Our Friends In The North Review
Television drama has been a staple of programming on every channel for any number of years. It seems that every few months we get a ‘flagship’ drama, something to tempt the viewers and gain those all important viewing figures. Some dramas are adaptations of novels (for some reason Linda LaPlante and Colin Dexter sprint to mind), some are original (and usually written by Kay Mellor) and every so often there is one based on a play. Our Friends in the North falls into the latter category, originally a play written by Peter Flannery and covering the years 1964 to 1979 it was written in the early 80’s and shortly afterwards was put forward as a TV drama by Michael Wearing (who eventually became the executive producer on the project). After a long 13 – 14 year wait for everyone involved BBC2 finally gave the go-ahead for the programme to be made and Our Friends in the North finally made it onto our screens in 1996.
Our Friends in the North focus on the lives of 4 friends, Nicky Hutchinson, Geordie Peacock, Mary Soulsby and Tosker (Terry) Cox from their idealistic teens and early 20’s to the more cynical years of middle age. The series revolves around the 4 friends as they each take a different path in life, showing how these choices affect not only themselves but also the people around them.
There are 9 episodes in total and each episode focuses on a specific year from 1964 to 1995 a 16 year extension over the timeline of the original play. This allowed writer Peter Flannery not only to bring the story of the 4 friends up to date, but to also include many references to the main issues of a particular year. As a result of this we get to see how people coped during the Winter of Discontent (1974), the Conservative government get back into power under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, and the effects of the Miners Strikes in 1984. All of these events (and more) are woven into the story effortlessly.
What is surprising about Our Friends in the North was the decision to cast (at the time) 4 reasonably unknown actors in the 4 main roles. Out of the 4 Christopher Eccleston (Nicky) was probably the best known fresh from his roles in Cracker and Shallow Grave. He was joined by Gina McKee (Mary), Mark Strong (Tosker) and Daniel Craig (Geordie). All 4 of them put in superb performances and seem to be comfortable with the roles and the varying ages they all have to go through. Both Gina McKee and Christopher Eccleston were nominated for BAFTA’s for their performances, with McKee deservedly winning. To complement the strong main cast we are also treated to an equally good supporting cast. The person who caught most people’s eye was Malcolm McDowell – returning to British TV after a 15 year absence to play porn baron Bennie Barratt. McDowell is only in 3 episodes, but his character is so strong that you’d be forgiven for thinking that he is one of the main characters throughout the series. Finally in three smaller yet pivotal roles we have Peter Vaughn (Felix Hutchinson), Alun Armstrong (Austin Donahue) and David Bradley (Eddie Wells), all 3 of them play very human characters and Alun Armstrong definitely adds some much needed humour in the first 2 episodes.
Our Friends in the North was a mammoth undertaking for everyone involved, and watching the series you can tell that everyone put the maximum amount of effort in – and it certainly shows. This is not your normal everyday drama, but rather a social commentary told from the perspective of 4 different people. OK so it’s not perfect (what TV drama is?), and sometimes the points made, both political and social, seem a little laboured but they do not spoil the overall enjoyment to be had from the series.
After spending most of his summer in America helping the Civil rights movement Nicky arrives home in Newcastle full of enthusiasm and wanting to change the world around him. Geordie wants to start a band with Nicky on guitar, but Nicky has other ideas and offers to help Eddie Wells ‘foot slog’ for the Labour party as the general elections are looming. Unfortunately Nicky’s devotion to the Labour party results in his separation from his girlfriend Mary and her becoming more involved with their mutual friend, Tosker. Geordie has troubles of his own – he’s being forced down the aisle after getting a girl pregnant and is unsure what to do. This decision is made for him when his drunken and mentally unstable dad attacks both him and Tosker after he hears about the wedding plans. Geordie fights back, leaving his dad unconscious and decides to hitch down to London where no one will find him. After the Labour victory at the election Nicky is offered a job by Austin Donohue, a local business man, who wants to bring a housing revolution to the slums of Newcastle.
