Our Friends in the North
Our Friends in the North
Opening title sequence of Our Friends in the North.
Genre Serial drama Written by Peter Flannery Directed by Simon Cellan-Jones
Starring Christopher Eccleston
Composer(s) Colin Towns Country of origin United Kingdom Language(s) English No. of episodes 9 Production Producer(s) Charles Pattinson Camera setup Single camera Running time circa 70 minutes (each) Broadcast Original channel BBC Two Picture format PAL (576i) Audio format Stereo Original run 15 January 1996 – 11 March 1996
Our Friends in the North is a British television drama serial, produced by the BBC and originally broadcast in nine episodes on BBC Two in early 1996. Telling the story of four friends from the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in North East England over 31 years from 1964 to 1995, it also brought in real political and social events specific to Newcastle and Britain as a whole during the era portrayed, including general elections, police and local government corruption, the UK miners' strike (1984–1985) and the Great Storm of 1987. Publicity material for the serial used the tagline "Three decades, four friends and the world that shaped their lives".
The serial is commonly regarded as one of the most successful BBC television dramas of the 1990s, described by The Daily Telegraph as "A production where all... worked to serve a writer's vision. We are not likely to look upon its like again." In a poll of industry professionals conducted by the British Film Institute in 2000, it was 25th in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century.
It was also a controversial production, as its stories were partly based on real politicians and political events, and several years passed before it was adapted from a play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, due in part to the BBC's fear of litigation.
Each of the nine episodes of the serial takes place in the year for which it is named; 1964, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1987, and 1995. The episodes follow the four main characters and their changing lives, careers and relationships against the backdrop of the political and social events in the United Kingdom at the time.
The four friends are Dominic 'Nicky' Hutchinson (played by Christopher Eccleston), Mary Soulsby (Gina McKee), George 'Geordie' Peacock (Daniel Craig) and Terry 'Tosker' Cox (Mark Strong). The series begins in 1964 with Nicky returning from a period working with the civil rights movement in the southern United States to resume his studies at the University of Manchester and reuniting with his girlfriend, Mary, and best friend Geordie. Geordie is hoping to form a pop group with his mate Tosker.
However, Nicky is persuaded to drop out and work for corrupt local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), swayed by Donohue's apparent idealism and desire to change Newcastle for the better. This is much to the annoyance of his trade unionist father Felix (Peter Vaughan), who does not want his son to waste the opportunity to better himself by taking chances he never had when he was Nicky's age. Nicky's relationship with Mary ends when she sleeps with Tosker and gets pregnant, later marrying him, which means she also drops out of university. On the run from a pregnant girlfriend himself and his abusive alcoholic father, Geordie leaves for London, where he falls in with seedy underworld baron Benny Barrett (Malcolm McDowell).
Geordie is initially successful while employed by Barrett in his Soho nightclubs and sex shops. He also helps Tosker and Mary, introducing Tosker to Barrett who lends him the money to start his own fruit and vegetable business, his former dreams of musical stardom having gradually faded away. Nicky, meanwhile, realises the extent of Donohue's corrupt dealings with the building contractor John Edwards (Geoffrey Hutchings) and resigns in disgust, eventually becoming involved with left-wing anarchists in London.
By the early 1970s, the police have cracked down on Barrett's business, and their own corruption, but not before Barrett has set Geordie up, sending him to prison in retaliation for an affair Geordie had with Barrett's lover. Nicky's anarchist cell is raided and he returns to Newcastle, as eventually does Geordie. By 1979, Nicky has returned to more mainstream politics and stands as a Member of Parliament in the general election for the Labour Party, but is defeated by the Conservative Party candidate (Saskia Wickham) after a smear campaign. Geordie leaves again shortly before the election, not to be seen in the series again until 1987.
By 1984, Nicky is working as a successful photographer, and Mary has divorced Tosker, who has remarried and is rapidly becoming a rich businessman. Nicky and Mary renew their earlier relationship during the turbulent events of the miners' strike and eventually marry. By 1987, however their marriage is falling apart, Nicky has an affair with a young student and is also forced to confront his father's descent into Alzheimer's disease. He meets Geordie, now a homeless, drunken vagrant, by chance in London, but his old friend disappears before he has a chance to help him. Eventually Geordie is sentenced to life in prison as a danger to the public after setting fire to a mattress in a hostel. Despite her failing marriage to Nicky, Mary's life is becoming an increasing success, and she is now a councillor. Tosker, meanwhile, has lost his fortune in the stock market crash.
