In any other series, with any other writer, ‘Yosser’s Story’ would have been an insurmountable problem: how do you, how can you follow that? But this was Alan Bleasedale, writing about his native city, a city in what seemed then to be in terminal decline, pushed along by the government of the very country of which it was part. Though it isn’t, at the last, as good as ‘Yosser’s Story’, the difference is only a matter of degrees.
‘George’s Last Ride’ sees the spotlight turn at last to George Malone, Peter Kerrigan the veteran worker, the veteran fighter, the defiant working class man determined that his kind, not just him but everyone about him, should be treated with respect, decency and honesty. George has been a background figure thus far, turning up in his flat cap, donkey jacket and pajama bottoms in all sorts of places. He’s supposed to be in hospital, he’s supposed to be seriously ill, but George is who he has always been, determined to work, determined to fight for everybody faced with mistreatment from above.
That’s where the episode starts, down the Social Security. The girl clerk’s concerned about him. Familiar faces are concerned: Dixie and Kevin, Chrissy and Loggo, two pairs and never the twain. The Doctor (a pre-fame Ricky Tomlinson) in the hospital, all bluff and hearty, ticking him off, reassuring him he’ll be alright. And then the scene with George’s wife, Mary (Jean Heywood: look, there isn’t a single performance in this episode that has a note wrong but Jean Heywood carries the episode equally with Peter Kerrigan), in which he tries to concvince her allow more radical surgery that might, not would but only might, buy extra time, and she – the camera tight to her face, crumpled and emotionless, as she refuses. He’s dying. She knows that. George knows that, for all the Doctor’s reassurances, that he’s dying. Let him have his wish, to die at home.
And then there’s this extraordinary moment as the Doctor recalls, thirty years ago, being dragged by his Dad to a worker’s meeting at the Docks, where a man named George Malone spoke, and long before she confirms it is words, Mary Malone’s face confirms it by how it comes alive, with light, with love, with energy and pride. Yes, it was her George, of whom she is very very proud, who spoke that day, who astonished the little kid with the greatest speech he ever heard in his life. And it was typical of Bleasedale that the scene should end bathetically, as the Doctor admits to supporting the Liberal Party, and the SDP (so bloody 1982) allowing Mary Malone to comment sardonically that je obviously didn’t listen to her George that much.
There are more scenes, an endless series of scenes, of that strength, going in many different directions. The strength of the love between George and Mary, even so long after, is conveyed undemonstratively but unequivocally. She’s as radical, or rather as old-fashioned, instinctive Socialist as he is, clearing away her two remaining sons’ plates with food on them, refusing to let defeatists eat in her home. The gentleness but obvious warmth of George and his grandchildren.
George still tries to fight, to counsel people, write letters. Yosser appears, outwardly more calm than last week, but also broken. The fight’s gone out of him, the anger, everything. All he wants is his children back. But even hew knows that will never happen. Yosser is what once was called a Lost Soul: in 1982 he’s a Victim of Thatcherism: his future has nothing in it. As he leaves, he opens the parlour door, to a room full of people sat on chairs around the wall, like an old-fashioned Doctor’s Waiting Room. The image is exact and deliberate.
But George collapses. One more component of his character, his life, stripped away by whatever is destroying his body. What it is is never specified, except that it’s stomach, but I have been too close enough to such things not to recognise cancer.
In the end, Chrissie takes George for his ride, pushing his wheelchair around scenes of industrial devastation, where only derelict structures remain, like the two legs of stone that stand for Ozymandias. George talks, monologues, free-associating with his memories, of what was nothing but a hard horror but which was yet, to him and in that moment be, a life better than the ones the Boys from the Blackstuff endure in that year and after. He insists Chrissie get him onto his feet, lean him against a wall. In a final gasp that is as much despair as defiance, George refuses to give up on believing in his class, give up on hope. And when Chrissie gets him back into his chair, George is dead. In an ironic way, he died at home, after all.
There’s the funeral. A Roman Catholic service with a church full of thodse who honoured George. I have come to hate Church funerals, for how they twist the life of the person you have come to honour into a self-serving advertisement for God and his Church, the True Faith. This was not always so: when my paternal Grandfather died, his service was conducted by a Minister who had never met him, who had spent an hour talking to Uncle Arthur, but who spoke to us in simple and plain words as if he and Grandad had been meeting for cups of tea every week for thirty years.
So it can be done, but not here. First, the Priest tries to call the deceased Patrick Malone, for so he was christened and thus that is how he is known to God (what? You mean God’s not smart enough to recognise who we’re talking about? Sorry, that bit was me) until he’s shot down by George’s oldest. And then the waffle goes on, all God not George, until Chissie Todd stands up and tells him he’s not on. Chrissie, the quiet guy, the soft guy, who hates the limelight, but makes the funeral what it should be: a simple declaration that evberybody is here because in some way George Malone touched their lives, and that all those lives will be worse, because he’s no longer there.
Perhaps the series should have ended then. But this is the kind of series that has no end, because ends only happen in stories, where the heroes don’t have to wake up in the morning and wonder what they’ll have to do next. Chrissy and Loggo, Dixie and Kevin, Yosser can’t just be switched off like that. Dixie won’t magically forgive Chrissie and Loggo out of a sudden access of spirit.
So from death, we move to life. Lunchtime at the pub. A barman on speed, taking in glasses, full as well as empty, though it’s only 12.10pm, a Landlord chucking down whiskey from his optic faster than it can pour, Ronnie the whistler, Shake Hands, a redundancy party with a grand in its hand and the intention to drink it all. This is life, but it’s not life, not at all. It’s people going mad out of despair, it’s No Future, it’s a fading out. It’s not an end, it’s a stop.
Chrissie’s had enough and has to get out. Loggo follows him. Yosser trails after them, with them only by proximity. Down an empty street, under Liverpool sunshine, past the Tate & Lyle building, 1922, being torn down in bits, until the camera freezes.
In many places, this episode was heart-rending to watch, not least because, forget the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester, forget my long years in the most middle-class of professions, I grew up in streets like this, among people like them. Given how long it is since I last watched Boys from the Blackstuff, and how painful it is to endure, I may never watch it again. But I will never forget it.