Mary and Tosker are married and have moved into their first home together in the Willow Lane flats, a high rise development bankrolled by Austin Donohue and corrupt building magnate John Edwards. Nicky is still working for Donohue, but is getting increasingly tired of his ‘office boy’ position, setting up press interviews and rewriting insincere platitudes for local politicians who never seem to get anything done. Things are looking slightly better for Geordie who has managed to find a high profile and well paid job working for Soho porn baron Bennie Barratt. Tosker tiring of life at home with Mary and new born son Anthony, is out every night with a different woman on his arm leaving his new wife at home alone to cope with their son. Also tired of the life she has been forced into Mary reluctantly confides to Nicky that her marriage was a mistake, but she is unable to leave as she is pregnant once again. After eventually realising the level of corruption in Donohue’s office, Nicky leaves his job, taking confidential files for Edwards System Building with him.
It’s only a year later, but the Willow Lane flats are already staring to look like they are slowly crumbling away. Mary and Tosker’s flat is riddled with damp, and the inhospitable conditions are adding an additional strain on their already rocky marriage. Mary finally turns to Eddie Wells for help and between them they start a campaign to try and get the flats fixed permanently. Conversely Geordie is making a name for himself in Soho as Barratt’s right hand man. Unfortunately he’s also started a relationship with Bennie’s mistress Jules, unaware that Barratt already knows about his deception. The porn industry is booming – in spite of Scotland Yards attempts to ‘stop the rot’. Corrupt cops have made deals with the main Soho players and Bennie Barratt is among the men willing to pay the Met to keep out of his business. Disillusioned with conventional politics, Nicky has become involved with the anarchist movement along with his new girlfriend Helen. When Mary and Eddie ask Nicky for help with their campaign he refuses and shortly afterwards decides to move to London to live with his new anarchist friends.
1970, and after being apart for many years Nicky and Geordie finally meet up in London. Nicky is living in a squat with his anarchist friends, who are plotting a terror campaign against various targets. Geordie is drinking heavily and making regular trips to Scotland Yard to pay off Barratt’s ‘friends’ in the Met. An official investigation into corruption in the Met has also started which soon threatens to disturb the relationship between the corrupt officers in the Met and the porn barons they do business with. To save their own necks Barratt and CID decide to frame Geordie, who is arrested on his return to London after taking a holiday at Bennie’s insistence. The police are also catching up with Nicky – an investigation into the dealings of builder John Edwards leads to Austin Donahue’s former office boy. In order to protect his anarchist friends Nicky is forced to return to Newcastle where he meets up with Mary, a trainee lawyer and emerging politician, and Tosker, now a successful local businessman.
It’s the winter of discontent, power strikes and three-day weeks are affecting everyone’s lives. Nicky is now living in the flat he originally found for Mary and Tosker and is editor of a radical magazine but, as the election looms, he decides to help Eddie Wells with his campaign once again. When Eddie is rejected as the official Labour candidate he decides to stand as an independent candidate with a little help (and persuasion) from Felix and Mary. Mary and Tosker’s marriage is even more strained, but they decide to stay together for the sake of their children, Anthony and Bernadette. Back in London Geordie has been released from jail but finds himself homeless and consumed with thoughts of revenge. He roams the streets of Soho looking for Barratt, but times have changed and the police are coming down hard on the porn shops and clubs. Geordie’s plans for revenge are ruined when the police are tipped off to Barratt’s whereabouts and arrest him just as Geordie is closing in. Not wanting to spend the rest of his life in prison Barratt spills the beans about the Met protection racket and several high profile police officers are arrested. With nothing else keeping him in London Geordie returns to Newcastle and for the first time in 10 years the friends are back together again.