The final episode, 1995, sees Nicky – who has emigrated to Italy – returning to Newcastle to oversee the funeral of his mother. Tosker has managed to rebuild his business and is about to hold the opening night of his new floating nightclub, based on a boat moored on the River Tyne (filmed on the real club the Tuxedo Princess). Mary, now a Labour MP sympathetic to New Labour, is also invited to the opening, and Tosker is surprised to find Geordie back in the city as well – he has escaped from prison. Neither Mary nor Geordie make it to the opening night party, but the four friends are reunited the following day, at Nicky's house after his mother's funeral. Tosker leaves to be with his grandchildren and Mary also leaves after agreeing to meet Nicky for lunch the next day. However, a desperate Nicky realises that "Tomorrow's too late" and runs after Mary's car, eventually attracting her attention and breathlessly asking, "Why not today?" to which she agrees, smiling. Meanwhile, Geordie walks off, and the series ends with him heading off into the distance across the Tyne Bridge, after looking down at Tosker playing with his grandchildren on the boat below. As Geordie walks away and the credits fade up, the music of Oasis's "Don't Look Back in Anger" is heard.
Our Friends in the North was originally written by the playwright Peter Flannery for the theatre, while he was a resident playwright for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982. The play was produced by the RSC, and in its original form went up only to the 1979 general election and the coming to power of the new Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. The play also contained a significant number of scenes set in Rhodesia, chronicling UDI, the oil embargo and the emergence of armed resistance to white supremacy. These scenes were dropped from the televised version.
Flannery was heavily influenced not only by his own political viewpoints and life experiences, but by the real-life history of his home city of Newcastle during the 1960s and 1970s. Characters such as Austin Donohue and John Edwards were directly based on the real-life scandals of T. Dan Smith and John Poulson, who built cheap high-rise housing projects in Newcastle that they knew to be of low quality. Flannery went to visit Smith and explained that he was going to write a play based on the events of the scandal, to which Smith apparently replied, "There is a play here of Shakespearean proportions."
The stage version of the story was seen by BBC television drama producer Michael Wearing, who was immediately keen on producing a television adaptation. Wearing was based at the BBC English Regions Drama Department at BBC Birmingham, which had a specific remit for making "regional drama", and had established his reputation by producing Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff in 1982. Flannery was also keen on writing a television version, but during the 1980s the pair were frustrated in their attempts to bring the story to the screen, as various BBC executives failed to green light the project, which twice stalled in preproduction.
By 1989, however, Wearing had been recalled to the central BBC drama department in London, where he was made Head of Serials. This new seniority eventually allowed him to further the cause of Our Friends in the North, and Flannery also wrote to the BBC's then Managing Director of Television, Will Wyatt, "accusing him of cowardice for not approving it." The BBC were concerned not only with the budget and resources that would be required to produce the serial, but also with potential legal issues, due to the basing of so much of the background story on real-life events and people such as Smith and Poulson and former Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, upon whom another character, Claud Seabrook, was based. According to The Observer newspaper, one senior BBC lawyer, Glen Del Medico, even threatened to resign if the production was made, while others tried to persuade Flannery to reset the piece "in a fictional country called Albion rather than Britain."
However, the legal situation was eased after the deaths of Smith and Poulson in 1993, and Wearing, Flannery and their chosen producer for the serial, Charles Pattinson, were able to persuade the then Controller of BBC Two, Michael Jackson, to commission the piece. The long delay in production did, however, have the advantageous side effect of allowing Flannery to extend the story, and instead of ending in 1979 it now carried on into the 1990s, allowing him to cover other politically charged events such as the miners' strike of 1984.
The series did encounter further legal problems when some references to the fictional businessman Alan Roe were removed because of a perceived similarity to Sir John Hall, a Newcastle businessman who had a number of factors in common. The drama had originally shown Roe as taking advantage of tax breaks to build a large shopping centre.
Production and broadcast
The epic scale of the production required Jackson to devote a budget of £8 million to the serial – half of his serials budget for the entire year. The speaking cast numbered 160, the production employed over 3000 extras and filming lasted for a year, from the autumn of 1994 to the autumn of 1995. Although he had originally intended to produce the serial himself in the 1980s, Wearing was now Executive Producer, with Charles Pattinson producing.
Of the actors playing the four main roles, only Eccleston was well-known prior to featuring in the serial, having starred in the ITV drama series Cracker and the film Shallow Grave. He had initially been seen by the production team as being a good candidate to play Geordie, but had been very keen to play Nicky instead, eventually winning that role. He had become aware of the serial after being told about the scripts by the director of Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle, who had been approached by Michael Wearing to direct all nine episodes. Boyle was initially keen, but wanted to see how Shallow Grave fared first. When the film proved to be a success Boyle decided to concentrate on his film career instead.
