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40 years of comedy classic Auf Wiedersehen, Pet: ‘The producers thought it was too crude, too manly’
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40 years of comedy classic Auf Wiedersehen, Pet: ‘The producers thought it was too crude, too manly’

In November 1983, a new television series that focused on working-class labourers debuted on ITV. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet told the story of seven men who felt it necessary to leave their families and Thatcher’s Britain in order to earn a living wage. Dennis Patterson (Tim Healy), Neville Hope (Kevin Whately), Leonard “Oz” Osborne (Jimmy Nail), Barry Taylor (Timothy Spall), Wayne Norris (Gary Holton), Albert Moxey (Christopher Fairbank) and Brian “Bomber” Busbridge (Pat Roach) were, between them, brickies, electricians and carpenters who lived and worked together on a construction site in Düsseldorf, Germany, where they bonded, pined for home and drank away their sorrows. Mostly written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, and performed by a cast of young actors, it proved an immediate hit, and helped launch its leads, who went on to careers in film, theatre and music.

The show immediately hit a collective nerve. Like Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Black Stuff the previous year – which covered similar themes of high unemployment and the spectre of a bleak future – Auf Wiedersehen, Pet also managed to be funny. It quickly gained weekly audience figures of around 14 million. It has perhaps gone on to endure so well because, by focusing on the complicated business of male friendship with the suggestion that beneath all the bluff and the bravado their love for one another ran deep, it was ahead of its time.

It was revived in 2002 for two further series, and a two-part Christmas special, and in 2015 readers of the Radio Times voted it the best ITV show of all time. Today the fan club boasts more than 100,000 members. This May, the show celebrates its 4oth anniversary with two live gigs at Newcastle upon Tyne’s O2 City Hall, featuring various cast members. Both sold out swiftly, indicating just how loved the series remains.

Franc Roddam (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet creator and executive producer, series three and four) I remember in the late 70s going home to Stockton-on-Tees to see my buddies, but there was nobody there. They’d all gone to Germany to work because there wasn’t any work in England any more. They were living on building sites, with Greeks and Turks, in huts. I went to visit them, all these different characters together, and it reminded me of war movies; they’d joke about escaping. On a political level, and a psychological one, I thought this was interesting, and could make for good television. I took the idea to Dick and Ian, and they loved it. Ian was so enamoured he wanted to go home straight away to write it.

Ian La Frenais and Dick ClementView image in fullscreen

Dick Clement (writer) At first, we created it around the three geordies, each with very distinct characters. Neville was the worrier, Dennis the reluctant leader, Oz the nightmare. We wanted to make it a drama with comedy, and somehow we got an order from Central TV for 13 one-hour shows with a cast of mostly unknowns.

Ian La Frenais (writer) The commissioner at the time said: “Are there any women in it?” And we said: “Well, there are hookers in Hamburg … ”, which was probably not the answer she wanted. But then it was a show about men. There was no place for women on the building site, and it was about these men being removed from their wives, and in many cases desperately missing them.

Stan Hey (writer) I think the general idea at Central Television, which produced it, was that it wouldn’t go down very well. It was too crude, too manly.

Julia Tobin (Neville’s wife, Brenda Hope) I’m the only woman to have been in each of the series, and I always played Brenda as a driving force. She pushed Neville, encouraged him, and I think some people – mostly men – thought she was a bit of a cow because she was so assertive. At the same time, I imagine a lot of those super-masculine males wouldn’t have minded having someone like Brenda in their lives …

Christopher Fairbank (Moxey) Back in 1982, I had a six-week contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I got fired. I was convinced I’d sabotaged any chance I had of a career when my agent told me about Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. They already had three geordies, a West Country guy and a Brummie. I told them I had fluent scouse, if that was any help. And Moxey was born.

Tim Healy (Dennis) I had been acting for about 10 years by that stage, but Auf Wiedersehen, Pet immediately felt more than just another job. It turned out to be an extraordinary thing to be involved in. In the early 80s, about 30,000 British workers were working in Germany on what they called “the lump”. It meant they didn’t have to pay tax there. The construction industry in Britain had broken down, and what Dick and Ian did so well was take a comic look at a hard reality. The programme succeeded because it rang true.

Christopher Fairbank I remember Jimmy Nail rocking up for the screen test, with that face and the missing tooth, and Dick and Ian looked at him and said: “Please God he can act!” When he started the scene he’d prepared, Dick and Ian just doubled up with laughter. Jimmy had to stop in the middle and ask them quietly but firmly: “Would you mind not laughing while I’m doing this? I’m trying to concentrate.” That was it, he got cast. The alchemy between us all was immediate.

