This is the one. This is the episode by which this series is defined. This is not a story but a picture, and the picture is Hell on Earth. Forty years ago, I had a premonition that Boys from the Black Stuff was going to be different, that it was not going to be the usual ephemera of television that could be allowed to evaporate, but that it needed to be recorded, kept permanent. I had no premonition of how right I would be in the case of ‘Yosser’s Story’ but right I was, then, now and in a thousand years time.
For all that I have been entranced and astounded by such things as ‘Fall-out’ (The Prisoner), Episode 8 (Twin Peaks – The Return) and ‘If – Then – Else’ (Person of Interest), this is to me the most important episode of television ever made in my lifetime. And it is bloody hard to watch, as this morning has reminded me.
To be honest, I have so many thoughts about this story that I don’t know where to begin or how to make them coherent. To date in the series, Yosser – the hard man, the bastard, the twat of The Black Stuff, the guy who thinks he’s something when he’s obviously a blowhard and a nothing blowing himself up out of all proportion – has been a peripheral figure, yet even then he’s stood out. Some of it was his appearance, black hair, that iron bar of a black moustache overgrowing his mouth, the long black coat swinging in his wake, the black top and black jeans, the pale face such a contrast, the hard, too-intent stare, the three silent children, baggy and scruffy, trailing him, a mute chorus.
And some of it was his desperation, and the catch-phrase everyone adopted in a time of recession and creeping misery, ‘Gizza job.’ Gizza job, go on, giz it, I can do that. It was almost funny back then, the way catch-phrases are supposed to be funny. You havin’ a laugh? Is ‘ee havin’ a laugh?
Now’s the time to look Yosser in the face, and watch him drown.
Bleasedale does this both literally and symbolically. He starts with an horrific scene that’s supposed to be Liverpool’s Sefton Park, though for health reasons it was filmed on private land. An idyllic afternoon, families relaxing around the lake, Yosser appears, kids in tow. They walk into the lake, into the middle. They go under. One by one the children disappear. George Malone is rowed by, in pyjamas and flat cap, but ignores Yosser’s appeals. Loggo rows Chrissie past, the pair in striped blazers and caps like a Three Men and a Boat parody, and they ignore him.
It’s all a dream but it represents Yosser’s greatest nightmare, having his kids, Jason, Anne-Marie and Dustin (note the ambitious names, and note that the trio are played by Alan Bleasedale’s own children) being taken away. Because everything else has been. His job. His wife. They live in squalor and dirt. The rent is overdue. The electric is going to be cut off. Yosser’s dreams, ambitions, his lifelong internal delusion that he is somebody, that the world is his oyster, that he is big, and he is noticed, because he’s Yosser Hughes, is being stripped away. I’m Yosser Hughes me, everybody notices me.
We know it’s going to happen, that it will end with the kids being taken into care. It takes only one glimpse of how the family lives that it is not just inevitable but right, on any grounds of the safety and welfare of those children. We know it’s going to be brutal. But it is self-evident that, no matter how inept he is at looking after them, Yosser loves his kids with a passion. They are a part of him, and he is a part of them. They trail around after him silent and staring. They look bored, they have no toys, nothing to do, but he is their Daddy. It’s not just going to be painful, it’s going to fucking hurt like Hell.
And it does.
But there’s a long way to go before that. Yosser’s wife Maureen, a perfect yet nasty portrayal by Jean Warren, has left him, is living with a musician who decides that the fuck isn’t worth the hassle from Yosser and throws her out. Maureen’s a hard-faced bitch, with dyed-blonde hair, wearing short skirts to show off her legs. She hates Yosser, she has nothing but contempt for him, she doesn’t want the kids, she does a face-only monologue to Social Services just to shit all over him, including the hint that they’re probably not even his, none of them, she had this ‘friend’, a German Sea Captain. Is that enough? she ends up asking.
How much of that is true? Yosser wants her back, but that’s just because she’s his possession and she can’t go away from him of her own free will. She claims he hit her all the time, which we can believe, though when he corners her, shoves her up against a lamppost, makes to headbutt her, it’s his hand that moves her head at the last moment so that he headbutts the concrete instead.
But that he hit the kids all the time, took it out on them? That’s hard to accept from the way he treats them now – there is a tear-jerking momemt where he lies down on the bed the three share, and Dustin wriggles into his arms, hugging him – but this is Yosser Hughes. He’s no hero, nobody exceptional, that’s the point. He’s a weak man, an insecure man, a twat in his own right, so we cannot ever be certain about what and how he was before this all started happening to him.