Following Boyle's turning down of directing duties, Pattinson and Wearing decided to assign different directors to each 'era' of the project, with Stuart Urban assigned the first five episodes and Simon Cellan-Jones the final four. However, after completing the first two episodes and some of the shooting for the third, Urban left the project after disagreements with the production team – Christopher Eccleston's viewpoint is that Urban was apparently "only interested in painting pretty pictures." Director Pedr James was hired to shoot the remainder of what were to have been Urban's episodes, with all three directors being credited on the third instalment.
However, there were to be further problems with the already completed opening instalment, 1964, again partially due to the dissatisfaction of the production team with Urban's direction. After viewing the completed material for the episode, Wearing and Pattinson took the expensive decision to entirely reshoot it, under James's direction, in between the sixth (1979) and seventh (1984) episodes. However, it was not a simple reshooting of existing scenes – Flannery took the opportunity to completely rewrite the opening episode, in some cases changing the initial storylines of the characters quite dramatically, such as no longer having Mary already married to Tosker when the serial begins. This was mainly done because the initial episode had been the one most faithful to the original text of the stage play, and Flannery felt that the storyline needed opening out for television, as well as simply having changed his mind about various ideas since he had written the original play.
Aside from the remount of the first episode, the serial was shot on an episode-by-episode basis, with the exception of the scenes involving the character of Benny Barrett, played by Malcolm McDowell across various episodes from 1966 to 1979. These were all shot together in one block, as McDowell was not resident in the UK, living then in the United States, and for budgetary reasons the production team did not want to keep him in the country for any longer than was necessary. This was considered more than worthwhile, however, for the prestige of being able to use an actor such as McDowell, predominantly a film actor who rarely did television work.
Much use was made throughout the production of contemporaneous popular music to evoke the feel of the year in which each episode was set. This led to a particular piece of synchronicity in the final episode, 1995, which Cellan-Jones had decided to close with the song Don't Look Back in Anger by Oasis, which while the serial was in production was only another track from their (What's the Story) Morning Glory? album. However, during transmission of Our Friends in the North it was released as a single, and to Cellan-Jones's delight it was at the top of the UK Singles Chart the week of the final episode's transmission.
Our Friends in the North was broadcast in nine episodes on BBC Two at 9pm on Monday nights, from 15 January to 11 March 1996. Unusually for a drama series, the running times of the episodes were inconsistent – although nominally seventy minutes each, they in fact varied from 63 minutes, 49 seconds (1966) to 74 minutes 40 seconds (1987). The total running time of the serial is ten hours, twenty-three minutes.
Following its great success, Our Friends in the North was given a repeat broadcast in the summer of 1997 on BBC2, on Saturday nights. It was also released on VHS across two double-video packs (1964 – 1974 and 1979 – 1995). In 2002, BMG Video released the complete series on DVD in a four-disc set, which along with the original episodes contained several extra features. These were a retrospective discussion of the series by Wearing, Pattinson, Flannery, James and Cellan-Jones; specially shot interviews with Eccleston and McKee, and a detailed text synopsis of the plot of the original opening episode. In the 2000s, the serial has also been screened by the digital television station UKTV Drama. BBC Four broadcast a repeat screening in February 2006.
After being out of print for a few years, the DVD was re-released in September 2010, this time as a three-disc set with a 20-page "Viewers' Notes" booklet written by Marcus Hearn. For an unknown reason, most of the song "Don't Look Back In Anger" by Oasis is removed at the end of the final episode, fading out early and the credits instead rolling in silence.
Both Eccleston and Craig would later go on to achieve notable high "cult" status when they took over the respective high-profile roles of the Doctor in Doctor Who and James Bond. Mark Strong has become known for playing villains in Hollywood movies and Gina McKee is well known to British television audiences.
Both during and after its original transmission on BBC Two, the serial was generally praised by the critics. Reviewing the first episode in The Observer, Ian Bell wrote that: "Flannery's script is faultless; funny, chilling, evocative, spare, linguistically precise. The four young friends about to share 31 hellish years in the life of modern Britain are excellently played."
