his missus Brenda think. Ian: He reminded me of Stan Laurel with that miserable look on his face. Dick: They were all very different and memorable voices. All I can say is that when we came back to do it again after the 16-year gap between the second and third series all those voices were in my head very distinctively like an orchestra. Tim Spall actually started to hate Barry at one point because people thought he was Barry and, of course, he is anything but. He's a fine accomplished actor. It's always a danger that as an actor that you become too closely associated with a particular role. MH: Did its success come as a surprise? Dick: I didn't see it coming, I really didn't. I think it touched people because it was enormously honest. There was a certain rawness when I look back to the first series. To be honest it's not very well lit and the sound's a bit ropey. It's a bit shaky production wise. But in a weird kind of way that works for it. It gives it a semidocumentary feeling. Ian: I don't think either of us thought it would be a hit, just an interesting drama series important for what it was saying about the times. I later went to a Newcastle United match with Tim and Jimmy, and he had been to Marks and Spencer to buy some underpants and he was mobbed by fans. It was the first time he realised how big all of this was! MH: You didn't originally see it as a comedy? Dick:We didn't set out to write a comedy at all.We saw it as a drama.We didn't sit down and say where's the laugh going to come this week.We were able to let the laughs come naturally. A lot of the fun Ian and I had was writing a scene between two characters who had never had a scene before. So you could put Bomber with Wayne for example and just see what happened. MH: You seem to like to write about people in captive situations. Dick:Well we wrote Porridge, of course, which is captivity to the nth degree! But I think situation comedy generally works best when people are in trapped situations. The great comedy Steptoe and Son by Galton & Simpson, for example, where the son is trapped in business with his father and all the frustrations that brings. MH: The hut was often referred to as one of the stars of the show. Dick: I think it was very valuable that Ian and I had both done National Service.We both knew what it was like to sleep in a hut with a bunch of people you didn't know. That was invaluable. Ian: You are one of the guys in the hut with them. You want to see what happens to them - you're on a journey with them. MH: How did Gary Holton's death affect everyone while filming the second series? Dick: It was very difficult indeed because it happened in the middle of shooting and everyone was very depressed, shaken and upset.We had to shoot one or two scenes using a body double in the distance and had to rewrite great chunks of it. It was a depressing time and we just had to get through it as best we could. It was no fun at all. MH: There still seems to be a great camaraderie between all the actors after all these years. Dick: Everybody was very emotional when Pat Roach died because we were all immensely fond of him. In fact we all get on very well and have had some great times over the years. The reunion for the third series came about after we did the Sunday for Sammy show at Newcastle City Hall in 2000. (Sammy Johnson was Tim Healy's best pal who sadly died of a heart attack in 1999, aged 48, while training for the Great North Run. He had also played the part of Stick, Jimmy Nail's sidekick in the detective series Spender.) Ian and I wrote some Auf Wiedersehen Pet sketches for Jimmy, Tim and Kevin and the audience went wild for it. It made us realise how much affection the public still had for the show. Then we got the rest of the actors together for it. I remember us all meeting up at a restaurant in London. They had all become very successful and well established. Nobody was doing it because they needed the money. Everyone had a real affection for the series and for working with each other. It couldn't have happened if there hadn't been this close bond. MH:Will there be any more? Dick: I don't think we'll do any more. It was great doing the revival and we had a great time. But if we went on we would be repeating ourselves and we'd run out of steam. I think we did the right amount and I'm very pleased we found an audience all over again.