WHEN THE BOAT COMES IN – TV WEEK
An Australian TV Week Article on the UK show from 16 April 1977.
FANS of The Likely Lads are seeing their comic hero James Bolam in a totally different light – as star of the ABC’s latest top-rating serial, When The Boat Comes In. And, in the grasping, ambitious union leader, Jack Ford, they’re getting a far truer glimpse of the real Bolam than they did when he was the bumbling, bachelor, bird-chasing Terry Collier.
There’s an added piquancy in The Boat, too. Bolam’s opposite female number, Susan Jameson, who plays his true love Jessie, is in life the only woman in the turbulent actor’s life. They have a seven-month-old daughter and live together in Fulham, a South London suburb.
The 13-part BBC series written mainly by Callan scripter James Mitchell is already proving as much of a ratings winner in Australia as it did earlier in Britain. The story centres on the rise of Jack Ford, who’s just been discharged from the army after witnessing the horrors of World War I. It’s 1919 and the politicians are promising everyone a land fit for heroes to live in. But Jack is sceptical and his latent cynicism needs very little to develop into the characteristic that dominates his every move. Along the way he meets Jessie Seaton, a young socialist-minded teacher with a strong sense of duty to the community. Through her, he’s introduced to the rest of her family, a richly varied yet remarkably believable clan. Pervading all is the desperate poverty and class oppression of north-east England’s Tyneside, a condition Jack is determined to leave by whatever means are at his disposal.
Bolam, himself, has fallen foul of the strongly jingoistic Tynesiders in his time. In 1975, during filming of a full-length feature film of The Likely Lads, he verbally slammed the region that had helped to make him famous and which, incidentally, is his birthplace. “I got the last possible train up here and I’ll be getting the first possible train back,” he said. I have no special sentiment about coming back to the north-east.-A job is a job and when it’s finished I’ll be glad to get back to my home in Fulham.” Predictably, the remarks caused a storm of criticism from the natives. “He is being ungracious to a part of the world that has treated him with affection,” said one irate councillor. “Bolam rose to fame on his north-east image. The Likely Lads are regarded up here as a bit of Tyneside folklore, and he has done very well out of that.” But Bolam was unrepentant. In true style he simply commented through an intermediary, of course that he didn’t wish to retract anything but didn’t wish to discuss it, either.”
But that sums up James Bolam 37 years old, a professional to the core and a virtual recluse. He never gives interviews and is extremely jealous of the private life he shares with Susan Jameson and their daughter. His extraordinary talent has granted him superstar status but he has shunned all its trappings.
His undoubted talent and versatility was recognised early. James Mitchell a prolific fiction writer even before he received widespread acclaim for the Callan series talks of Bolam “ticking away like a time bomb”.
“Everyone seems to work twice as hard when they are with him,” Mitchell says. He goes for perfection. If things don’t go right he gets upset.”
But why the comic Bolam for the tough role of Jack Ford – a man who is determined and dangerous, but so very attractive as well? “We needed someone with an authentic Geordie accent who could be a devious charmer,” says Mitchell. ‘There was only James, it had to be him. He’s no Robert Redford, but the ladies love him. The aggression or the fantastic charm are there whenever he wants to turn them on. “He’s also the unobtainable to women a man’s man.” Dick Clement, who created The Likely Lads with co-scripter lan La Frenais, admires Bolam, now a close friend, as a serious actor first and foremost but a puzzle, personally. “Some actors love the glamor of it all. He’s not interested,” says Clement. “He just wants to be judged as an actor and he’s not concerned about the public knowing what socks he wears or what cereals he eats for breakfast.”
This passionate desire for privacy has naturally spilled over to Susan Jameson. She, like Bolam, came up through the tough ranks of British repertory. She trained at the Birmingham School Of Speech And Drama, and had her first professional appointment in The Diary Of Ann Frank, in Somerset. From there, she worked around the country and appeared on television numerous times in series such as Z Cars, The Dick Emery Show and Coronation Street.
Bolam’s first stage appearance was at London’s distinguished Royal Court Theatre and this began a career that has since spanned many stage appearances, both in Britain and New York, and numerous film performances including A Kind Of Loving, Half A Sixpence, Murder Most Foul, 0 Lucky Man and a film version of In Celebration with Alan Bates.
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