by Richard Hart
There was a time when the BBC was unafraid of taking a risk. There was a time when the BBC was known for producing world-class drama. When exactly that time ended is up for debate but one thing is for sure; the modern BBC would never have the guts to make a show like “Our Friends in the North” now.
This review does contain spoilers but nothing too major.
“Our Friends” is a story of politics; from the small-scale like local council elections all the way to the power and corruption of Westminster. It’s also about the knock on effects of politics on a persons everyday life through issues like housing, welfare and crime. It’s also a story about personal politics dealing with heavyweight issues like love, forgiveness, grief and faith.
At its heart though is the simple and personal tale of friendship. Four friends are the glue that binds the story together and they are played by a quartet of actors who are now very well-known. At the time, however, they were basically unknown and entrusted with a massive amount of screen-time and acting to do.
The story sees four characters, linked as a circle of friends at first, go about their lives in England and attempt to make sense of the world. All four are different in their own right and more so than the broad brush strokes that first mark them out. Geordie (Daniel Craig) is sensitive, charming and intelligent and a long time friend of both Tosker and Nicky. He is arguably the most vulnerable of the four and his terrible home life causes him to run away to seamy London. Nicky (Chris Eccleston) is brash, opinionated and full of pretension but is an optimist and has genuine beliefs. he also sees his father a burn-out who doesn’t understand that the world is at a crossroads. Nicky makes the most attempts to change the world by varying means, politics, journalism and even terrorism. By the end, Nicky has seen his dreams utterly destroyed.
Mary (Gina McKee) is the adult character, being that she has a tough family to deal with (her brother is disabled) but she makes the most of things. She is Nicky’s girlfriend at first but it isn’t to last as she has plans that don’t include saving the world. Mary has to deal with being a young mother in a crumbling tower-block before her husband makes good of himself. Tosker (Mark Strong) gives the most unsympathetic performance as the rather basic Tosker. He is hell-bent on his plan to get rich and despite many different methods, A fruit and veg van, real estate and a restaurant, it seems that Tosker is destined to always just fall short of his aims. And in love he also fails to win over Mary as the two contest a loveless marriage.
Over the series it covers myriad issues, from poverty to organised crime and police corruption. The entire storyline with the criminal world of London is the most exciting but equally gripping is Mary’s struggle to raise her son and make something of herself which she does ably. Nicky goes through a rough ride with his parents but ultimately finds a redemption. Geordie however is almost totally destroyed by following the wrong people the wrong way and ends up in prison. For Geordie, the system has no time for him.
Our Friends in the North was, at the time, one of the ambitious shows put together by the BBC. Based on Peter Flannery’s stage play, the TV show took on the myriad ideas and wove them together to create an expansive (and expensive) tapestry that takes us from the council estates of Newcastle to the slums of London. It has plot-lines that deal with police corruption, crime, big business, family, addiction, revenge, terrorism and the “machine” of politics.
The story is almost as much about getting older as it is about these more abstract concepts though. The cast start the story playing teenagers and end the story in their early fifties. The process of getting older, growing up, having children and relationships takes its toll on the characters for good and for ill. The damage of a loveless marriage and a destructive relationship with a father leave heavy scars on these friends. But most critically the story is about how people start out with a preconceived notion of who they are, where they are and how much they can change things. The reality almost always turns out to be different on all fronts, or so the series would have it.
It’s also far from a broad canvas of ideas. It’s a highly personal story that deals with the lives of the four main characters and a wealth of strong supporting characters. Among these are Malcolm McDowell’s sleazy criminal boss, Tony Haygarth and Danny Webb as honest cops playing opposite David Schofield as a crooked cop. But the series stand out in terms of the supporting cast is Peter Vaughn as Nicky’s father, the burned out Felix Hutchison who makes a huge impact in his role. His relationship (or lack of one) is a critical factor in the Nicky story-arc.
It’s far from a perfect series and it has its faults. There are some angles that aren’t properly developed and feel like they just fizzle out. Some characters fade out of view, which is deliberate but it doesn’t play out from a dramatic point of view. There are also a few lines of dialogue that fall badly flat but the story misses almost no beats and, at times, hits a series of remarkable high notes before the emotional but believable climax.
There are also plenty of musical cultural references. Sometimes they are a little bit low-budget where the BBC music budget would extend as far as the Rolling Stones in the 1960’s but these are generally pretty solid. The costume and set design is pretty convincing too, in the 70’s things get pretty ugly to look at (which includes some horrible haircuts worn by the male cast)
The show concludes with an Oasis song as it reaches the 1990’s and the era of New Labour which it portrays as a mixed blessing. Peter Flannery was writing the series in the 80’s (as a play) and then before New Labour was swept to power but he hazards a guess that was since proven right about the direction New Labour would take. Flannery’s script is pretty left-wing but it’s fairly damning of all politics and politicians. It has some human Tories and some idiotic and corrupt members of the Labour party but its allegiance is to the left.
Framing the story into election years in an interesting conceit but not one that plays a foreground role in the story. The changing face of Britain is more closely and accurately reflected by the cast and how they act, feel and even look.
Modern TV shows, especially those made by the BBC, don’t tend to be as dramatic, controversial or as brave as this one. Indeed the BBC took a big chance with this show that paid off with a mass of awards but almost backfired with a civil suit by a Tory Peer who felt that a character was obviously based on him.
Your best chance of seeing this sort of thing now is to see foreign shows like “The West Wing”, “The Wire” and “The Killing”. The alternative is to dig this out and watch it in all its glory.
It truly is a glorious series and an impressive achievement. More than ten hours of drama plays out across more than thirty years of story. A cast of more than one hundred speaking characters deliver more than three hundred pages of dialogue taking in a massive piece of shared cultural and political memory.
This is a show that is unabashedly British, celebrating and mourning all that makes this country what it has become.