Twenty years of Our Friends In The North

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It has now been a full two decades since the start of one of the most acclaimed British dramas of all time, Our Friends In The North. Peter Flannery’s hugely ambitious nine part series depicted British life between the years 1964 and 1995, through the eyes of four Newcastle friends as they progress from youth to middle age.

Opening on the eve of the October 1964 General Election, which saw a rejuvenated Labour Party reclaim power after thirteen years of Tory misrule, the series ends in 1995, with New Labour seemingly poised to do much the same thing. In the meantime, the series touches on a whole range of issues including corruption within the police and government, the decline of the Left, the Miner’s Strike, homelessness, the failure of high rise housing and rising crime. The show includes a huge supporting cast too. Even today, it is hard to watch TV for long without seeing someone from it crop up.

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The four main players have all enjoyed huge success since, one (Christopher Eccleston) subsequently becoming Doctor Who, another (Daniel Craig), then unknown, subsequently becoming James Bond and a huge star. The other main actors Gina McKee and Mark Strong have been prolific stars of TV and film in the years since. Only Eccleston, who had appeared in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave and the TV series Cracker and Hearts and Minds amongst other things could claim any real fame at the time.

The series required the four actors, in reality then all around the thirty mark, to age from their early twenties to their fifties. It is odd to reflect that, odd as they look in the final 1995-set episode, they are actually supposed to be about the age the actors are now. Ironically, the excesses of 70s fashion mean that even when playing their own age, in the fourth and fifth episodes set in 1970 and 1974, they still look a bit odd.

This is nevertheless a classic series. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to seek it out.

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Top 5 finest British political TV dramas

Political thriller Secret State has now come to an end. But what other series deserve a place amongst the best British TV political dramas of all time?

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The Deal

Year: 2003

The plot:  It’s 1983 and when a newly elected young Labour MP Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) finds himself sharing an office with a hardworking Scot Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), he soon recognises his dour companion could one day be a future Prime Minister. But as the next decade rolls on it is Blair, not Brown whose populist instincts gradually put him ahead and by 1994, the two friends are forced to make a tough decision concerning their own, their party and their nation’s future.

The series: The first of Peter Morgan’s “Blair Trilogy” starring Sheen, before the film The Queen and the later (somewhat inferior) Special Relationship. At the time, critical attention actually focused more on David Morrissey’s uncanny portrayal of Brown than on Sheen’s Blair. Other interesting casting included Dexter Fletcher as Charlie Whelan and Frank Kelly (Father Ted’s drunken Father Jack) as Labour leader John Smith.

Remade?: No. Peter Morgan’s next project The Audience will focus on the different relationships the Queen has had with her various PMs during her long reign.

Basis in reality?: Clearly based on reality. Although Blair and Brown have both denied any deal (namely that Blair agree in advance to stand down in favour of Brown after an agreed time lapse) was ever made.

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A Very British Coup

Year: 1988

The plot: Former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) has been elected Labour Prime Minister in a landslide. The Establishment (the Civil Service, media, MI5 as well as the CIA) do not like this one bit and soon conspire together in the hope of triggering Perkins’ downfall.

The series: Based on the novel by onetime Labour MP Chris Mullin and discussed more thoroughly in my recent blog entry. The excellent McNally tragically died soon after playing Perkins.

Remade?: In the UK as The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne. Author Chris Mullin enjoyed a brief cameo as a vicar but the plot – which centred on the aftermath of the disappearance of a Prime Minister as his plane flew over the Atlantic – was very different.

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GBH

Year: 1991

The plot: Charismatic Trotskyite Labour politician Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) has taken over the council of a northern city and soon calls for a “Day of Action”. This soon turns into a very personal battle with local schoolteacher Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) who resists. But Murray has more than a few skeletons in his closet, notably a traumatic childhood incident and various figures on the Right are soon seeking to frame him for a series of racial attacks.