On the eve of a new decade things once again change dramatically for Our Friends. Nicky realises his political ambitions and becomes a militant Labour candidate for a local constituency. Unfortunately the press fail to take him seriously and his campaign is hindered even further by the dirty tricks of the Conservative MP Claudia Seabrook. Geordie is living in the flat next to Nicky and is once again caught up in police corruption – this time selling drugs for the Newcastle drug squad. Tosker is having a string of one-night stands, which abruptly come to an end when he meets and falls in love with Elaine. Mary agrees to a divorce but on her terms keeping the house for her and the children. Meanwhile Geordie’s activities have become known to the police and they attempt to arrest him, but find Mary’s son, Anthony in the flat instead playing with Geordie’s gun. Realising that the police are after him Geordie runs away once again rather than face another prison sentence. After 8 years of solid campaigning the Willow Lane flats are finally demolished and Nicky tries to rebuild his relationship with Mary, with little success.
Its 5 years since Nicky unwittingly let a Conservative MP gain a safe Labour seat, and he is now a successful photojournalist with a new book and an exhibition in Newcastle. Mary is also a success – she’s the leader of Newcastle Council and still practices law when she can find the time. The miners strikes are in full swing and additional forces from London are brought up to Newcastle to deal with the ‘problem’ much to the disgust of Anthony who’s now a member of the local police force. Tosker is becoming even more successful and is invited to join the Masons in Newcastle – enabling him to make even more business contacts. Violence eventually erupts on the picket line when a number of ‘scabs’ try to get back into the mine to work. Both Nicky and Anthony are caught in the thick of the violence; one taking photographs the other trying to get the miners to calm down. When two miners are badly beaten by the police Anthony agrees to testify against the police alienating him from his fellow officers. Mary and Nicky finally consummate their 20-year on / off relationship and both accept each others proposal of marriage.
Tosker is now a property landlord in Newcastle – renting out squalid flats to DSS claimants; his relationship with Elaine is also beginning to suffer as he slowly begins to neglect her. Nicky and Mary’s marriage is also on rocky ground and as Mary’s job becomes even more stressful Nicky spends more time in London and starts a casual affair with a young student. His new project is taking photos of the homeless in London where he comes across an alcoholic down and out Geordie. Unable to help his friend Nicky retreats even further from Mary and old pal Eddie Wells, who’s investigating the ‘cash for questions’ scandal in the Commons. After accepting money from Nicky, Geordie finds himself a bed in a homeless shelter but after watching Eddie on TV sets fire to his bed, and is sentenced to life imprisonment. The infamous 1987 storms signal the end of this episode with Tosker and Elaine finding solace in each other after their fortune is wiped out in the Stock Market Crash, and Nicky and Mary’s marriage comes to an end.
Geordie escape’s from jail and once again returns to Newcastle as does Nicky whose back from Italy to arrange his mother’s funeral. Tosker has managed to rebuild his fortune and is in the final stages of preparing his new nightclub for opening night. Anthony is now a community police officer and he and Mary (now a successful MP) are both at loggerheads about what to do with a local teenage tearaway, Chris Collins. Geordie has also met Chris and tries to help him when he confronts his dad in a hotel bar; unfortunately Geordie only gets a bloody nose for his troubles. Meanwhile Nicky finally comes to terms with his relationship with his father, although he is unable to talk to Felix as he is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. The opening night for Tosker's night club is a success, and he realises his ambitions of being in a band after 30 long years. Finally the day of Florrie's funeral dawns, bringing all 4 friends together once again, but for how long?
The picture quality on this disk has been quite difficult to score, as there are a number of noticeable flaws in the presentation. The problem that I noticed the most was an excessive amount of grain on certain scenes. There is an element of grain present throughout the transfer, which I can only assume to be deliberate, but there are scenes where this seems to be slightly excessive. These scenes are also accompanied by an element of artifacting. There was also some edge enhancement present on the transfer, but this only happened on a couple of occasions and was not really obvious unless you were looking for it. Finally there was some print damage in the form of black and white specs on the print, again this was not really that frequent but become more noticeable once spotted.
I know from looking at the forums that many people (myself included) were looking forward to a widescreen presentation of Our Friends in the North. Unfortunately you are going to be disappointed as the next issue I had with this disk was trying to suss out the aspect ratio, as BMG very helpfully had not given any information regarding this on the packaging. After a bit of investigation and playing around I determined that the programme was presented in 1.44:1, which comes with its own set of problems namely which TV ‘mode’ is best suited to this ratio. After much deliberation I finally settled on the 4:3 ratio, but was also equally happy with the picture in 14:9 mode. A tiny amount of the picture was lost when watching in 14:9 mode, but this did not appear to compromise the ‘framing’ of the picture.
