18 Sep 2010: Our Friends In The North writer Peter Flannery recalls the difficult birth of his three-decade-spanning ‘posh soap opera’
Long before he became Bond, Daniel Craig gave a raw, emotional performance as Geordie, a young man falling apart in Our Friends In The North. In an early scene set in 1964 he’s so distressed by his alcoholic father that he headbutts him, cries his heart out and then hitchhikes to London to become Malcolm McDowell’s dapper henchman. By the late-60s he looks bizarrely like a member of Slade, and by the time Thatcher has her hold on Britain in the 1980s, his world has fallen apart.
A desperately dramatic storyline in its own right, it’s only one strand of a series of epic, multilayered stories in Our Friends. The 623-minute drama, which follows the lives of four friends from Newcastle between 1964 and 1995, is as moving now as it was when it was first broadcast in 1996. It’s gritty and political, it’s sad and serious but it’s also sexy and funny. It sucks you in right from the start and, like all the best box sets, it’s ridiculously addictive.
Yet Our Friends almost didn’t make it to the small screen. It started life as a stage play at the RSC in Stratford in 1982; the action stopped in 1979, with the election of Margaret Thatcher. When approached by the BBC to make the play into a television drama, writer Peter Flannery was initially dismissive. “Our Friends was finished business for me by then. I didn’t see the point in reworking it for television. I wanted to write something new.” He was also sceptical about the BBC doing it properly. In the end, of course, it did, by allocating a whopping budget of around £8m for a nine-month shoot.
‘I spent five or six years of my 30s and 40s working on it. It would have been awful if it then elicited a so-so response’ Peter Flannery
For Flannery, who was born in Jarrow, south Tyneside, the process involved endless rewriting and, eventually, bringing the action right up to 1995. “I finished writing it in the early-90s and had to predict what was going to happen politically. It wasn’t hard; it was pretty obvious there was going to be a Blair revolution. I’m glad we spent time getting the series right, although I did spend five or six years of my 30s and 40s working on it. It would have been awful if it then elicited a so-so response.” Instead, the hard work put into Our Friends showed and the critics loved it. You may laugh at what Christopher Eccleston refers to as its “dodgy wigs and bad beards”, but the characters’ voices are individual, real and never blur into one other.
Eccleston’s Nicky is an angry idealist, Mark Strong’s Tosker ruthlessly ambitious, Gina McKee’s Mary fragile yet tough, Craig’s Geordie a lost soul in search of a father figure. Flannery says he simply divided himself in four to create the characters, but really only his heroes, Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale, have succeeded in writing such intricate, authentic and three-dimensional characters on such an ambitious and daring scale in British TV drama.
‘My character’s dad is savaged by a dog on a council estate. He is destroyed by everything he felt he’d failed to create as a socialist … I knew it was event television from that single scene’ Christopher Eccleston
Eccleston remembers the first time he heard about Our Friends. “I was standing on the set of Shallow Grave and Danny Boyle said, ‘I’ve read something you’d like.’ I got hold of the scripts and read them in one sitting. There’s a scene in which Nicky’s embittered idealist dad, Felix – played by the wonderful Peter Vaughan – is savaged by a dog on a council estate. He is effectively destroyed by everything he felt he’d failed to create as a socialist. I thought it was an absolutely brilliant piece of writing. I knew it was event television from that single scene.”
Our Friends is as relevant now as it was in the mid-90s; perhaps more so. Back then Blair promised a bright future; now the future, particularly in the north-east, is potentially as bleak as it was under Thatcher. Our Friends documents the failure of the left in Britain: the cross-party property scams; Soho’s porn barons and their relationship with the Met; the pointless police violence of the miners’ strike; the emergence of Britain as a prosperous nation; the dawn of New Labour. It is, however, as much about people as politics; how Nicky’s desperation to be “part of something that gets things changed” leads him into the arms of the Trotskyites and away from Mary, while Geordie – betrayed by a series of father figures – develops mental health problems.
Flannery talks of the endless, inevitable problems that beset Our Friends – Danny Boyle was on board as director for three months before deciding to follow up Shallow Grave with Trainspotting; another director didn’t get the scripts at all; Daniel Craig only auditioned at the last minute, and with an awful Newcastle accent – but he also glows with pride. He knows that subsequent BBC series such as Holding On would never have been made without Our Friends. And the scripts were good enough to tempt Malcolm McDowell back into television.
“It did screw things up a bit because we could only afford him for three weeks,” he recalls. “And, although everything else was pretty much shot in sequence, we had to do all his scenes in that short time. It was worth it of course; as an icon of the 60s he is perfect as a Soho porn baron.” In fact, older, experienced actors such as McDowell, Vaughan, Alun Armstrong and David Bradley anchored the youngsters; Eccleston says that he learned how to conduct himself on set from Vaughan.
‘I remember standing on the makeup truck … you could see the recently flattened colliery where my dad’s family lived and worked’ Gina McKee
While Eccleston was learning his trade from Vaughan, McKee was working with a very personal storyline. “We shot the miners’ strike scenes around Easington Colliery. It was my first home and my dad’s family lived and worked there. The unit base was stationed alongside the high perimeter wall of the pit. Our day started early and as the sun came up I remember standing on the makeup truck and looking over the wall. You could see the recently flattened colliery and out to sea.”
Flannery says that when Our Friends was first broadcast the miners’ strike scenes had the biggest impact on audiences. “The letters I got were predominantly about that episode,” he says. “Either from people saying thank God the story had finally been told clearly in a TV drama or from others too young to remember it. It’s what the BBC should be doing now: not looking down to its audience, but entertaining and educating. Our Friends is a fantastic way of looking at social history. Every school should have a copy of the new box set!”
He laughs, but is clearly disappointed by the lack of ambition in British TV drama. He’s got a point: since Our Friends we’ve enjoyed State Of Play, Clocking Off, The Street and, in its early days, Shameless. But there hasn’t been anything as relevant, engaging and brilliant as Our Friends. If Flannery were to sum Our Friends up in one sentence what would he choose? He laughs again: “It tells historical, political, personal stories in what is essentially a very, very posh soap opera.”