‘Our story began, one summer night in 1964, as I came back to see my friends. I could see now, 31 years later, we were all going to make decisions that would change our lives forever.’
So begins Our Friends in the North, Peter Flannery’s nine-part BBC drama that turned 25 last month. When its first episode was screened in January 1996, Tony Blair’s Labour party enjoyed a twenty-point lead over John Major’s Conservatives, and if the election wasn’t coming this year then it would certainly be the next. It was under these conditions that BBC 2 viewers would watch a kaleidoscopic anthology series that acted as both secret history of post-war Britain and grim prophecy of the country we live in now. The story that Our Friends in the North tells about British society and its institutions continues to have huge resonances in 2021 – in the Metropolitan police, the Labour party, and in British housing policy.
The cliché that the programme wouldn’t get made now belies just how difficult it was for this series to get to screens – with dark echoes of the establishment rank-closing that’s a feature of the drama itself. Working-class playwright Peter Flannery initially wrote Our Friends in the North as a three-hour stage production for the Royal Shakespeare Company – inspiringly, it was whilst watching an RSC dress rehearsal of Henry IV that Flannery realised he had to ‘up his game.’ In telling the story of four friends—Nicky, Mary, Geordie, and Tosker—Flannery would create a Shakespearean epic of his own.
BBC producer Michael Wearing, who caught the RSC production, instantly realised its importance and spent the next fourteen years needling away at the BBC to get the drama commissioned in a corporation that was growing increasingly sensitive to accusations of anti-Conservative bias. The corporation’s resistance goes deeper than that, though – a 1989 commission was cancelled after a senior BBC lawyer threatened to resign.
Once it became clear that John Major’s Conservatives were on the way out, and once several figures that characters were clearly based on had died, Our Friends in the North was commissioned in 1994. It was all the better for its long gestation period, allowing Flannery to absorb events through the lens of his creation, and have the distance from events like the Miners’ Strike to seriously reckon with their importance. The Miners’ Strike is better understood now, but 1996 wanted to forget all about it. So what was this epic story that Flannery wanted to tell?
‘We can’t lose four in a row, man.’
Flannery invites us to observe, over thirty years, what the character Tosker refers to regularly as ‘the poxy Labour Party’, from the leadership of Harold Wilson to that other Labour moderniser Tony Blair. The Old Left is faithfully represented by Felix Hutchinson and Eddie Wells, whilst Nicky is firmly of the post-68 left, with its internationalism and sexual liberation. Mary’s trajectory most closely follows that of several New Labour politicians – radical once, sure, but we don’t do that kind of thing in the 1990s.
The character that gives the story its real scope, however, is Austin Donohue, a cypher for the disgraced Labour politician T. Dan Smith. Smith had been the dazzling Labour leader of Newcastle Council from 1960 to 1965, equal parts Harold Wilson and Tony Wilson, a regional booster and self-styled King of the North. The fall came in 1974, when corruption allegations involving the seriously dodgy property developer John Poulson led to Smith pleading guilty and serving a seven-year sentence, before living out the remainder of his days (as Donohue does) on the fourteenth floor of a tower block that he commissioned. Donohue is an ambiguous character in an ambiguous drama that can’t easily be claimed by any political tendency; we watch a visionary crusader get high on his own supply. Could it have been different? This doesn’t matter once we observe the real life consequences of Smithbuilding – shoddy building practices, corners cut, bungs dished out, and working people nearly dying in flats where the wallpaper won’t stay up. Is that a high rise or is it a tinder box?
Every faction of the Labour party is shown to fail in its own way. Rightly disgusted by Donohue’s practices, Nicky is radicalised and joins a radical group based heavily on the Angry Brigade – the homegrown left terror cell who, between 1970 and 1972, bombed the embassies of far-right regimes, the homes of Cabinet ministers and the Miss World competition. Eddie Wells, emissary from the Old Left, is elected to Parliament, but what happens? ‘As far as I remember,’ says Nicky in 1987, ‘you came here to get houses built, to attack poverty, to speak up to people who have no voice in the world. And what are you doing? Getting pissed in the bar and playing the same irrelevant political point-scoring games as the rest of the wankers in this place.’
Not that Flannery had any sympathy with the New Labour project. A village hall meeting about a problem child (something of a moral panic in the aftermath of the murder of James Bulger) teases out Flannery’s profound pessimism about New Labour, and the compromises that Mary has made. ‘If you and your New Labour party sound any more like the Tories,’ says her son Anthony, bitterly, ‘they’ll sue you for plagiarism.’ All the same, the 1970s episodes which show Mary lifting herself up through the Labour movement—finding solidarity, purpose, and intellectual stimulation—are impossibly moving.
For leftists, however, it’s Nicky’s 1979 election campaign that is the most acutely painful viewing. ‘If the Labour party cannot have me as a candidate,’ warns Nicky, standing on a left ticket, ‘then it cannot have any candidate that the Tory party will attack.’ The bruising campaign was inspired heavily by LGBT activist Peter Tatchell’s 1983 defeat during the Bermondsey by-election (the SDP won the seat through a homophobic campaign for which their candidate Simon Hughes, himself a bisexual man, apologised in 2006). During a series of set-piece press conferences, the press pool force Nicky into traps—’Red Nicky denies he’s gay!’—and run a black ops poster campaign linking him falsely to the IRA. Nicky’s flat is placed under police protection lest anybody attempt the logical conclusion of the right wing press’ rhetoric.
