A lorry drops off a hitchhiker on a wet Newcastle street. He has a rucksack, a suitcase and a guitar case bearing a picture of Martin Luther King and a "This machine kills fascists" sticker. "Our story began one summer night in 1964 when I came back from America to see my friends," the voiceover says. "I can see now, 31 years later, we were all about to make decisions that would change our lives forever." That was how Our Friends in The North, now recognised as a high point of British television, started on BBC2 on 15 January, 1996, at 9pm.
"The first episode of a nine-part drama series charting 30 years in the lives of four Geordie friends," said the Radio Times. "Starring Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Mark Strong, Gina McKee." Household names now; not then. Our Friends in the North made them famous. It was ambitious and expensive – costing £8m; half of BBC2's entire annual drama budget – and a hit. It won critical acclaim and three Baftas and there are fans who say on social media that it changed their lives. Yet it was almost never made.
Peter Flannery adapted the TV version from a three-hour 1982 play he had written for the Royal Shakespeare Company – an epic history inspired by Shakespeare's Henry IV and drawing on Flannery's own background as a working-class lad from Jarrow on Tyneside. Initially four episodes were commissioned by the BBC, then six and eventually nine. The scripts featured real historical events such as the 1984 miners' strike and the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987 and exemplified the idea that "the personal is political".
Flannery has 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.'
But despite having ordered the scripts, the BBC didn't seem to want to make the series. Executives who had backed the project eventually moved on to different jobs. There were legal concerns – a plot strand was based on a real-life political scandal in Newcastle. And TV legend has it that Flannery put top brass off by pitching it as a series about "housing policy", which didn't exactly sound like a primetime ratings winner – a story confirmed by Flannery to BBC Culture.
"The producer of the show at the time of Alan Yentob's tenure as BBC2 controller was the late, great Michael Wearing," he says. "Wearing was unparalleled at sniffing out writers and projects but he was not good at being clear about what was happening at any given moment. He invited me for a drink in the bar of the Kensington Hilton. After a while, in strolls Yentob – I have no idea if this was by arrangement. Anyway, I wasn't expecting to see him. Wearing duly says to him, 'Peter's got this great serial I think we should do'. Botney [Yentob's Private Eye nickname] asks me what it's about, and I tell him the truth as I saw it on that particular day. 'It's about postwar social housing policy, Alan.' Not surprisingly, he didn't feel drawn to greenlight it."
Our Friends in the North is about crooked police, the sex industry, social cohesion, mental illness, family, friendship, love and the way in which people change over time
In fact, Our Friends in the North is about housing policy. But it's also about, among other things, political corruption, the Labour movement, crooked police, the sex industry, social cohesion, mental illness, family, friendship, love and the way in which people change over time.
The four main characters are aged 20 at the start of the series. Nicky Hutchinson (Eccleston) is a leftwing firebrand who has just returned from the US, where he was involved in the civil rights movement. His radical idealism will gradually fade. His girlfriend Mary Soulsby (McKee) is initially less interested in politics but gradually becomes more so. Their friend Geordie Peacock (Craig) is a former miner who flees to London for a fresh start but is drawn into the criminal underworld. And Geordie's pal Terry "Tosker" Cox (Strong) is a Jack the Lad with business ambitions.
In a way, it's a coming of age story that spans 30 years. We go through tragedy and triumph with the main characters, three of whom seem to have achieved a measure of contentment by the final episode, set in 1995.
In 2015, Eccleston told The Guardian: 'It came from a particular era of television: writer-led, issue-led. I genuinely don’t think anyone would have the balls to make it now.'
Filming finally got under way after a new producer, Charles Pattinson, convinced a new BBC2 controller, Michael Jackson, that Flannery's epic wasn't just about "housing policy" but was, in fact, "a posh soap opera". But that wasn't the end of the problems. "It went massively wrong from the beginning," Pattinson now tells BBC Culture. "Danny Boyle had been on board to direct it and then he left because Shallow Grave was a massive hit and he was offered Trainspotting. We had to get a director at pretty short notice. We got Stuart Urban, a Bafta-winning director, but he didn't really click with the project or with Peter Flannery.
"Stuart had shot for a good while before it became clear to me and Peter that we needed to change course. So a few weeks into a nine-month shoot, we suddenly had to stop shooting for a couple of days, settle everyone down, assess all this material that had been shot to see what could survive. We had to find a director who could just take over literally at the last minute. Which we did with Pedr James. It was exhausting and unbelievably stressful and we spent a lot of money and found ourselves about a million pounds over-budget."