These few problems aside the picture quality is actually quite good and is a definite step up from my old VHS copies. However considering this title was due to be released in June it would have been nice if they’d spent the extra time doing a bit of restoration work.
I had no issues with the original DD2.0 sound track provided (although again BMG failed to include any information about the sound mix on the packaging). The sound was impressively clear and suffered from no distortion or background hiss. The music soundtrack, while quite loud in certain places, did not drown out any dialogue and as it’s such a well chosen soundtrack that it’s really hard to find fault with it.
As this is a four disk set we get the increasingly standard ‘gatefold’ packaging, which is covered by a white cardboard slip on box. There is no booklet included with this release and all relevant information is included on the box itself. A few nice touches are the family trees for the Cox, Hutchinson, Peacock and Soulsby families and a ‘timeline’ outlining key events behind the disks.
A nice mix of animated and static menus, which are very understated yet nicely designed. The main menu is animated with the sequence from the opening credits accompanied by the theme music. All other menus are static, but include pictures of various members of the cast.
The following extras are spread across the 3 disks containing the episodes:
Filmographies: Comprising of a text based filmography for each character. Some of these are quite short others very long (for example Malcolm McDowell’s filmography is 15 pages!) but all of them are pretty much bang up to date (thanks to IMDB). The filmographies are repeated on each disk, but people are only added to the list once they have appeared in an episode on the disk.
Featured Music: A number of text based screens outlining the music featured in the episodes contained on the disk. The information presented here includes chart position (if applicable) and release dates etc…
Interactive Mode: This is a slightly bizarre feature and it is essentially an additional subtitle track. If it is switched on the name of the actor on screen will be displayed. If you then press enter on your remote you are taken to that persons filmography. Handy if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like scrolling through 5 pages of text in order to find somone!
The rest of the extras can only be found on the 4th disk and include the following:
Retrospective: This is an informal discussion between Peter Flannery (writer), Charlie Pattinson (producer), Michael Wearing (executive producer), Pedr Jones and Simon Cellan Jones (directors) which was filmed in a London pub earlier this year. This is well worth watching as they discuss various topics to do with the creation of the series. They all have something interesting to say about the series and it is clear that they all enjoyed working on the project and truly believed that they were making something special.
Cast Interviews: There are two interviews here, the first with Christopher Ecclestone, the second with Gina McKee. Christopher Ecclestone talks about the relationship he had with Peter Flannery and other cast members. He also touches on the fact that the accent was quite difficult to do – something that Gina McKee did not have to deal with! Gina McKee (interviewed by Peter Flannery) talks about the awfulness of her first ‘aged’ makeup test and her fear of not actually being offered the role. Both of these interviews are interesting and they both bring up some very interesting ideas about how they see the show.
Photo Gallery: A selection of 20 promotional shots for the series.
Original Version of Episode 1: Partway through filming it was decided to re-visit episode 1 and totally re film it, as it was felt that the opening episode was not ‘strong’ enough. This was quite a big undertaking and as a comparison piece the overview of the original first episode is presented here as 10 pages of text.
DVD Credits: The usual list of the people who worked on the DVD production.
Our Friends in the North received well deserved critical acclaim when it was first aired in 1996, and it still stands up as one of the best dramas ever to be shown on British TV. It is a fairly realistic depiction of how society has changed over the past 30 years, and the events that preceded those changes. The series makes for compelling viewing, which is the result of good writing and interesting characters that you can easily feel an affinity with.
This DVD release will more than please fans of the series with a selection of extra features that are interesting and amusing, although the picture quality does let the release down somewhat. Never the less this is probably going to be the only DVD release Our Friends in the North gets, so if you enjoyed the series when it was first aired this is a definite purchase.