Ian Aspinall looks back on a TV series that looked back better than anything before or since.
Our Friends in the North is probably the last great British TV series, few series have captured the social and political life of the north of England so successfully. Broadcast in 1996, the series covers the period 1964 to 1995 and follows the lives of the four central characters played by Nicky (Christopher Eccleston), Mary (Gina McKee), Geordie (Daniel Craig) and Tosker (Mark Strong). The four central characters have gone on to become household names and in the case of Daniel Craig – James Bond.
The story centres on the North East, the failure of the Labour Party and the decline of family. The first episode sets the scene at the time of T. Dan Smith, the leader of Newcastle upon Tyne City Council and his plans to demolish terraced houses and replace them with high-rise flats.
It transpires that T Dan Smith took bribes from architect and Freemason John Poulson. Smith and Poulson were convicted and imprisoned in 1974, by which time the high rise flats that he and Poulson had conspired to build are now despised for their poor quality and ready to be pulled down.
The web of corruption extended to the House of Commons where Poulson enjoyed lucrative business links with Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maudling. Although the public figures in the story are given different names it is clear whom they represent. The plot is also interwoven with the investigation into Police corruption and a scheme to flout the sanctions imposed on Ian Smith’s Rhodesia.
The soundtrack includes evocative music from the different decades, including iconic tracks by Bob Dylan, The Animals, The Kinks, The Clash, The Smiths and Oasis. The epic series spans four decades and each of the nine episodes takes place in the year for which it is named; 1964, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1987, and 1995.
Peter Flannery’s superb script manages to encapsulate the changing social and political events whilst also engaging the viewer with the lives of the main protagonists. As viewers we are completely engaged with the friends Nicky, Mary, Geordie and Tosker throughout the ensuing years. Their lives amplify the changing political and social landscape. Their moral choices and values are shaped by the society around them. The idealism of youth and belief in change gives way to cynicism and disappointment. The direct link to our current political processes and institutions are all too evident. Self-serving and corrupt politicians are never far away.
However, despite the failure of our political institutions at least the friendships formed between Nicky, Mary, Geordie and Tosker have been profound and lasting. As the end credits roll the music of “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis is heard.
Our Friends in the North remains compelling viewing for those who saw it the first time around, but it will also resonate for a new generation wanting to experience the best social and political drama about Britain.
Our Friends In The North (BBC) is available to buy on DVD.