Corrupt Politicians, Dodgy Developers, Crooked Cops: Our Friends in the North Still Resonate | John Merrick
JHere’s a scene from the latest episode of Our Friends in the North that poignantly captures what the show is all about to me – the endless tension so many feel between political hope and frustration, youthful romanticism and resigned pragmatism. . Nicky, one of four friends we follow from youth to middle age, takes her jaded father, Felix, to a Yorkshire village where he stopped on the Jarrow Walk some 60 years earlier. There, a woman who as a young girl saw those 200 men marching to London to protest the high unemployment rate that was crippling their shipbuilding town, remembers the words of her own late father. “It made you realize,” she recalls, “that you had a choice in life. You could be oppressed, or you could defend yourself.
First aired in 1996, the series is now back with a remake on BBC Radio 4, bringing the show’s sweeping narrative back to the present day – there will be a new 10th episode set in 2020, 25 after the setting of the original series finale. By revisiting this TV classic today, what is still striking is its ambition. Never didactic, the show is a rich portrait of four crossed working lives that trace the long arc of British politics, both locally and nationally, over 30 pivotal years. If it has any cinematic siblings, they are less the usual prestige TV fare of The Wire or The Sopranos than Edgar Reitz’s Brechtian epic of German history, Heimat, or Ken’s 1975 BBC series. Loach over Britain in the early 20th century, Days of Hope. Equally striking is its strident political tone and deeply felt portrayal of a region so often misunderstood.
The series follows four friends in the North East of England between 1964 and 1995. There’s the idealist Nicky, who spends her life between leftist groups before reaching middle-aged disillusionment. Tosker, who goes from budding pop star to archetypal 80s upstart. Geordie, who shines brightly in the seedy world of 1960s Soho, before spending time in jail and on the streets. And the pragmatic Mary, who, after being abused for years by the men in her life, rose through the ranks of the Labor Party apparatus and entered parliament.
The most central character outside of Friends is Austin Donohue, the former Labor radical who, in the first episode, is Newcastle’s head of council. Closely inspired by disgraced former Labor politician T Dan Smith and his ambition to make Newcastle the ‘Brasília of the North’, Donohue quickly left frontline politics for a PR agency that represents a dodgy developer hawking buildings of apartments “built by systems”. The buildings are poorly constructed and marred by damp, and the plan Donohue constructs to sell them to the councils is based on kickbacks and kickbacks. But Donohue is an ambiguous character. He is driven as much by a messianic fervor as by a thirst for power. As he would later say when confronted with the poorly constructed apartments built in his name: “At least I tried, Nicky!”
Other public figures get away with it no less lightly. In the wake of contemporary scandals that have rocked institutions such as the Metropolitan Police, the show’s depiction of a British establishment riddled with corruption and greed does more than resonate: it seems prophetic. Geordie, who flees the North East for London after impregnating a local girl, is soon caught up with menacing Soho porn impresario Benny Barratt, whose empire of strip clubs, sex shops and brothels is held together by a twisted brass network that extends all the way to the top of the force. (One storyline closely follows the Met’s obscene publications division, aptly known as the “Dirty Squad.”)
If there’s anything like a winner in all of this, it’s Thatcherite’s Tosker, rising from the factory to become a minor kingpin of clubland. But while the show’s take on British history is pessimistic, it’s not hopeless. The final episode aired in January 1996, just a year before Labor’s landslide victory after 18 years of Tory rule – and playing as the show’s final episode fades is Don’t Look Back in Anger, a anthem of what would become the defining Cool band Britannia. But any pro-New Labor residue it might suggest is undermined by the earlier scene in which Mary’s son Anthony berates his mother for her political compromises. “If you and your new Labor party are more like the Tories,” he told her, “they will sue you for plagiarism.” Any observer of Keir Starmer’s Labor Party will recognize such compromises.
These echoes prove Our Friends in the North is not just a period piece. None of the issues the show so brilliantly explores – from inequality, deindustrialisation and the abysmal state of housing in Britain to homelessness and the corruption of our civil servants – has not gone away. On the contrary, they only became more acute. The North of England, when you think about it, is flattened and mythologized. This fabled land of the “red wall” is so often seen as a monolithic bloc of disaffected proletarians, not the complex region full of people who have experienced decades of controlled decline, often from both major political parties. Revisiting Our Friends of the North, with its nuanced and beautifully drawn take on the region and its people, won’t solve that on its own. But it’s a good start.