‘The mafia of the mediocre’
It’s when Geordie flees to London that Flannery unveils his most strident critique of the British establishment, using corruption to show a tight solidarity between the Conservative Party, the tabloid press, and the Metropolitan police. Consequences, it turns out, are strictly for Labour politicians.
Geordie falls under the wing of Benny Barrett—played with menacing brio by Malcolm McDowell—an illicit entrepreneur of Soho’s sex industry, who quickly realises that a smooth working relationship with the Metropolitan Police is the quickest way to get ahead – he’s never proved wrong.
Flannery drew inspiration from the Met’s Obscene Publications Division—dubbed the Dirty Squad—as well as Operation Countryman, an investigation which ran from 1978 to 82 against 84 members of the Metropolitan police as well as 29 officers from the City of London police accused of bribes, planting evidence, and conspiring with criminals. To this day, its findings have never been released.
Our Friends in the North shows the Metropolitan Police to be corrupt, self-serving, and utterly incapable of reform. A succession of Home Secretaries are either too dim to notice, or are too reliant on the Met for such things to matter. Claude Seabrook, played by later Downton Abbey writer and Tory peer Julian Fellowes, mirrors Heath’s Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, who had financial connections with John Poulson. Flannery’s writing here aims right at the heart of the Establishment – if Cressida Dick was ‘outraged’ by the ‘casual and extreme’ police corruption in the BBC’s Line of Duty, one can imagine the political reaction to Our Friends in the North today. Flannery’s writing was vindicated – just look at the Met’s racist conspiracy surrounding the murder of Stephen Lawrence, or the continuing allegations that the Met is shielding officers facing allegations of child abuse, fraud, and assault.
When I first watched the series as an A Level Politics student in 2010, I began to notice the series’ human chain of organised police, organised journalists, and organised Conservatives everywhere – the phone hacking scandal of 2011 had those same moving parts. Flannery muddies the water too when Tosker ingratiates himself with the Freemasons – mocked by his son as ‘the mafia of the mediocre’. In 2017, outgoing Police Federation chair Steve White told the Guardian that Freemasons were blocking reform and thwarting progress of BAME and women police.
‘Most People are Rubbish’
The misery that fathers hand onto their sons and the defeat of post-war social democracy become intertwined in the series’ most successful, most beautifully realised plotline. Nicky’s politics are a tortured dialogue with Felix, looking to his father for approval, rebelling against him, never getting the love and acceptance he obviously craves. Felix cannot emotionally communicate with his own son, but we begin to understand that he was a political street-fighter in the 1930s, one of the 200 men who marched from the North-East shipbuilding town of Jarrow to Westminster who then fought in Italy in World War II. ‘I came back to a young wife I never lived with and a bairn I’d never seen,’ he reflects. ‘We needed a wage.’ Felix never continued with politics, and this manifests itself in a bitterness towards his son’s idealism. It’s also notions of masculinity that keep Felix from communication.
Masculine failure and sexual exploitation run through the series, be it in the crude sexual performance of the Soho strip bars, Tosker’s painful chauvinism or, indeed, Nicky’s softer but no less punishing beta-male sexism. Whilst proclaiming a politics of anti-sexism, Nicky can’t quite stomach the real-life fight – he treats Mary appallingly, and chooses sad extramarital affairs over reckoning with his own feelings of lost promise as Mary rises the ranks of the Labour party, as he always meant to.
One of the most emotionally charged episodes closes with Bennie Barrett forcing Geordie to watch a woman both of them are sleeping with having a sexual encounter with a Metropolitan Police Chief. ‘Women are rubbish, Geordie,’ he states firmly. ‘Most people are rubbish, but all women are rubbish.’ The first episode sees Geordie murder his alcoholic father, and this patricide sets into motion a chain of events that will see Geordie spiral into blizzarding alcoholism.
Racial issues are almost entirely absent from Our Friends in the North – when we first see Nicky, he’s fresh from a visit to New Orleans participating in the Civil Rights movement, but that’s not this story. It would take until Small Axe, broadcast this year, to see same kind of long-form anthology treatment to black British lives on the scale of Our Friends in the North. There are many parallels between the two series, though: the focus on Metropolitan Police corruption, for one. Small Axe‘s first episode, ‘Mangrove’, concerns the harassment of a black-owned business (who can and can’t benefit from police corruption falls along obvious racial lines) whilst third episode ‘Red, White and Blue’ tells the story of Leroy Logan, who set up the Black Police Association in response to exactly the conduct Peter Flannery lays out in Our Friends in the North.
In any case, the English disease that Flannery identifies is all around us, and those of us who watched this series at a young age will have viewed much of British politics through its lens. Just last month, for instance, when Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson and former deputy council leader-turned-property developer Derek Hatton were arrested as part of a probe into the awarding of building contracts in the city.
But ask me when I most thought about Our Friends in the North, and it was on the morning of 14 June 2017. Watching Grenfell Tower engulfed in flames. I thought again about the series, and who pays the price for political corruption and dodgy contracts, and who doesn’t pay the price. And I thought again of the tight, tight nexus of the Metropolitan police, the right-wing press, and the Conservative party.