The finest TV drama series of the ’90s makes a welcome return.
In nine parts, spread across 10½ hours, Peter Flannery’s multilayered personal/political epic follows four Newcastle friends from 1964 to 1995 – activist Nicky Hutchinson (Christopher Eccleston), idealist Mary Soulsby (Gina McKee), lost soul Geordie Peacock (Daniel Craig), ambitious Tosker Cox (Mark Strong).
Their story, ricocheting from Newcastle to London and back, gets interwoven with the events of the period, from the Poulson corruption scandal in the north-east through the Soho porn empires, the rise of Thatcherism, the miners’ strike, the stock-market crash of 1987 and the night of the Great Gale.
What makes the drama so powerful is that, between the social history and personal drama, lies Flannery’s biting account of what happened to the British left during these decades – how its ideals were compromised, diluted and sold down the river through greed, lack of nerve and downright stupidity.
All too appropriate that the series appeared the year before Blair’s New Labour came to power. That wasn’t the original idea, though. The genesis of the series began far earlier, back in 1980 when Flannery first wrote Our Friends In The North, as a stage play.
It was premiered in 1982 by the RSC – and then began the long, frustrating struggle to turn it into a drama series for the BBC. It says a lot for Flannery’s persistence that it finally emerged with his vision undiluted – and an unprecedented budget of £8 million.
Meanwhile, the Beeb’s lawyers were having kittens over some very recognisable characters.
Alun Armstrong’s Austin Donohue was clearly meant to be T Dan Smith, ‘Mr Newcastle’ during the kickback years, Geoffrey Hutchings’ John Edwards was a ringer for John Poulson, whose dodgy tower blocks made him millions, Julian Fellowes’ Claude Seabrook channelled disgraced home secretary Reginald Maudling, and so on.
The casting was bold, too. Of the leads, only Eccleston had any kind of reputation, after Shallow Grave and Cracker; McKee, Craig and Strong were unknown novices but you’d never guess from their assured performances, backed by veterans like Armstrong, Peter Vaughn and Malcolm McDowell, resplendently sleazy as Soho porn boss Benny Barratt.
The one disappointment here is the lack of extras. When last released by Sony in 2002, there was a rich haul of cast interviews and retrospectives. Now, we have a booklet. A pity.
Complex, emotionally compelling epic drama – on no account to be missed. Pity about the AWOL extras.