Actor and comedian best known for his role as Bob Ferris in TV’s The Likely Lads
Tuesday 21 November 2017
Rodney Bewes, who has died aged 79, will be most remembered for playing Bob Ferris, the well-intentioned and socially aspiring half of The Likely Lads, the BBC television series which at its 1960s peak and beyond regularly attracted 27 million viewers. He would later talk with gratitude about how the show, featuring the economic, emotional and amatory ups and downs of two working-class lads in the north-east, had made his career.
The Likely Lads (1964-66) and its successor, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (1973-74), cast Bewes alongside James Bolam. In 1975 there was a BBC radio version, since reheard on Radio 4 Extra, and the following year a feature film. But Bolam, who played Ferris’s derisive and self-limiting mate Terry Collier, could not later bear any reference to his presence in the show. He did not speak to his acting other half for 40 years. When the TV programme This Is Your Life was devoted to Bewes in 1980, Bolam did not appear in it.
Following The Likely Lads, Bewes pursued his own cheerful and idiosyncratic path through stage farces and one-man shows, which he wrote himself or adapted from comic classics such as Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody.
Born in Bingley, West Yorkshire, Rodney was the son of Horace, a clerk with the Eastern Electricity Board showrooms in Bradford, and Bessie, who taught children with learning disabilities. The family moved to Luton, Bedfordshire, when he was six, later returning to the north. He was a sickly child, and suffered from asthma. This led to him being largely home-educated by his parents, and he developed a fantasy life by making model theatres out of shoeboxes and staging performances in them under the eiderdown of his bed. He also read extensively and ambitiously – including Dickens and the Greek classics.
At 13, he saw an advertisement in his father’s copy of the Daily Herald. The BBC were looking for a boy actor for its Children’s Hour television production of Billy Bunter. He answered the advertisement, and although he did not get the part, he was subsequently cast in Mystery at Mountcliffe Chase (1952), soon followed by other drama productions. His asthma became a thing of the past, and by the age of 15 he was living alone in a basement flat in London, where he joined the preparatory academy to Rada in Highgate, studying theatre in the mornings and switching to normal school work in the afternoons.
He spent three or four nights a week doing chores in the kitchens of the Grosvenor House hotel in Park Lane. His shift was from 6pm to 6am, after which he returned to Highgate, scrubbed the tables at the Rada school, and then prepared food for lunch, before starting his lessons.
Despite such patent determination, he did not succeed at Rada proper, and was expelled by the principal, who wrote Bewes’s mother a tartly polite letter saying: “I’m afraid that Rodney’s talents lie in a direction other than acting.” In the later years of success, Bewes made light of this, pointing out sardonically that: “Alec Guinness was booted out of Rada too.”
After national service in the RAF, he managed to get jobs in repertory at Watford, Stockton-on-Tees, Hull, York, Eastbourne, Morecambe and Hastings. But he was determined to “get on”, and showed some talent for networking. By his own admission, he “made himself” meet the already successful fellow working-class actor Tom Courtenay, who had taken over from Albert Finney in the stage version of Billy Liar.
The two became friends. While flat-sharing, he found Courtenay’s script of the film version of Billy Liar (1963), thought he would like to be in it, and wrote to the casting director saying he would be perfect as Billy’s friend Arthur Crabtree.
Not only did he get the part, but his friendship with Courtenay survived. More crucially, the film was seen by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who had just written the scripts of the first episodes of The Likely Lads. Bewes and Bolam were each handed the six scripts and confessed to one another that the prospect frightened them, but was irresistible.
The series gave both actors instant recognition. When the first run of The Likely Lads finished, Bewes found his feet outside it with an indication of his own future as a writer, producer and star. While he was working on a film of Bill Naughton’s play Spring and Port Wine, he created his own sitcom, Dear Mother … Love Albert, later Albert! (1969-72), out of improvisations on some of the letters he had sent his mother when he was living alone in London as a teenager. He abandoned this television show only when, in 1973, Clement and La Frenais wrote the successor to The Likely Lads.
Once his uneasy partnership with Bolam ended, Bewes established a way of life in which he created, from his own ideas or adaptations of classic comic material, one-man shows that he took around theatres with the help of his second wife, Daphne. He comforted himself with the thought that the takings, depending on the size of the theatre, could range from £250 to £2,500 a week – and he took the writer’s, actor’s and producer’s slices.
When approaching his 70s, Bewes took his one-man version of the life and career of Jerome K Jerome as an actor, On the Stage and Off, to the Edinburgh festival fringe, which was to become a favourite venue for him, and on a national tour. In 1997 he won the Stella Artois prize at Edinburgh for his production of Three Men in a Boat, and in 2015 he gave an autobiographical show there, An Audience with Rodney Bewes... Who? His memoir in book form was A Likely Story (2005).
He punctuated his own monologues by starring in farces in theatres in Surrey, declaring, “I know what I am good at, and what I am not good at.” Asked why he did not try more serious acting, he was apt to quote a pub landlord admirer who told him, after he had appeared in a serious TV classic, that he had switched channels because it was “very wordy”.
Bewes’ first marriage, to Nina Tebbitt, ended in divorce, and in 1973 he married Daphne Black, an artist and textile designer. She died in 2015, and he is survived by their four children, a daughter, Daisy, and triplets, Joe, Tom and Billy.
• Rodney Bewes, actor, writer and producer, born 27 November 1937; died 21 November 2017