Stan Hey The series went out on a Friday night on ITV when most of the ideal audience were down the pub. But then this word-of-mouth thing happened. By the third week, it was getting 14 million viewers. People were coming home early – unthinkable!

Kevin Whately and Julia Tobin as Neville and Brenda HopeView image in fullscreen

Kevin Whately (Neville) The first time I realised it was a success, and that we were famous, was towards the end of the first series going out. Me, Tim and Jimmy went to see Billy Connolly perform at the City Hall in Newcastle. Our arrival created a riot. Billy’s stage crew had to physically carry us through the auditorium and smuggle us backstage; they weren’t going to be able to start the show otherwise. That was quite scary. It made me duck into the shadows for almost a year after that. I wouldn’t go to the shops, just stayed home. It affected me quite badly.

Tim Healy I’ve never had any problem with that. I knew that I was in people’s houses, and I just accepted it. Jimmy became a sex symbol! It was unbelievable the way women fancied him – a bit of rough, perhaps.

Kevin Whately Jimmy was extraordinary, and a large element of the success. He’d never acted before. Normally, when you’re playing geordies on television, you tend to water down the accent a little bit, but I remember that the director, Roger Bamford, told us to go with it. Jim certainly did that, and the energy he had was incredible. He’s a bit like Tom Cruise in that way. To get that amount of energy on camera is difficult, but he just fills the screen with it.

Christopher Fairbank It sometimes felt like the second series shouldn’t have happened. There were lots of production problems, and then Caroline Hutchison, who played Dennis’s wife, Vera, was suffering from cancer [she died in 1988]; Julia developed meningitis and was rushed to hospital, but the management never told us; and then of course Gary Holton [who played Wayne] died [in 1985].

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Gary Holton and Catherine RabettView image in fullscreen

Tim Healy None of us expected Gary to see his pension, because he did used to hammer it a bit, but nobody expected him to die before we’d finished filming the second series. That was a huge shock. The world thinks he died of a heroin overdose – the press called him a heroin hoodlum, which was just horrendous – but he didn’t. He choked in his sleep. He was a fantastic person, so kind.

Melanie Hill (Hazel Redfern in series two) I had just come out of Rada when I landed the part of Barry’s fiance, Hazel. It was a drop of heaven filming with them. I remember going into work even on my days off just to watch them because I loved being there. And acting alongside Tim [Spall] was overwhelming. He was so funny.

Kevin Whately Spally was always in a different league to the rest of us. He’s got such a gift. As an actor, you hope you can act OK and do the job, but he had an extra dimension to him.

Ian La Frenais When Franc and Jimmy came up with the idea of a third series in the early 2000s, we were dead against it. My worry was that Dick and I would get lambasted for recycling old ideas. But when they told us their idea of taking the Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough to Arizona, we loved it. We had a lunch together in Mayfair, and realised that none of us needed to do this, that we were each doing our own separate things and doing OK. But then Tim said: “Yes, but we want to. We loved working with each other, we loved the work, the banter. And we want to do it again.”

Dick Clement We had previously written a few sketches for the Sunday for Sammy charity events in Newcastle [to raise money for a fund set up to honour the actor Sammy Johnson who appeared in the show’s second series, and died in 1998], and the moment the audience saw the three geordies walk on stage, it brought the house down. That made us realise what a well of goodwill there was towards them. When the third series screened on the BBC [in 2002], it had 12 million viewers.

Ian La Frenais I loved those later series. I think we were writing better than we were in the 80s, with stronger plots, stronger situations, and we were really able to put flesh on the characters. The show has always been about friendship and about the British class system. The British love shows about people fighting against the odds – so even when, in series three, Barry’s done well, driving a Rolls-Royce, it doesn’t last.

Tim Healy By the time we got back for the later series, we all really got looked after properly, but nobody was demanding.

Christopher Fairbank The pay wasn’t equal, to be honest. Myself and Pat Roach [Bomber] were offered half of what everybody else was for that first revival series. When I got in touch with my agent asking how come, she said that everybody else had been leading characters in other successful TV series. That rankled a bit. But when we did the Christmas special [in 2004], it was parity for all of us. That final series was when poor Pat passed away while the rest of us were out in Thailand, filming. He was such a lovely man, a gentle giant.

Kevin Whately I don’t think we’ve ever had an argument. We’ve all remained such good friends. There’s plenty of ego, of course – we’re actors! – but we’ve never fallen out. There’s such great chemistry between us.

Julia Tobin If the opportunity for another series ever arose, I’d jump at it. I love every one of those boys. They belong to me, and I belong to them.

Tim Healy It was all such a long time ago, but people talk about it all the time. For years, people on the street would say to me: “Where’s Oz?” I’d reply: “He’s on the roof, getting the lead.” That always got a laugh. Still does.

Source: theguardian.com