Ian La Frenais – creator of some of the most iconic comedy shows on television – returned to the historic North East school he attended in the ‘50s to inspire budding creative writers of the future.
La Frenais, whose famous partnership with Dick Clement has seen the creation of much-loved TV sitcoms including Porridge, The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, came back to Dame Allan’s Schools, in Newcastle, to talk with senior pupils interested in scriptwriting, creative writing and production.
His visit to the Fenham-based independent school formed part of a nostalgic return to the region, during which he was expected to attend the Whitley Bay Film Festival with special guest, actor Bill Nighy, for a showing of La Frenais’ feature film, Still Crazy, at The Exchange Theatre, in North Shields.
The writer, who like Clement now lives in LA, spoke fondly of his childhood in the North East.
“Growing up in Whitley Bay and my schooldays at Dame Allan’s defined me as a person. While I live and work in the “craziness” that is Hollywood, the values I hold dear are rooted in my upbringing,” he said.
“I’m proud to be from the North East, it’s a place that means a lot to me, and it’s why many of the scripts I’ve written are set here.”
Born in Monkseaton, La Frenais went to primary school in Whitley Bay before attending Dame Allan’s Boys’ School, where he was a keen rugby player and often involved backstage in theatre productions. After finishing school in 1954, he went on to complete his National Service in the British Army.
He admitted: “I accidentally got into scriptwriting in my 20s thanks to a series of chance meetings – it wasn’t something I thought about doing during my schooldays. However, I remember leaving Dame Allan’s open to opportunity. I definitely wouldn’t have experienced the success I’ve had, had it not been for my move from school into the army.”
He credits his time doing National Service between the ages of 18 and 20 for his observational powers and the ability to write about people and “real” life.
“It helped me to develop characters and create backstories that gained an audience’s empathy and captured their imagination,” he said.
La Frenais and Clement have co-written a number of films, including The Commitments, which won the Peter Sellers Award for Comedy, Excess Baggage, and the DreamWorks / Aardman animation Flushed Away.
Aside from his collaborations with Clement, La Frenais, who was made an OBE in the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours list, created and co-created many other TV series including Lovejoy and BBC detective series Spender.
Now in his eighties, he has no plans to retire from writing. He told the audience at Dame Allan’s: “To be in this business you need to be fiercely passionate – passionate about your ideas, passionate about your writing and passionate about the industry,” he said.
“It is the passion inside that keeps you going. If I can give you any advice it would be this… serve the universe best, doing what you love most.”
Will Scott, principal of Dame Allan’s Schools, said: “It was an honour to welcome Ian back to Dame Allan’s and listen as he regaled us with stories from both his schooldays and his long and successful career as a writer.
“We have many pupils interested in, and very capable of, a future career in creative arts, writing and drama, and we are very grateful to Ian for imparting his wisdom and answering their questions with good grace and humour.”