And Maureen hasn’t finished stickling the knife in. First, she more or less openly says that he was crap at sex, which is very believable, but then she waits for him to go out and brings a furniture van to strip the house of practically everything behind his back. Except for a record-player that’s not paid for yet.
Of course, this is Liverpool, where they compulsively joke, and there are jokes in here along the way, and Bleasedale’s skill is to make us laugh, despite our wish not to, laughter that’s bitter and sharp. The most famous is the gag in the Confessional, to which Yosser has repaired. He can barely talk, in fact he sobs, uncontrollably. Only here, in some kind of sanctuary, can this hard man belie his own self-image and cry in pain and fear, of what it is and what it’s going to become. He’s in a place of miracles but no miracles were due in 1982, not for the likes of Yosser. Practically the only thing he can articulate is that he’s desperate, desperate, and so Bleasedale’s less-than-idealistically portrayed priest, trying at the last to establish some kind of intimacy, to be of genuine aid to the broken man behind the grille, works through versions of address, from Father to Father Thomas, to Father Daniel Thomas, Dan, Call Me Dan. And of course we’ve seen it coming, and it comes, and even after all of that we still laugh when Yosser pleads that he’s Desperate Dan.
But the moment comes. The Social Workers have the Order but Yosser chucks them out. They return with the Police, who have no time for shite. They kick down the backyard gate, break the back door window to get in, they beat Yosser to the ground with truncheons to the kidneys and kicks to the legs, back and stomach. The junior Social Worker, Veronica, is sickened enough to call them bastards. A minute later, placing a struggling Anne-Marie in the van, she smiles, talks sweetly to the girl. Who smiles, draws back her little gold head and butts Veronica between the eyes.
It still isn’t done. Yosser is bordering on madness now, searching for his kids, wanting to be put away, he’ll play the looney, if he can be put away with them. By now, the episode is starting to flicker out, because this is not a story and therefore it has no end, and it is searching for somewhere where it can stop. Yosser sits in a bench in the rain. An old Scottish wino he’s already met (James Ellis, the long-standing Bert Lynch on Z-Cars, only recognisable if you know who he is) tries to get a dry cell for the night by kicking at a takeaway window, but Yosser heaves a metal barrel through it. You stole my window, complains the wino. They stand there, waiting for the Police (Andrew Schofield, who played Bleasedale’s Scully on radio and TV), who reject Yosser: of course it was the wino who did it, it’s always him, until Yosser headbutts Scully and gets himself arrested that way.
The car is diverted to a supposed disturbance down by Sefton Park. We’re circling back to the beginning. Yosser’s coming to the end, to the realisation that none of it, not one of his illusions, his expectations, his dreams, the seemingly overwhelming possibility of the world when he was growing up, none of it is real, none of it has ever happened, or will happen. He has found his absolute nadir and understands that this is it, that this is how it is going to be. He’s 36, and it will never get better.
So he feigns being sick and once he’s out of the car he runs away, into the Park. He throws himself into the Lake, like the beginning, under water, intent on drowning, on death, on an end. For amount, Scully says let him, but his driver can’t. They dive in, find him, drag him out. And there the camera freezes, on the manic expression on Yosser’s face, the mad, staring eye. And if you can stare at that frozen frame through the whole of the credits without tears coming to your own eyes, then you’re a harder bastard than I am.
That’s not all there is. I haven’t even mentioned the guest appearances of Graeme Souness and Sammy Lee, Liverpool footballers of the era and beyond this passing line I won’t. They come over as partly a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick Bleasedale builds into the overall story, a moment of great embarrassment yet paradoxically the only high point of the episode.
But what has to be mentioned, has to be shouted about very loudly, is Bernard Hill. His Yosser is an incredible performance. At no point is it any one thing. Yosser may be a simple character on many levels but never in Hill’s acting. I have by no means seen all he has done but I cannot think that he was ever better than this. No-one else, no matter their skill, could have been Yosser Hughes, could have made him a figure of faults and flaws, who has brought his own destruction down upon him, yet have our sympathies lie with him at every moment. Never do we escape the knowledge that we are watching a man being driven out of his wits, nor the fact that he is an ordinary man, just as we are ordinary men and women, and that all of this, every horrible second, is a thousand percent real, and could happen to us.
Yes, the greatest horror of all this is just that. It could happen to us.