revisiting "posh soap opera" our friends in the north

With a discussion on the show’s impact taking place at Sheffield’s Sensoria Festival this evening, we speak to writer Peter Flannery about Our Friends in the North: a milestone in British television drama.

by Matthew Whitehouse
06 October 2016, 10:32pm

It's been twenty years since the BBC first broadcast Our Friends in the North, a nine part family drama-cum-political thriller now regarded as a high water mark in British television. Described by some, including its Jarrow born writer Peter Flannery, as a "posh soap opera" while acclaimed by others, including its Jarrow born writer Peter Flannery, as a sort of "Shakespearean history play" on the failure of the political left (the Guardian rated it the third greatest television drama of all time), it is, as the tagline had it, the story of "three decades, four friends and the world that shaped their lives".

Starting life as a stage version by the then 28 year old Flannery during his time at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980, Our Friends would go on to give a platform to some of the country's finest acting talent: Christopher Eccleston as the idealistic Nicky, Gina McKee as the self-sacrificing Mary, Mark Strong as the entrepreneurial 'Tosker' and future Bond Daniel Craig as the tragic 'Geordie' Peacock, perhaps the character most failed by its journey from the Harold Wilson election of 1964 to New Labour dream of the 1990s.

Ahead of a discussion on the show's legacy at Sheffield's Sensoria Festival this evening, we spoke to Peter Flannery about his "posh soap opera" and the impact of a series Christopher Eccleston described as "where the nation talked to itself about the last 30 years. How we got from here to here". As a fight over working-class voters appears to engulf British politics once more, "How did we get here?" feels like as poignant a question as ever.

How would you describe the show to someone who hasn't seen it?
Well, it's somewhere between posh soap opera and a sort of Shakespearean history play. I think part of its attraction is its scale. It invites you on a very long journey with a group of people who are endearing when they're young and who you follow in such detail. I was talking to a journalist recently and he said "I never think of them as characters, I think of them as real people who have had the same sort of life as I had". And I think the key to that is probably the longevity of its creation.I wrote the play at the Royal Shakespeare Company when I was 28. I created those characters, in their earliest form, at that age. So I was talking about characters who were only a few years younger than me. And because it took so long to get to the screen and had to be rewritten so often and extended so often, as the years past I had to keep adding episodes to it otherwise would have been out of date. So by the time I finished writing it, which was while we were still filming it, I was 44. And I was middle-aged and I was writing them just a few years older than me as opposed to a few years younger than me. I think that must have had an impact, I mean, I couldn't have written those characters the way they are when I was 28. And probably if I created them, at the age of 44, I probably wouldn't have created them in that way. It is the work of a young man and a middle-aged man. And you hardly ever get the chance to do that.

You once described it as "my response to why I felt more optimistic about the political process in this country at that time than my parents did"... Do you see a lot of yourself in the idealistic Nicky, in that sense? Or are there parts of you in each character?
Oh, definitely. I don't think any of the main four is any more like me than any the others actually. Including Mary. I mean, if I'm very honest with myself, Nicky is that bit of me, especially as a young man, who wants to change the world and thought he could and then went on to make a series of colossal blunders in his life. And Geordie is the bit of me that just always signs up for a new father, for a new dad, you know? Like so many people, you go through life looking for people to give your loyalty to. And he makes terrible mistakes. Mary is the self-sacrificing Catholic in me who will apparently martyr himself, put other people first but there's a burning resentment inside you all the time about it. And Tosker is the bloke who wants money and to shag everything that moves. And I'm not immune from those things either. They're not very flattering, but I can see where those characters have come from very, very clearly.

And each of those character's stories is so very compelling yet there isn't really one central narrative in the series… Would you say that came from your time working on those history plays at the RSC too?
I think it came from two things essentially. One, I started writing it when I was resident writer at the Royal Shakespeare Company, so I had a year of just watching them work. And it was the year that they were doing all their history plays, a fantastic season of Alan Howard playing all the kings, directed by Terry Hands, and I had free access to all of that. So quite naturally it occurred to me that I should write a big historical play about England, you know? That gave it a scale and ambition straightaway. And then when I decided what I wanted it to be about, as you referred to, it started right with that simple question: "Why am I more optimistic and less cynical about politics and the state of the country then my parents are?". And when I explored that briefly with them it was all about corruption. They felt that the country was riddled with it and particularly the Labour party in the North East. That's what life has taught them. So, once I started looking into that, the die was cast really, because what you end up with is an enormous story. So, by default, wanting to write a Shakespearean play and wanting to write about corruption in British public life, you're going to end up with labyrinth size story.

Have you ever planned to revisit it?
What I wanted to do was the prequel, the story of Nicky's parents when they were younger, and therefore my parents. Which is a fantastic story of the Jarrow march and living in service in London, as my mother did. It's as good of a story as Our Friends in the North is. And I offered that to BBC maybe a dozen years ago. And what they said was, "We'd be very happy to commission the script but we'll never make it. The world has changed."

Has much changed in British public life over the intervening years? Has your outlook on British politics changed at all?
I find it dishonest in the same way that I did when I was writing Our Friends in the 80s and 90s. I think an awful lot of our institutions - and not just government - but a lot of our institutions are rotten. Even football now is rotten. You know, one of the things I might write about soon is the shenanigans in FIFA. I've been asked to write something about that and I think I'd like to because I think corruption and football are my two favourite themes really. And we've missed endless opportunities to clean up the police so that's a real big problem still. And lot of the things that I was banging on about in Our Friends in the North have probably got worse. There are awful lot of communities that have just been abandoned essentially. So I like it when I hear Corbyn talking about, "No place will be forgotten, no place will be left behind". But what's he going to do about it? I don't know. You have to get power first and the likelihood of him winning power is distant I think. But I don't want to get too gloomy about it. Things don't go in a straight line. Things change. I know change is possible.

Did you think you would still be talking about the show 20 years on?
No, I don't suppose any of us did. I'm actually amazed at its longevity because people are still watching it and people are still watching it for the first time. I mean it's never had big DVD sales or anything like that. But clearly people are catching up from time to time and every now and then someone writes about it and every now and then somebody I know will say, "Do you know I've never watched it until last week and I think it's great". So it sort of keeps coming back. And nothing else that I've written has had that kind of impact.

What do you think makes the show so compelling and what you do think its lasting message has been?
Well, I think what makes it compelling is the characters and the journey you go on with the characters. It is virtually half a life with each of them. And I think if you write characters well and honestly you will hook an audience very quickly and they will stay with you. That's why I call it a posh soap opera. The difference of course between Our Friends in the North and a soap opera is that a soap opera refuses to end. And I think ending is one of basic job of a story because you can't know what a story means until it ends. Which brings me to the second part of your question. What does it mean? It hasn't really got a message. But I suppose what it adds up to is stories about friendships. That's what you have at the end of it. Families and friendships. And how important your history together is really. It sounds a bit wishy-washy. But they keep rediscovering each other and I think that's what really got people at the end. That it's never too late. If there is a single message it's that it's never too late.

Sheffield's Sensoria Festival runs from 1st to 8th October. 


Text Matthew Whitehouse
Images courtesy of Sensoria Festival

Sensoria Festival
our friends in the north