Written by Steven Fielding.
When Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North was broadcast in 1996 TV critics fell over themselves to praise the series. Tracing the lives of four young working-class characters from 1964 to 1995 the nine-part series aspired to say something significant about the politics of those times and explain the sad state of mid-90s Britain. Subsequently showered with awards Our Friends in the North remains one of the most highly regarded of television dramas.
Beginning with Harold Wilson’s Labour party promising to transform ordinary people’s lives, critics saw parallels with Tony Blair’s New Labour. The series’ timeliness was however accidental. For it began life in 1982 as a little-noticed play about political corruption and Flannery spent the next decade trying to turn it into something more substantial. As this excellent BFI book on the series reveals it was only when BBC2 Controller Michael Jackson was persuaded it would be more posh soap than a political drama that the series got the green light.
Our Friends in the North certainly contained soap opera elements – Nicky and Mary’s on-off relationship, Tosker’s up-and-down business career and Geordie’s mental breakdown – but its main theme remained that of the play: corruption. And, if only for that reason the series remains relevant to Britain in 2017 and why we discussed the series on The Zeigeist Tapes.
Flannery’s political perspective was bleak. Largely based on real events, his series showed how corruption was endemic to politics and the police. As he told the Times in 1996: ‘Life’s a circle. Regimes come and go, but lies and betrayals go on forever. … we live in an ongoing culture of corruption. Friends in the North is the story of people who tried to do something about it, and failed.’
Flannery did not consider attempts to challenge this culture completely futile but the series gave viewers little hope, something best exemplified by Felix, Nicky’s father, who in 1964 is already disillusioned with the Labour party. As a young man Felix took part in the 1936 Jarrow March to protest against mass unemployment but to his mind it achieved nothing. Felix’s cynicism means he constantly clashes with Nicky who believes politics can change society, first through Harold Wilson, then anarchist terrorism and finally through the far-left’s take-over of the Labour party. As these episodes all end in failure Nicky becomes almost as pessimistic as his father until he discovers how his Felix’s participation in the Jarrow March did change something. For he had made some of those who saw the marchers realize, as one of them put it, ‘that you had a choice in life. You could be downtrodden or you could stand up for yourself.’ Yet, when he is told this Felix, who by now is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s Disease, defecates himself. It’s a pretty pointed response to this one flickering moment of hope.
About 5 million people watched the series in 1996, not a bad audience for BBC2 and a drama about politics. But as Michael Wearing, head of BBC TV drama serials confirmed, they were unlikely to have been inspired to become involved in politics as a consequence because, ‘what comes through in Our Friends is disillusionment with politics and everything politicians say they can offer.’ This was something many in the audience already felt. Indeed, when in the second episode Nicky says that, ‘The great moral issue facing modern British politics is corruption’, at least one critic claimed it was a statement with great resonance for 1996 as much as 1966.
Given this miserable perspective it was unsurprising Flannery did not believe New Labour would change anything. One of his characters even claims Blair’s party was just like the Conservatives. ‘I’d love to believe that a Labour victory would start a clean-up in politics’, he said in 1996, ‘but I’m afraid they’ll be trapped by the very institutions that support them’. Certainly some on the far left, like the Trotskyist journalist Paul Foot, saw the series as a vindication of their criticisms of the kind of parliamentary reformism exemplified by Wilson and Blair.
But while Flannery’s drama is written from the left, a careful viewer would have seen that he did not exactly idealise the Labour left who are variously presented as priggish, delusional and incompetent. Nicky who wants to ‘Seize the Power’ and increasingly (if presumably inadvertently) comes to physically resemble Jeremy Corbyn is a politically useless figure.
However much it might be good drama – and it is – Our Friends in the North should therefore be seen as part of a long tradition of British political fictions that only further Britons’ disillusion with politics, one of many that offers a critique but no solution to our troubles. Perhaps it is because of that, that the series will never get old.
Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Ideas in this article were first discussed in Episode 3 of The Zeitgeist Tapes podcast available here . Image credit: Screencap/Youtube