Of all the things you can say about London in the Swinging Sixties, there is one that shocks most — the house prices! Legendary writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who helped define the decade with their sitcom, The Likely Lads, seem incredulous when they recall where they could afford to live in the capital as struggling wannabes.
‘You might not have a pot to pee in, but you could live within half a mile of Buckingham Palace. I didn’t have any money, except what I made from part-time jobs,’ says Ian.
‘Like charring,’ interjects Dick.
‘I wasn’t going to mention that but it’s true,’ continues Ian. ‘I even cleaned the flat of a national hero, Sir Francis Chichester [the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone]. For some inexplicable reason his wife gave me a jar of paprika. I’d rather have had the cash.’
Legendary writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who helped define the decade with their sitcom, The Likely Lads, seem incredulous when they recall where they could afford to live in the capital as struggling wannabes
Well, even from this exchange you know you are in entertaining hands when you are embarking on a trip down memory lane.
The pair might be among our most celebrated writers (after The Likely Lads they went on to pen Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet), but their most recent project has been a personal one. When the actor Sir Michael Caine, himself so synonymous with the Sixties, was looking for someone to provide the script for a documentary on the decade, they were an obvious choice.
Although they hadn’t met Caine in the Sixties (‘We first ran into him in 1971,’ they admit), they were entranced. ‘It was an evocative trip into our own past,’ explains Ian. ‘Maybe it’s because we were young and maybe it’s because we got our first break, but we look back on that period with great affection and gratitude.’
The resulting film, My Generation, involved hundreds of hours of sifting through archival footage, and features a cast list to die for. All the (surviving) greats are there, sharing memories: David Bailey, Dame Joan Collins, Roger Daltrey, Lulu, Sir Paul McCartney, Terry O’Neill, Twiggy, Marianne Faithfull, Sandie Shaw.
The feature-length documentary was painstakingly put together over six years, with the aim of telling the story of the birth of pop culture in London through Caine’s eyes.
When the actor Sir Michael Caine, himself so synonymous with the Sixties, was looking for someone to provide the script for a documentary on the decade, they were an obvious choice
My Generation uses carefully intercut audio of Caine’s conversations with his co-stars blended with unseen archive material.
Particularly jaw-dropping is one sequence where the viewer accompanies Caine as he drives through Piccadilly Circus today with the footage overlaid with original Sixties film. Time travel indeed.
What’s fascinating about Ian and Dick’s involvement is hearing their own experience of living through that momentous time. Not that they knew it was momentous at the time. ‘When we first met in London “The Sixties” hadn’t really kicked in. I don’t think they did until 1963,’ says Dick. ‘It’s maybe no coincidence that was the year the Beatles had their first two No 1s.’
By then the pair had moved to London, Clement from his native Essex and La Frenais from the North-East. He says he was on what you would now call ‘a gap year’ waiting to go to university.
Clement, meanwhile was working in the media although very much on the ‘fringe’ — for the BBC World Service. London had not yet become the epicentre of the fashion world.
‘London just wasn’t an exciting place,’ says Ian. ‘There was theatre but most of the plays were about debutantes and we couldn’t afford to go anyway.
‘The point our film makes is that the Swinging Sixties was actually an exclusive party for a handful of gifted and glamorous people.’
‘You and I were definitely not on the guest list,’ points out Dick. ‘I couldn’t get a foot in the door.
My Generation uses carefully intercut audio of Caine’s conversations with his co-stars blended with unseen archive material
‘And the party only happened in London. There were no Mini Mokes or miniskirts on the streets of Middlesbrough. No free love in Geordieland, which is why I came to London in the first place.’
The pair met in a pub and shared a love of music, even if the music of the time — pre-Beatles — was questionable. ‘Some of the music wasn’t too brilliant,’ says Ian. ‘Cliff Richard, the Kingston Trio, Bobby Vee. But Billy Fury was great. Our best rocker, hands down.’
And then there was The Twist, Dick reminds him. He says he was hopeless. Then the glorious name-dropping begins. ‘Rudolph Nureyev couldn’t do it either — David Bailey says so in the film.’
They must even then have seemed an unlikely double act. But once they started writing together, the magic started. Also the nerves. Recalling the first time Dick directed something they had written — the first episode of The Likely Lads — Ian admits he was so wound up he had a panic attack and had to be taken to the nurse.
‘Was she cute?’ asks Dick.
‘You’re not allowed to ask things like that these days. She prescribed a glass of red wine.’
‘And you’ve been following her advice ever since!’
At first they lived in Earls Court, in separate flats. Ian’s was next to an Indian restaurant. ‘The smell of vindaloo used to seep through the walls,’ recalls Dick. His most vivid memory of the time? His Lambretta. ‘My first wheels,’ he confirms. ‘Though I admit it’s hard to look cool on a scooter unless you are Gregory Peck with Audrey Hepburn on the pillion.’
By the mid-Sixties, change was afoot. ‘Here’s my theory,’ explains Ian. ‘A new sub-species emerged in the Fifties: the teenager. There were millions of them. They’d left school at 15 and had apprenticeships. They had money and the advertisers were after it. Suddenly young people had clout.’
Although they hadn’t met Caine in the Sixties (‘We first ran into him in 1971,’ they admit), they were entranced
Dick says this provided a big focus for the film. ‘It’s one of the things Michael talks about — the youthquake of working-class energy. The astonishing thing is that a few years later there were a dozen or so Brits considered to be among the most glamorous and interesting people on the planet. Shrimpton, Bailey, Twiggy, Vidal Sassoon, Hockney, any given Beatle. Mick and Marianne. Then the actors — Courtenay, Finney, Stamp and — last but not least — our own Sir Michael.’
And in time, they became part of that clique. ‘The first cool person I met was the photographer Bob Freeman,’ says Ian. ‘He was on every guest list. His studio was filled with models and pop stars. For some reason he cast me in a commercial. They gave me a crushed velvet jacket and blow-dried my hair.
‘One day he picked me up on the King’s Road. A girl was already in the passenger seat and she had to squirm up so I could wriggle under her unbelievably long legs.
‘She was Anita Pallenberg, Sixties poster girl and the main squeeze of Brian Jones. Later that night we went to a club and Pattie Boyd joined us. I wore the crushed velvet jacket’.
Dick remembers his friend’s fashion foibles well. ‘You even bought an Afghan coat,’ he deadpans. ‘You looked like a yak and when it rained you smelt like one.’
What they agree on is that it was an epic time to be young and creative. ‘I don’t think any other period has provoked so many divided opinions: fascination, admiration, curiosity, even ridicule,’ says Ian.
‘The critic Bernard Levin said the swinging scene was nothing more than the froth and scum of a decadent, doomed society.’
‘Now there was a man who obviously wasn’t getting his leg over,’ says Dick. ‘I don’t think the Sixties was just about empty spectacle. It was about imagination, and limitless possibilities.
‘People met face to face, not on Facebook. That human connection is where creativity came from.’
Oh and then there is the drugs. We cannot talk about the Sixties without them.
Did they dabble? ‘I thought about using LSD but I never got round to it,’ says Dick. Ian shudders at what might have been. ‘What if you’d done it and had a really bad trip? I’d have had to write Porridge all on my own.’
My Generation is in cinemas nationwide for one day only on March 14.