When the credits rolled on Our Friends in the North, the television critic for the Daily Telegraph was prompted to write that it had been “a production where all ... worked to serve a writer’s vision. We are not likely to look upon its like again.”
It certainly was a landmark series for the BBC. While it might have lasted just nine episodes, with each one focused on a different year between 1964 and 1995, it was epic in both scale and ambition.
Hard to believe perhaps, but it’s now 20 years since we were introduced to Nicky (Christopher Eccelston), Geordie (Daniel Craig), Tosker (Mark Strong) and Mary (Gina McKee) and the show which took in key general elections, the Miners’ Strike, police corruption and the Great Storm of 1987 will be celebrated at this year’s Sensoria Festival in Sheffield.
On top of a 10-plus hour marathon screening of the entire programme, the show’s writer and creator, Peter Flannery, along with Eccelston, will take part in a panel discussion about both its birth and impact. Whilst it was met with critical and public acclaim, it had been a long and often painful process to get the show, which had begun as stage play, broadcast.
“I never thought it would take 14 years. If anybody had told me that, I wouldn’t have bothered, I really wouldn’t,” says Flannery, “There were references to real politicians and there were lawyers who threatened to resign if the BBC put it into production on the grounds that we would be sued.”
There were further headaches when the proposed director (Danny Boyle – Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) left the project before filming started and the rushed appointment of a replacement also ended badly.
“He was unsuitable and had to be fired after the first episode,” says Flannery. “Then the first episode had to be rewritten. It caused problems for a lot of the actors because it was totally different. It was a very brave step on everyone’s part, but I needed a much brighter and engaging first episode as some of the work we’d been left with by the first director was rather dour.”
Such commitment from the young actors was to be a recurring theme throughout the production.
“It would have been nothing without them,” says Flannery. “They had to give up so much of themselves for not much money. Nobody made any money doing this I can assure you, I certainly didn’t, I had to re-mortgage the house twice. It was worth it and I knew we’d had a success, but did I think we’d be talking about it 20 years later? No I didn’t.”
The reason says Flannery is that the issues of financial hardship and social exclusion which were explored in the show are sadly still as relevant two decades on.
“That is a bit sad. It was prescient and it did capture the zeitgeist, but it has continued to do so. I think it burrowed into how Britain is constructed politically and socially and these things are going to be relevant for 50 years, not 20, because change happens so slowly.
“I just saw the way the wind was blowing and I think if you can do that and then embed it in really interesting characters you are going to write something that endures.”
Given a newfound popularity for long form television drama in the age of Netflix it begs the question, could Our Friends in the North ever see a return?
“I don’t know,” says Flannery. “I don’t think there’s an episode 10 but there is another TV serial that I’ve been nursing for years. I know what the story is, I know who the characters are and there are people who are interested in me writing it, but I have absolutely no faith in the broadcasting system and I’m too old to waste fifteen-years of my life. If it took that long again I’d be 80! I don’t think it will happen but never say never.”
The Sensoria Festival runs from October 1 to 8. sensoria.org.uk