It would be easy to suggest that the major theme of Peter Flannery’s historical epic Our Friends in the North (1996) is corruption, as politicians, the police and seedy London gangsters are all seen to engage in dishonest activities, protecting themselves, bribing those in positions of power and selling out their friends in order to make a quick escape. But Flannery’s 623 minute drama is about much more than dishonest crooks. Our Friends in the North focuses each of its nine episodes at moments of significance in British political history: the election of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, the emergence of Thatcherism and neoliberalism, the 1984 Miner’s Strike, the birth of New Labour and what would soon become the Blair revolution.
The series installs such political events as the backdrop to a story of four Tyneside friends, Nicky (Christopher Eccleston), Mary (Gina McKee), Geordie (Daniel Craig) and Tosker (Mark Strong), who are either deeply political figures or individual reflections of the political zeitgeist. But other than the apparently apolitical Geordie, who continually protests that he is removed from politics, or the proto-Thatcherite, Tosker, successful businessman but unsuccessful human, the characters’ political affiliations and positions twist and turn as the series progresses. While both interminable figures of the left, Nicky and Mary’s stances harden and soften, and in the case of Nicky, move from radical socialism, towards a more moderate position when he seeks election as member of Parliament, and in the case of Mary, from supporting classical Labour ideas in opposition to Thatcherism towards accepting the tenets of New Labour in 1995.
Tyneside in the series is at times the bedrock of the working class struggle, with many allusions to the historic Jarrow March, an experience contentiously viewed as a failure by Nicky’s father Felix, but also a site for corruption and fraud at the hands of the fictionalised T. Dan Smith and John Poulson, here known as Austin Donahue and John Edwards. Austin Donahue’s various schemes, most significantly his construction of poor-quality high rise flats, and the concomitant demolition of what he describes as the working class slums of Tyneside, land him success in the 1960s as a forward-thinking modernist but finds himself in disregard as time passes. Nicky becomes embroiled in Donahue’s schemes in a number of ways, from foregoing University in order to become his personal assistant to finding himself as an occupant of the substandard towers of the kind still seen dotted around the region. As the series fetishises the Tyne Bridge and the Quayside (nearly every city centre apartment or office in the series seems to overlook the bridge), as marker of place for those who understandably know nothing of the city, ignoring the centre of Newcastle, T. Dan Smith’s scandalous destruction of much of the city’s architectural heritage is left out, with the series instead focusing on his town planning schemes outside of the city centre’s walls.
One of the major successes of the series, other than its depiction of Tyneside as a real place, capturing its true spirit and avoiding the usual parochial stereotypes and clichés of the ‘North’, is its multi-faceted approach to its characters, who transform in front of our eyes as the show progresses. Of course, the most blatant example of such transformation is the physical ageing of the characters, from the 1960s faces of youthful idealism and ambition to the downtrodden and weary grimaces of the 1990s, at least for the men; Mary, on the other hand, preserves her beauty right into the New Labour years. But, really, what I am most interested in is the mutating personalities, the decline and rise in positions of status, career successes and failures, the struggle to survive and, for some of the characters, the desire to bring about change.
Tosker, who lands himself success first in the housing market and then as head of the what Geordies of a certain age will remember as the Tuxedo Princess, a floating nightclub moored directly beneath the Tyne Bridge, is the one character who is rarely beset by failure or emotional suffering. The others, struggle, not only within their personal relationships, but in life itself. Geordie’s foray into the seedy underworld of London gangsterism results in his imprisonment and what appears to be many years of homelessness. Nicky lives in squalor, writing radical articles for the little read magazine Five Bridges, before his failed attempt at entering Parliament and eventual success as photographer and artist as a much older man. And Mary, who first immediately appears to have chosen the wrong man as her husband, the unpleasant and obnoxious Tosker, is the victim of adultery with not only her first husband but her second. But she is, however, strong willed and determined, eventually acquiring success within Tyneside politics, and possessing an indomitability the other characters could only dream of having. Her relationship with her son, however, continues the series’ problematic desire to blame bad behaviour on parental neglect and absent fathers. Yet, while her son Anthony, may appear difficult in some episodes, his heroic actions against the Metropolitan Police Force following politically directed violence towards dissenting miners, rescues him from such an unfavourable characterisation.
By 1984, the Miner’s Strike, scabs, protesting miners and police brutality, gaps in the narrative begin to become more discernible, and these ellipses not only obscure narrative information and historical events but draw attention to the temporariness of the lives of our protagonists. While watching the show, I had a genuine feeling that events in a previous episode were years in the past, just as Malcolm McDowell as Benny Barrett, the show’s infamous sex shop owner and erstwhile boss to Geordie, would be long gone by the time the Miner’s Strike had come along.
But if the series itself is now nearly twenty years in the past, emerging before the rise of quality US television, The Sopranos and The Wire, it hasn’t lost any of the quality which once drew rave reviews in the mid 1990s. Instead I think I will for now, for the purposes of this blog, crown it as the masterpiece of Toon Television, an excellent foray into not only the history of Tyneside but Britain as a whole.