State of the Nation
By Mark England
from East Sussex
, 08 Jul 2004
When it was first screened in 1996, Our Friends in the North reflected back the social decay of the sixties and seventies, at a time when a further big change, the rise of New Labour and Tony Blair's seemingly inevitable journey to Downing Street was providing the pivot for mid-nineties, pre-millennial self-examination. Tracing the lives of 4 friends from Newcastle, bonded by often clumsy and socially awkward situations, the epic piece of drama that unfolds remains one of the standout recent works in it's genre.
It's an overtly political piece, but in a way that demonstrates how political changes inform social change. Nicky (Christopher Eccleston) is consumed by involvement in the grubby and incestuos world of sixties north-east Labour politics, dominated by the exotic Austen Donohue. As Donohue's corruption unfolds, and the hopes formed by the election of a Labour government at the end of the first instalment fade away, Nicky turns to radicalism and protest, spending the seventies as a political and social photo-journalist, eventually marrying his childhood companion, Mary - herself bruised by a violent and turbulent first marriage to their mutual friend Tosker, which decays with the passage of the seventies. Geordie meanwhile is drawn into the Soho strip-clubs, run by Malcolm McDowell's grimy, fragile Benny Barrett.
Throughout, their lives are underpinned by their 'friends in the north' - fixers like Eddie Wells, whose life of solid political service to Labour masters is blown away in the storms of 1987, as the political tide reaches the high watermark of Thatcherism. Geordie's escape from the vice dens of Soho is complicated by ongoing investigations into vice and corruption in the Met. Nicky and Mary's marriage collapses under the weight of Nicky's independence and Mary's prospective career as a Blairite new Labour MP. Tosker's business and home are sacrificed at the altar of free market capitalism that he previously worshipped. Returning to the Newcastle in the nineties for the funeral of Nicky's mother, they survey a landscape still scarred by the miner's strike, but hope and optimism about the future. Crossing the Tyne Bridge, they step into the next phase of their lives, as Newcastle itself prepares to cast off it's former image with ambitious social building programmes, and a Labour government prepares to take office in London. The symmetry of their lives is complete.
Taking such a broad sweep across political, social and economic landscapes whilst retaining a cohesive and compelling narrative is a challenge fraught with potential hazards. Our Friends in the North achieves all those aims. It is often icily uncomfortable, but it more than does justice to the themes and the times that it depicts. With some magnificent central performances, it remains both memorable, and essential viewing.
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