A Manchester Metro Expedition: The Media City Line


Lowry Centre

Properly speaking, this should be a journey on the Eccles Line, that having been the next line to be added to the Manchester Metrolink Network, but as we now know the Eccles bit of the line is closed for improvements until October. That makes for a short outing today, and a familiar one, as the trams do not go further than Media City, the BBC’s home in the North, for the duration. Nevertheless, apart from Media City itself, there are the Lowry Centre, the Lowry Outlook (formerly Mall) and the Imperial War Museum North all in the immediate vicinity, so I don’t think I’ll be short of things to do.

A shorter trip out it may be but I prepare to set off earlier than usual. Partly this is because I want to stop off part way and leave a repeat prescription at the Doctor’s but mostly it’s because it’s a nice day, blue and white, the Council are mowing all the verges and strips again and I can smell cut grass as if it had been sprayed on.

Needless to say, I miss a bus walking down the street, leaving me to stand under a burning sun, not that this is anything like as bad as the Bury Line trip. It’s as if the sun is putting on a show to celebrate England winning the European Championships yesterday: I did love long enough to see it happen again.

At this time of day, the buses are every fifteen minutes, giving me time to stroll to the surgery and back and get time to sit down waiting for the next service. And stroll it is: I am very slow-movng today, lethargic and deliberate. It’s the same old crank out down Hyde Road, with plenty of stops nowhere and for nothing, and no, I’m not getting used to this by now.

To my surpriseand delight, a Media City tram arrives at Piccadilly Gardens the moment I do, but I;m not quick enough to snah a seat facing the way we’re going. As far as Cornbrook, it’s the same route as last week. I keep my eyes open for the chance to switch seats but that never comes.

There’s a twenty-something girl sat diagonally across from me, short dyed-blonde hair, dark roots, a nose ring on one nostril. She catches my eye beause she looks familiar, as if she resembles someone from film or TV, but I have no idea who. (I wondered for a moment if she might have been Analeigh Tipton, who played a cameo role in an episode of The Big Bang Theory I recently saw and it could well be). At the time, it just seemed like another of those instances I’ve been having for years: I mean, I’m getting on for 67, and I’m seen thousands of people throughout my life that it’s a wonder more of them don’t resemble peoplei used to know.

Except for the final stretch of track from Harbour City to Media City, this is the secition of the Network that I’m most familiar with for all sorts of reasons: visits to the Lowry Centre to see people like Shawn Colvin, Warren Zevon and Rhod Gilbert, unsuccessful job interviews, my then wife’s Graduation from Salford University and one night when I arrived at midnight Friday and sat outside the Lowry till 3.00am, but that’s a secret. Salford Quays is still a very strange place, looking nothing like a part of Manchester, or even Salford, at all. Office blocks of glass and either yellow-beige or red brick, narrow canyons through which the tram weaves slowly, apartment blocks of advanced design, built for yuppies in the days before we knew what yuppies were, old dockbays filled with glittering water far cleaner than was imaginable when this was Salford Docks, the end of the Manchester Ship Canal. It may now be thirty years or more old but it still looks like something delivered on an interstellarcraft and dropped down here to test the intelligence of the natives. I think we’re losing.

Media City lies off to one side of the Lowry Centre. It’s cdominated by the BBC but ITV have premises here, as do Salford University. Under the sun and surrounded by sparkle it’s busy and post booths and stalls offer over-expensive varieties of food and drink. I wander about a bit, see a nice redhead in a short skirt sat in a deckchair who buoys my spirits. But the twin demands of my bladder and my belly restrict the amount of time I can spend here, so I drift off towards the Lowry, and opt for Pizza Express. Their menu is a bit pricey and they don’t even do Deep Pan but on the other hand I can have Diet Coke, not Diet Pepsi, so swings and roundabouts.

The Lowry Mall, as it originally was, has moved on et again, from Lowry Outlook to Quayside. It offers little of interest – the only shop I enters is The Works – so I walk very slowly across the first of two wide and modern suspension bridges to the Imperial War Museum North. I’ve been here only once before, in the mid-2000s, when my then elder-stepson had a project to do for MGS and we came down here on Sunday morning. It was an intense and moving experience, and it is again. This time, however, it’s exacerbated by my wearing a facemask for the first time in almost twelve months. It’s stifling, and my escaping breath steams my glasses, making it hard to read the labels.

In fact, on my own, it’s too much for me and I barely last fifteen minutes before I have to get out. We did this. We did all of this. All those people, killed, slaughtered. And we still haven’t started doing any better. It’s too much for me.

Outside, in the air, I start to feel better, though not to move any faster. I head back across another bridge that brings me out between the two main BBC buildings, Blue Peter mega-badges everywhere. Across the square I can see an Ashton-via-Piccadilly tram in the station. Despite my complete absence of alacrity, I catch it and get a forward-facing seat. And I get straight onto a 203 back at Piccadilly.

Neither journey, tram or bus, is much fun. It’s stuffy inside and everything that halts us rubs my nerves up the wrong way. But at last I’m home. This was the least enjoyable trip on the Network to date, and I know that one of those yet to come is going to be even worse, but I shalln’t be taking that route for a few weeks yet. Time to recover before then.

