Two blokes called Bob and Terry are supping a pint in a pub and putting the world to rights. As so often on these occasions, the conversation turns to foreigners. Bob starts to mock Terry for his abortive marriage to a German woman. Terry bristles defensively: "The failure of my marriage only goes to prove my point - them and us don't mix. England should take heed of my failed entry into Europe. God didn't make this country an island by accident, you know." This exchange, taken from The Likely Lads, rings as true today as when it was written nearly 30 years ago. The continuing resonance of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais's dialogue is just one reason why this classic sitcom is now being revived. In this new reading, Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly - or Ant 'n' Dec, to you and me - are taking the roles made famous by James Bolam and Rodney Bewes in the hugely popular series which first ran on BBC1 from 1964 to 1973.
This new version of The Likely Lads, for ITV, is merely the latest example of the growing trend for television to eat itself. Following in the wake of The Forsyte Saga, Crossroads and Auf Wiedersehen Pet, the other big Clement and La Frenais revival, which starts on BBC1 tonight, it appears to confirm the eagerness of commissioning editors to cannibalise the hits of yesterday in their ceaseless search for the hits of today. Unsurprisingly, the participants are in no doubt about the value of what you might call creative grave-robbing. Donnelly says that it is worth bringing back a success from three decades ago because its themes have abiding relevance. "When I first read that exchange about foreigners, I thought `My God, that could have been written now.' It's perfect. When you look at Dick and Ian's writing, there's very little concept. The Likely Lads is just two best friends sitting in a pub and arguing. Similarly, Auf Wiedersehen Pet is just six builders who have to move away from home in order to find work. The way Dick and Ian write relationships makes these series work and endure. The basic quality of friendship never changes."
Nevertheless, won't some critics see this as a cheap and easy way of cashing in on Ant and Dec's enormous post-Pop Idol popularity? Not according to the new Likely Lads. "This is not just a cynical ploy to grab ratings," McPartlin contends. "Of course, people are going to say, `I preferred the original, and Ant and Dec aren't as good as James Bolam and Rodney Bewes.' But the reason we want to do it is because we're massive fans and we think it still stands up. We want to bring this great writing to a new generation. It's a `Hats off' to The Likely Lads."
Rob Clark, the executive producer of the new version, mounts an equally stout defence of this revival. "If you can still do great plays over and over again with different actors, why can't two new performers do a great TV show again? The issues in The Likely Lads are where to get a pint, where to get a shag, and where to get a job - in that order - and those haven't changed in the last 30 years. Bob and Terry are characters who can live in any time. Why should they always be fossilised in flared jeans and brown suits? If they're great characters, they're universal. That's why it's OK to reinvent them now."
Clement concurs. "There have always been people who have the kind of relationship Bob and Terry have. They are like the ant and the grasshopper. Bob is always desperately striving to better himself while Terry calls him a class traitor as a way of distracting us from his own lack of achievement. It's one of those symbiotic relationships. In spite of the fact that they row all the time, there's this enormous and deep friendship between them. …