Woolly Days has just finished watching a terrific nine-part series from the BBC called Our Friends in the North. Made in 1996, it told the story of four friends in the northern English city of Newcastle over a period of 31 years. Each of the nine episodes of the serial takes place in the year after which it is named: 1964, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1987, and 1995. The epic scale of the production required a budget of £8 million, half of the BBC serial budget for that year.
Our Friends in the North was also a controversial production partly based on real politicians and political events which caused a delay of several years as the BBC considered the prospect of legal action. The four friends are Dominic 'Nicky' Hutchinson (Christopher Eccleston), Mary Soulsby (Gina McKee), George 'Geordie' Peacock (Daniel Craig) and Terry 'Tosker' Cox (Mark Strong). The series begins when Nicky returns from a stint working with the civil rights movement in southern USA to resume his university. He reunites with his girlfriend, Mary, and best friends Geordie and Tosker, with whom he is hoping to form a band.
Other than Eccleston who previously had lead roles in Cracker and Shallow Grave, the lead actors were relative unknowns at the time. Local born McKee subsequently had roles in Notting Hill and Croupier and Mark Strong has performed many stage roles. Chester born Daniel Craig was in Spielberg's Munich, Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition and is in the news now as the latest incarnation of James Bond in the upcoming remake of Casino Royale.
Our Friends in the North was originally a play written by Peter Flannery in the early 80s covering the years 1964 to 1979. It was put forward as a TV drama by Michael Wearing who eventually became the executive producer on the project. After a 13 year wait, BBC2 finally gave the go-ahead for the programme to be made and Our Friends in the North finally made it onto TV screens in 1996.
The TV version extends the timeline of the play by 16 years. Writer Peter Flannery brought the story of the 4 friends up to date and also included references to the key political issues of each year. Flannery weaves into the story the Wilson electoral victories of 1964, 1966 and 1974, the Heath victory in 1970, the Winter of Discontent in 1974, the Thatcher victory in 1979 and the miners’ strike in 1984.
The delays in getting the production to the screen are due to the strong parallels with real events. In the series, Nicky drops out of university and goes to work for corrupt local Labour politician Austin Donohue (played brilliantly by Alun Armstrong). Donohue is tainted because of his dealings with building contractor John Edwards who builds cheap, poorly constructed flats thanks to well-placed bribes of city officials. The character of Donohue is based on Newcastle Labour politician T. Dan Smith, leader of the Newcastle council during the 1960s. Smith was nicknamed 'Mr Newcastle' by friends and “The Mouth of the Tyne" by enemies. While leading the redevelopment of his city, Smith formed business links with architect John Poulson (the character John Edwards is based on) which led to his trial for accepting bribes in April 1974, at which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years imprisonment. Poulson was also convicted of fraud and jailed for seven years in the same year. The scandal had national repercussions. Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling was implicated due to his chairmanship of one of Poulson’s companies. Maudling had helped Poulson win many lucrative contracts. He brought pressure on the government of Malta to award the contract for a new hospital on to Poulson. Maudling, an Oxford double first, (represented by character Claude Seabrook in the TV series) was forced to resign from office after the scandal broke and he died of cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure in 1979. It took the deaths of Poulson and T. Dan Smith in 1993 to finally allow the TV production to commence.
As well as covering the political problems in Newcastle, the series also looked at corruption in the London Metropolitan police force. When the character of Geordie goes to London he falls under the influence of porn baron Bennie Barrett (played brilliantly by Malcolm McDowell in his first British TV appearance in 15 years.) Corrupt cops made deals with the main Soho players and Barrett is among them paying the Met to keep out of his business. Other strong minor characters are Nicky’s parents Felix and Florrie (Peter Vaughan and Freda Dowie) and Labour MP Eddie Wells (David Bradley). Felix’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease is dealt with very sensitively and with great humanity.
Our Friends in the North is epic in scope and brimming with believable characters and narrative. It is in turns funny, ironic, sad and is a tale brimming with anger over the injustices of the world. The 1996 British Academy Television Awards saw the serial deservedly win Best Actress (Gina McKee) and Best Drama Serial. In a poll of industry professionals conducted by the British Film Institute in 2000, Our Friends in the North was 25th in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century.
It is one of the reasons why British television remains the world’s best.