Flannery had to rewrite the whole of episode nine to accommodate the looming finance problems. It was to have featured large-scale civil disturbance and Newcastle ablaze and would have been hugely expensive. The first episode had to be reshot by the new director. It was an intense experience for the young actors, understandably worried about the ups and downs of the project. Was this thing going to wreck their careers before they had even really started? In addition, Eccleston has made no secret of the fact that, in real life, he couldn't abide Mark Strong. In his memoir, I Love The Bones of You, he writes: "We hated each other, but then our characters hated each other too. The only time we spoke was when we had lines." Strong told an interviewer, "he [Eccleston] just didn't like me".
Eccleston first heard about the project from director Danny Boyle, while filming Shallow Grave in 1993 (Credit: Alamy)
Rewatching the series now – it's currently available on Britbox and finding a whole new audience – it is extraordinary how relevant it feels: the depiction of ordinary people's total disillusionment with politics; badly built tower blocks; a Labour party in the throes of profound change; a Prime Minister appearing on television to address the nation about "a grave emergency".
That final episode which Flannery had to conjure up at short notice features two of the most powerful scenes in the whole series. One is when the four principals – now aged 50 – find themselves briefly alone together for the first time in years and, in silence, a look passes between them that acknowledges all that has happened in the past three decades. "Nothing said and yet everything said," Eccleston wrote of it in his memoir, and it is brilliantly acted and shot. And the poignant ending is unforgettable – a perfect marriage of image and music as the damaged and mentally fragile Geordie strides away alone across the Tyne Bridge and Oasis's Don't Look Back in Anger plays.
The characters feel well enough drawn to have lives it's possible to imagine off the screen – Phil Harrison
Phil Harrison is the author of The Age of Static, a book about modern British TV and its impact on society. "One of the things that's so strong about Our Friends in the North is that the characters feel well enough drawn to have lives it's possible to imagine off the screen," he says. "The passage of time in their lives feels believable because there are enough universal human experiences – like Nicky looking after his Dad when he has dementia, for example – to make the era-specific political stuff not just feel like bullet points. Because of that, it's really tempting, as I did in the book, to imagine where they might be a couple of decades on again." (He suggests Nicky and Mary would be Remainers; Geordie and Tosker supporters of Brexit).
Of the four main actors, Craig has probably enjoyed the greatest commercial success, appearing as James Bond in five films in the franchise. Strong is also a sought-after star, whose recent hits have included 1917 and the Kingsman films. (Craig and Strong became friends in real life and shared a flat in London.)
Eccleston was Doctor Who and, more recently, one of the stars of The Leftovers, another acclaimed "prestige TV" drama. Miner's daughter McKee, the only one of the four actually from the North East, won a Bafta for her performance and has had a richly varied career. She has appeared in films directed by Richard Curtis, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom and done comedy with Chris Morris and Vic Reeves.
Malcolm McDowell (pictured, left, with Strong, McKee and Craig) appeared in the series, playing a Soho sex club baron (Credit: Getty Images)
And there were plenty of other great performances. Peter Vaughan as Nicky's father gave a heartbreaking portrayal of dementia. Fifteen years later Vaughan would win a whole new generation of fans in his late 80s as Aemon Targaryen in Game of Thrones. David Bradley, another future denizen of Westeros, was superb as MP Eddie Wells. Malcolm McDowell made his TV debut as the Soho porn baron Benny Barrett. Julian Fellowes, future creator of Downton Abbey, played pompous Conservative politician Claud Seabrook. There were more than 100 named characters in the cast.
Almost three years to the day after Our Friends in the North began, The Sopranos debuted. This US-made saga about an organised crime family is often hailed as marking the beginning of a "golden age" of television drama that includes such complex works as The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But a case can be made for Our Friends in the North as the start of this period.
"At the time it was quite revolutionary," says Pattinson. "It really was one of the very first of these massive, serialised pieces of story-telling. It's perfect Netflix-style bingeable viewing. It captured the zeitgeist not just in terms of the story it was telling but also in the way that it told it."
According to Harrison, "There were series such as A Very British Coup and Edge of Darkness before Our Friends in the North. Not to mention loads of adaptations and all the Dennis Potter works in the 80s. Maybe Our Friends is more of a bridge – marking TV's evolution from those kinds of things to what are traditionally thought of as the Golden Age dramas. I guess the cast is part of this too – because it launched so many careers, it's tempting to see it as the start of a new era in a wider sense."
Christopher Eccleston has said it is "one of my great hopes for my career" to revisit Our Friends in the North. Flannery told BBC Culture: "there's no chance of a sequel and never has been for me" but reveals he has thought about the possibility of a prequel and even discussed it over dinner with Eccleston. He also offered it to the BBC but "they didn't want it, needless to say". Of course, that's what they initially said the first time around too.
Our Friends in the North is streaming now on Britbox.
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