The series: Alan Bleasdale’s series initially portrayed Murray as a clear villain, then a figure of fun (a sequence in which a twitchy, over-stressed Murray attempts to acquire condoms is hilarious) before ultimately becoming a very sympathetic and somewhat tragic figure. Julie Walters, who played Lindsay’s wife in their next Alan Bleasdale drama Jake’s Progress, here plays his elderly Irish mother. In reality, she is slightly younger than him.

Basis in reality?: Derek Hatton, the former Militant deputy leader of Liverpool  City Council criticised the series claiming it was based on him, a charge Bleasdale fiercely denied. Although ultimately an attack on the Right and the extreme Left, many critics at the time seemed to think (wrongly) that Bleasdale had turned his fire on the Kinnock Labour Party.

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House of Cards

Year: 1990

The plot: When scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is passed over for promotion by the lightweight new post-Thatcher Tory PM Henry Collingridge, he soon decides to use his own insider knowledge and an attractive young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) to plot for the leadership himself. A gripping story which benefits hugely from Richardson’s brilliant performance, his tendency to speak directly to the camera and elements of Shakespearian drama incorporated into the action.

The series: Adapted from Tory insider Michael Dobbs’ novel (which ends differently to the TV version) by Andrew Davies, this spawned two sequels To Play The King, in which PM Urquhart overthrows a Prince Charles like monarch and The Final Cut.

Remade?: A US TV remake starring Kevin Spacey will appear early in 2013.

Basis in reality?: The timing of the first series was uncanny, with Margaret Thatcher being challenged and overthrown by her old rival Michael Heseltine before being replaced by John Major almost exactly in parallel to the progress of events in the four part series on TV. Later series got so popular that Urquhart’s evasive catchphrase “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment,” was soon being quoted in parliament. The last series was criticised by some for featuring Lady Thatcher’s funeral, before she had actually died in reality.

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Our Friends In The North

Year: 1996

The plot: Four friends travel from youthful optimism to middle age from thirty years from the year of Harold Wilson’s first victory and the Beatles in 1964 to the advent of New Labour and Oasis in 1995.

Nicky (future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston), a keen Labour supporter drops out of University to assist local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong) but becomes implicated in civic corruption, briefly becomes drawn into counterculture terrorism before enduring a horrendous stint as a Labour candidate in 1979.

Geordie (future James Bond Daniel Craig, then largely unknown), flees a broken home only to find an ill chosen surrogate father figure in East End gangland boss Benny (Malcolm McDowell).

Tosker (Mark Strong), seeks pop stardom, has an unhappy marriage before becoming, despite being in many ways the stupidest and least likeable of the four,  the most successful, establishing himself as a keen Freemason and Thatcherite.

Mary (Gina McKee who is also in The Secret State), is caught up in an awkward love triangle between the unsuitable Tosker and true love Nicky. She later becomes a New Labour MP.

The series: A wonderful sprawling series this had a long gestation period, originally as a play with the action only going up to 1979.

Remade? No, although there has been talk of a US remake.

Basis in reality? Although fictional, this drew heavily on real events. Austin Donohue’s character was based on real life corrupt city developer T. Dan Smith, while a character played by future Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes owed a lot to Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling. Revelations concerning police corruption, 1970s anarchist movements and events during the Miner’s Strike of 1984 also played a major part in the story.

James Bond vs Doctor Who

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Two great national institutions celebrate their fiftieth anniversaries this year and next: James Bond and Doctor Who. On the face of it, the two franchises could not be more different. One is a sci-fi TV series arguably aimed at children, the other a serious of sexually charged action films. But beneath the surface, the two are more similar than they seem. Consider:

