A musing on the search for the soul of the Labour Party, dated? Hadaway and shite, man, says Hannah Dunleavy.
What and why: Episode 1 of award-winning Newcastle-set drama Our Friends in the North first aired today in 1996. Eighteen years in the writing, 10 months in the making; Peter Flannery’s mini-series used half the BBC’s drama budget for that year. Covering a 30-year period, it tells the story of four friends – played by Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Gina McKee and Mark Strong – and covers police corruption, the three-day week, the council house sell-off, the miners’ strike and Black Monday.
Rated or dated: In the last decade there’s been a near-ceaseless search among some television critics for something to label ‘The UK’s The Wire’. Top Boy and The Shadow Line are among those to be hailed as our version of David Simon’s superlative crime series, but they’ve lacked either the scope (the former) or the emotional resonance (the latter) to fit the bill.
The truth is, they’ve been looking in the wrong direction. This country had already made a sprawling drama, inspired by real events and people, about how institutionalised corruption and the breakdown of the nuclear family affect the poor of a single city: Our Friends in the North.
“One of the first things anyone involved in the 1996 drama says about it now, is that it wouldn’t be made today.”
The two dramas share as many similarities as differences – and not just because they don’t care if the dialect is sometimes impenetrable. Both offer piss-poor cops, self-serving politicians and young men drawn to crime in the search for a father figure. Both feature the plight of the homeless and the corrosion of the bonds that held communities together. Both live in a world (you know, the same one we do) where ruthlessness is rewarded and naivety punished. Not exactly cheery viewing, but both are punctuated with sporadic black humour and some wonderfully warm relationships.
They also benefit from huge ensemble casts, where actors are either making their name or turning in the performance they’re likely to be remembered for. Oh, and they have characters you can really care about.
First among Our Friends in the North equals is – or certainly on first viewing was – Geordie Peacock, played by Craig, a self-described “blizzard” who in 30 years is never once in control of his life. (I’m going to stop with The Wire comparisons, after one last word: Bubbles.) Geordie flees an abusive dad and impending fatherhood, to find a ‘family’ in Malcolm McDowell’s London porn empire and it all goes downhill from there.
On this latest (and third) viewing, I initially found myself wondering why I’d rated his performance so much. But it’s one that grows in confidence and in the last two episodes, when Geordie’s life really hits the skids, Craig is incredible.
Strong has, in many ways, a harder task with Tosker, the least sympathetic of our friends. He’s a terrible husband, a terrible father and, at times, a terrible human being. His desire to get ahead regardless of the cost makes him the perfect Thatcherite and he comes to represent some of the worst excesses of the 1980s. That Tosker ends the series the most well-rounded of our friends is down to his second wife Elaine, played by Tracey Wilkinson, and her fight to be treated as an equal partner in their marriage. It’s a rare nod to the progress women made in those three decades, outside of Mary’s story.
McKee won a Bafta for that role and you can still see why. When she falls pregnant, Mary has to leave her education and become the first Mrs Tosker Cox. It’s a marriage of incremental horrors – which lasts for longer than I remembered – giving McKee scope for some cracking work as a woman who wants to give as good as she gets but also has an inner Catholic telling her to just lie down and take what’s coming. In one horribly uncomfortable scene, literally.
Last, but most certainly not least, of our friends is Nicky Hutchinson, a role Eccleston was born for. Nicky starts off a naive political firebrand and, when disillusioned, changes into someone far more rash and dangerous. Even when things are going well, he’s prone to fucking it up for no good reason.
All of which make him hard to warm to, or would, were it not for his intense relationship with his disapproving father, Jarrow March veteran Felix, a career-best performance from Peter Vaughan. (As an aside, I had forgotten how completely charming Nicky’s relationship with stoic Florrie, played by Freda Dowie, is. The scene where she closes her eyes while trying to bend a spoon and he tells her, “Mother, it’s cheating if you’re praying,” might be one of the loveliest things ever on TV.)
“Tosker’s desire to get ahead regardless of the cost makes him the perfect Thatcherite and he comes to represent some of the worst excesses of the 1980s.”
Felix and Nicky’s relationship – and those of fathers and sons in general – dominates the series, perhaps nowhere more than Episode 4 – 1970. It’s an excellent hour of television and one that breaks the series’ formula of ending with contemporaneous music, using instead the hymn Faith of our Fathers, which might be on the nose, but is incredibly effective nonetheless.
1970 also contains a terrific scene in which Nicky, Felix and Eddie Wells (for the sake of brevity let’s call him a sort of Geordie Dennis Skinner who is a friend of the Hutchinson family) find themselves in possession of a gun. It’s a piece of good old-fashioned angst-ridden family drama, with three of this country’s finest actors: Eccleston, Vaughan and the fantastic David Bradley, who doesn’t say much in the scene but certainly makes his presence felt.
But it’s worth noting for another reason. One of the first things anyone involved in the 1996 drama says about it now, is that it wouldn’t be made today. That there isn’t the budget, or the will, within the BBC or the wider media, for an expensive, overtly political, starless drama.
Which brings me to that vicious row in the Hutchinsons’ tiny terraced house. It’s driven not just by family politics, but by a clash of ideologies, ALL of which sit to the left of the mainstream Labour Party. While the young Nicky in me can’t accept there may never be another Our Friends in the North, the jaded Nicky in me realises we will probably never see its like again.
So, rated or dated? Well, it’s certainly not perfect. You have to suspend quite a lot of disbelief to see McKee as a woman approaching 50 (although to be fair, in real life she looks great at 50). Some of the early wigs are shocking and McDowell’s performance hasn’t aged too well either. Where he once seemed terrifying, on this viewing I found some of it a bit hackneyed. And I’m entirely unqualified to say how accurate a representation it really is of Newcastle, or 1960s London for that matter. But does it still have the power to move, to shock, to enrage? Yes, and then some.
And dated? Flannery once described the series as nine hours about the failure of Britain’s post-war housing policy. You could also describe it as a 30-year battle for the soul of the Labour Party. If you don’t think either of those things make it as relevant as it ever was, maybe you need to watch Our Friends in the North most of all. RATED7911 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.