Why Our Friends in the North is still a masterpiece 25 years on
A quarter-of-a-century has now passed since Jarrow playwright Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North was screened for the first time.
The BBC drama serial followed the lives of four North Easterners: Nicky, Mary, Tosker and Geordie between 1964 and 1995. Each of the nine episodes was simply entitled “1964”, “1966” etc. It was broadcast on BBC2 with the final episode shown on March 11, 1996.
It was what we’re obliged to call “a landmark in British television”, becoming an instant classic and ranked alongside I Claudius, The Singing Detective and GBH. But what was so good about it?
To start with there’s its sheer scale and ambition. As well as covering 31 years, each episode was up to 75 minutes long. Amid the intertwining lives of the four central characters between their early 20s and 50s, is incredible social history.
Real-life events covered include general elections, police and local government corruption, the Three Day Week, the Miners’ Strike, Black Monday and the 1987 storm.
Politics prevails and unseen background figures include prime ministers Wilson, Heath, Thatcher and Blair (who was Leader of the Opposition when the drama was first shown).
The 1936 Jarrow March looms large, almost as another character, its relevance undiminished by time. The strongly working class characters argue about it early in the first episode.
Peter Flannery said: “You can tell any story you want to if the characters are interesting. The personal and the political are connected. It’s all one world.”
Peter Flannery was born in Jarrow in 1951. By 1981 he was a writer-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company when he wrote Our Friends in the North as a play. By the time the BBC produced the drama it was radically different; not least because three of the nine episodes are set after the original play was written.
It was almost never made. BBC2 controller Alan Yentob was uninterested. But he was replaced in 1993 by Michael Jackson who commissioned the show at a cost of £7million; a record for the channel.
Production would not be easy. There would be three directors and wholesale re-writes.
Plot (no spoilers)
In 1964 the four friends are living in the North East. Nicky is a lefty idealist who recently returned from seeing the civil rights movement first-hand in the USA’s Deep South; while Mary, Tosker and Geordie live more conventional lives on Tyneside.
As the years roll by, three of the characters between them become successful in business and politics, although their personal lives are a different matter. The exception is Geordie Peacock, whose entire life becomes increasingly disastrous.The love triangle of Mary, Tosker and Nicky is a central storyline.
None of the four ever achieves true happiness and they are very much moulded by the times they live in.
Of the four main stars, only Gina McKee (who won a BAFTA for playing Mary) from Peterlee was from the North East. The other three had to work hard on their accents.
None were quite household names; the show’s budget saw to that, although Christopher Eccleston (Nicky) was the best known of the quartet having appeared in Shallow Grave and Cracker.
McKee was a jobbing actor who had been a regular on The Lenny Henry Show. Daniel Craig (Geordie) had only graduated from drama school a few years earlier, while Mark Strong (Tosker) had occasional credits in the likes of Eastenders and The Bill.
Behind the scenes, Strong and Eccleston did not get on.
The producers were taking risks by casting relative unknowns. However, some supporting actors were well established. The most famous was Malcolm McDowell as ruthless Soho gangster and pornographer Benny Barratt.
Peter Vaughan, fondly remembered for Porridge, played Nicky’s father Felix. Alun Armstrong, originally from Annfield Plain, was another of the few locals to have a key role, as Austin Donohue.
Armstrong’s character was based on T Dan Smith, the charismatic but corrupt leader of Newcastle City Council in the 1960s, jailed in 1974 for accepting bribes. Peter Flannery contacted Smith who offered him advice and encouragement.
Other local talent to appear included Jarrow’s Roger Avon, Newcastle’s Val McLane as Tosker’s mother, County Durham boxer Glenn McCrory as a nightclub bouncer and Bishop Auckland comedian and actor Willie Ross as Daniel Craig’s drunken father.
Willie had the privilege of beating up the future James Bond in the first episode.
Themes and music
As was said earlier, Our Friends in the North had epic ambition. Among its many themes are politics, disability, feminism, economics, love, class, family, music, fashion, Alzheimer’s, history, money, the sex industry, housing … you get the picture.
Music is important to the show. Colin Towns’ theme tune sets the mood perfectly. There is also the clever use of songs from each episode’s year, taking the viewer back in time.
“1964” is evoked with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”. The final scene of the entire series makes memorable use (no spoilers) of Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger”, which was number one when the episode was broadcast.
The drama was a huge hit with audiences and most critics. No sequel or prequel was ever made, but it’s probably best left alone. All four main stars went on to have stellar careers in TV and cinema.
It was a risk that the BBC, or any broadcaster, would be unlikely to take these days; over 10 hours of expensive drama with obscure leading actors. Flannery’s television writing credits were not extensive either.
It’s a one-off as no other show was quite like it. Nor would it be on BBC2 rather than BBC1.
It hasn’t entirely stood the test of time. Certain scenes look rather odd, while the wigs and make-up don’t always convince. Yet it remains a masterpiece of acting, production and above all – writing.
Peter Flannery would have other successes, but it’s fair to say he hasn’t repeated the impact of Our Friends in the North.