  1. Both began at a very similar time. The first Bond film Dr No was released in October 1962, the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Doctor Who first graced British TV screens on November 23rd 1963: the day after President Kennedy’s assassination.
  2. Both fizzled out in 1989: Timothy Dalton’s second Bond film License to Kill turned out to be the last for a while. Some blamed the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had fallen: who should Bond fight now? In fact, the success of Die Hard raised the stakes as far as action film budgets were concerned and with the British film industry then in the Thatcher-era doldrums, Bond couldn’t compete. Doctor Who’s end, meanwhile, is sometimes blamed on the malice of BBC controller Michael Grade. Grade freely admits he disliked the series. But in truth, like Bond, Doctor Who had been in a state of decline for some time.
  3. Both came back in the mid-Nineties (sort of):  Bond returned in style with Goldeneye in 1995 and a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan would star in three more Bond films. Doctor Who’s “comeback” in a 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann was widely seen as a flop. Although ironically the show did see the Doctor behaving more like James Bond.
  4. Both came back AGAIN about six years ago: Brosnan was replaced with Daniel Craig and the whole franchise got a reboot with Casino Royale in 2006. The year before Russell T. Davies finally re-launched Doctor Who properly with Christopher Eccleston enjoying a one series run as the Doctor and ex-teen pop star Billie Piper as assistant Rose Tyler. The Doctor has regenerated twice since then but has been with us ever since.
  5. Both franchises replace their star every few years: The Doctor famously regenerates whenever the lead actor fancies calling it quits, something that first occurred when the elderly first Doctor William Hartnell left early in the series’ life in 1966 and transformed into the physically dissimilar Patrick Troughton. The “regeneration” device has proven very handy over the years. Matt Smith became the Eleventh Doctor in 2010. As there is no obligation for the Doctor’s different personas to physically resemble each other, this has led to some wide ranging choices. Generally the actors seem to have got gradually younger over time, although all have been male. Bond, in contrast, doesn’t regenerate and is supposed to be the same character. Casting directors have generally gone for reasonably well known but never exactly famous thirty something British actors for the role: Craig is more different than any of the others, simply because he’s blonde. There is only a slight sci-fi element to Bond, of course, but it is odd that we are expected to believe the same man has stayed roughly the same age for fifty years.
  6. Doctors on average change at a faster rate than Bonds. Assuming Matt Smith is still Doctor in one year, there will have been on average one doctor for every four and a half years. Bond actors usually last for an average of just over eight years. There have been six so far.
  7. Iconic music and title sequences: The haunting Who theme has changed gradually over time as the floating head has (until recently) changed from one Doctor’s into another during the title sequence. The main Bond theme has remained unchanged through the decades although each film has, of course, seen a range of different themes by artists as diverse as Nancy Sinatra, Duran Duran, Tom Jones and (on three occasions) Shirley Bassey. The Bond title sequences have also grown increasingly imaginative and, at times, eccentric.
  8. Girls: Bond girls have ranged from Ursula Andress, Barbara Bach, Kim Basinger and Halle Berry. The Doctor, in dramatic contrast seems almost completely asexual. Yet his “companions” (who are occasionally male) have included Bonnie Langford, Katy Manning and many others.
  9. Taking the piss: Bond has been parodied extensively. The 1967 Casino Royale (an overblown mess starring Orson Welles, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen) mocked Bond from within. Since then Austin Powers and Johnny English have done so more effectively. Rowan Atkinson interestingly has parodied both Bond (in Johnny English and the TV ads which spawned it) and played a comic Doctor Who in a Comic Relief spoof alongside Julia Sawalha. Filmed in 1999, it was “The Curse of Fatal Death” was the closest thing to a new Doctor Who anyone had seen in years.
  10. The Cleese connection: At the height of his late 70s post Life of Brian/Fawlty Towers fame, John Cleese appeared in the Tom Baker Doctor Who saga City of Death in 1979 (Cleese’s friend Douglas Adams was Script Editor on the story). Much later, Cleese appeared as “R” assistant to “Q” in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. He actually took over for another “hilarious” turn as the new Q in Die Another Day in 2002. He hasn’t appeared in any Bond films since.
  11. Our Friends in the North: As author Alwyn W. Turner has pointed out, the groundbreaking Nineties BBC drama Our Friends in the North saw both future James Bond Daniel Craig and future Dr Who Christopher Eccleston playing side by side. Eccleston played Nicky Hiutchence, a bearded University drop-out who during the course of the series ran for parliament in a bid to become a Labour MP before becoming a photographer. Craig played his childhood friend “Geordie” Peacock, who falls in with the London criminal element and ultimately faces a bitter struggle with alcoholism and homelessness.

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