The conclusion of the serial in March brought similar praise. "Our Friends in the North confounded the gloomier predictions about its content and proved that there was an audience for political material, provided that it found its way to the screen through lives imagined in emotional detail... It will be remembered for an intimate sense of character, powerful enough to make you forgive its faults and stay loyal to the end," was the verdict of The Independent on the final episode. Writing in the same newspaper the following day, Jeffrey Richards added that "Monday night's final episode of Our Friends in the North has left many people bereft. The serial captivated much of the country, sketching a panoramic view of life in Britain from the Sixties to the Nineties... At once sweeping and intimate, both moving and angry, simultaneously historical and contemporary, it has followed in the distinguished footsteps of BBC series such as Boys from the Blackstuff."
However, the response was not exclusively positive. In The Independent on Sunday, columnist Lucy Ellmann criticised both what she saw as the unchanging nature of the characters and Flannery's concentration on friendship rather than family. "What's in the water there anyway? These are the youngest grandparents ever seen! Nothing has changed about them since 1964 except a few grey hairs... It's quite impressive that anything emotional could be salvaged from this nine-part hop, skip and jump through the years. In fact we still hardly know these people – zooming from one decade to the next has a distancing effect," she wrote of the former point. And of the latter, "Peter Flannery seems to want to suggest that friendships are the only cure for a life blighted by deficient parents. But all that links this ill-matched foursome in the end is history and sentimentality. The emotional centre of the writing is still in family ties."
Despite such criticisms, the high regard in which the serial was generally held saw it win several major awards in the year following its transmission. The British Academy Television Awards, the most prestigious in the British television industry, saw the serial win Best Actress (Gina McKee) and Best Drama Serial; at the Royal Television Society Awards it won for Best Actor (Christopher Eccleston), Best Actress (McKee), Best Drama Serial and Best Writer; the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards for Best Actor (Eccleston) and Best Actress (McKee), and a Certificate of Merit in the Television Drama Miniseries category at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
The years since its broadcast have also seen the serial maintain its reputation as one of the most successful British television drama serials ever to have been screened. In 2000, the British Film Institute conducted a poll of industry professionals to find the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, with Our Friends in the North finishing in twenty-fifth position, eighth position out of the dramas featured on the list. The commentary for the Our Friends in the North entry on the BFI website described it as a "Powerful and evocative drama series... The series impressed with its ambition, humanity and willingness to see the ambiguities beyond the rhetoric." The serial was also included in an alphabetical list of the forty greatest TV shows published by the Radio Times magazine in August 2003, chosen by their television editor Alison Graham.
- ^ Unknown. The Daily Telegraph. Quoted on the DVD release cover. (BMG DVD 74321 941149)
- ^ "Tuxedo Princess - the floating nightclub". Inside Out. BBC. 8 August 2008. http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/content/articles/2008/04/21/north_east_tuxedo_s13_w8_feature.shtml. Retrieved 13 May 2011.
- ^ Flannery, Peter. Retrospective - An interview with the creators of the series. Included as a bonus feature on the DVD release. (BMG DVD 74321 941149).
- ^ a b c Brooks, Richard (Media Editor). Friends come in from the BBC cold. As election looms, controversial political drama serial comes to screen after 14-year gestation. "The Guardian". Monday 1 January 1996 (page 7).
- ^ Hellen, Nicholas. BBC cuts drama over legal fears. Sunday Times, 3 December 1995 (page 1).
- ^ "Our Friends in the North". bbc.co.uk. 2007-09-26. http://www.bbc.co.uk/tyne/content/articles/2007/09/20/our_friends_in_the_north_feature.shtml. Retrieved 2007-10-10.
- ^ a b c Sutcliffe, Thomas. Our Friends in the North (BBC2) "The Independent". Tuesday March 12 1996 (page 24).
- ^ a b c Eccleston, Christopher. Interview with Christopher Eccleston. Filmed at the Circle Club, Manchester, 10 April 2002. Included as a bonus feature on the DVD release. (BMG DVD 74321 941149).
- ^ a b c Wearing, Michael. Retrospective - An interview with the creators of the series.
- ^ a b Cellan-Jones, Simon. Ibid.
- ^ Ian Bell "A brief history of Tyne. Peter's friends corner the market in absorbing political drama while symbols clash in Covent Garden", The Observer, Sunday January 21 1996 (page 18).
- ^ Jeffrey Richards "The BBC's voice of two nations". "The Independent". Wednesday March 13 1996 (page 15).
- ^ a b Lucy Ellmann "With friends like these...", The Independent on Sunday, Sunday March 17 1996 (page 12).
- ^ Internet Movie Database awards page for Our Friends in the North. Retrieved September 14, 2005.
- ^ Wickham, Phil (2000). British Film Institute TV 100 entry on Our Friends in the North. Retrieved September 14 2005.
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