Boys from the Black Stuff: e05 – George’s Last Ride


Black

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 convince 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 in 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 he 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 he 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 those 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 everybody 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.

Boys from the Black Stuff: e04 – Yosser’s Story


Black

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.

A Xmas Day Treat


Despite not having had a television set for a dozen years now, I’ve just learned of a Xmas Day treat for those of you who have clear access to BBC1.

Gary Morecambe, son of the late and forever missed Eric Morecambe, was searching in the att ic for old scripts when he found seven cannisters of film. One was Morecambe and Wise’s first ever show for the BBC in 1970. The tape was long ago wiped for re-use. The film Gary found was salvageable. It has been cleaned, re-mastered and even colourised. It will be shown on Xmas Day. I strongly suggest that you do not miss this. Somehow or other I will have to get to warch it.

But that’s not all. The BBC will also be showing a Morecambe and Wise Xmas Show, from 1971. It’s guests include Andre Previn. A Morecambe and Wise show not seen for 51 years, and that sketch, all in the same day.

My word, it almost feels lilke Xmas!

Sunday Watch: The Thick of It -s02 e01-03


Thick

Considering how we are awash with cheerful optimism and a light-hearted appreciation of how it feels to live in the best and most open-hearted of countries, I felt the passing need for a counter-balancing dose of cynicism and fuck-’em-over fantasy, just to take the edge off things.

Well, no, not really. The Thick of It‘s second series, again of just three episodes, still starring Chris Langham as Hugh Abbott, Minister for Social Affairs, may still be the product of New Labour and Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, and the policies of the mid-Noughties, it may be a case of more-of-the-same-only-different, except that we clearly haven’t yet had enough of the same to grow in the least bit bored of it, but it is horrifically emblematic of things as they are now, except in one little factor: that despite the chaotic and ramshackle nature of Abbott and his little crew, they come over as far more efficient than their 2021 equivalents.

Chaotic is the best word for how each of these three episodes are planned. The wobbly hand-held camera, the rapid and overlapping dialogue, the confusing cuts to other scenes, the frenetic pace even in the quiet moments and the overwhelming amorality of practically everyone involved does not make for easy viewing, or easy comprehension. There are usually multiple mini-stories happening at every moment, not to mention the truly impressive levels of swearing throughout, that achieve the minor miracle of never becoming dull and tedious, and Armando Ianucci and his fellow-writers never wait for their viewers to catch-up, nor are knowingly under-vicious.

But what distinguishes The Thick of It from other shows and films intent on confusing the audience is the assuring air of coherence the show gives off in its every moment. Like David Lynch, we sense that there is a controlling mind that knows what it’s doing, and there’s an underlying structure beneath it all, like Chaos Theory. It means something, even if we can’t quite grasp it.

I’m trying to avoid comparisons to Yes Minister, inevitable though they are. All the two series really share is a focus on Politics and the process thereof, representing the different eras in which the shows were made. But Hugh Abbott, played to perfection by Chris Langham, comes from the same mould as Jim Hacker: a weathercock blowing whichever way the wind turns him, an empty man with no political ambitions except for ambition, though in Abbott’s case it’s to stay where he is rather than fail upwards. Both Ministers are overly dependent on those who, nominally, serve them.

Trying to summarise a single episode, let alone three, is a near impossible task. In the first, Abbott is ambushed, at an under-prepared Factory visit, by a woman with a wholly ‘irrelevant’ complaint about the NHS and one of those perfectly vulgar but impressive single lines, ‘Do you know what it’s like to have to clean up your own mother’s piss?’ It’s a natural for the TV news, even without Abbott’s instinctive non-responses and it escalates, even as, on the one hand, Ollie Reeder is seconded to Malcolm Tucker’s unit at Downing Street because he’s shagging someone in the opposite party and is thus a useful spy, whilst news is about to break as to Ministry of Defence overspend and nepotism in handing out contracts, leading Hugh’s piece to go up and down the news agenda like a rabbit on honeymoon.

The second centres upon outside Advisor Julius Nicholson, brought in by the PM (whose wife apparently doesn’t like Abbott), who’s out to transform Government and Whitehall. Not only is there a reshuffle looming, but Nicholson is advancing on Malcolm Tucker’s turf, which is not something you do unwisely. Nicholson is clever, conspicuously clever, and he knows he’s clever, meaning that he doesn’t understand the need to set up defences (rather reminiscent of Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United, except for the conspicuously clever bit). This episode ends with a stunningly brief and magnificently comprehensive takedown of Nicholson, orchestrated by Tucker, using Abbott, Ollie and Glenn Cullen, that you have to applaud even as you start to either despise or get very scared of the whole notion.

The final episode of the second series was Chris Langham’s last appearance. The Ministry has added Citizenship to its title, Citizenship here being a word that means any old shit every other ministry in town wanted to offload whilst Hugh Abbott was on holiday and unable to fend it off. Principal amongst these is a bill to close down Special Needs Schools and integrate their pupils into ordinary ‘super-schools’ with two specially-trained teachers. Despite the show’s general avoidance of actual policies, Abbott is genuinely involved with this, having trenchantly opposed the idea (his friend and Senior Advisor, Glenn Cullen, has a son who is in a Special Needs School and Abbott actually cares), until he has the bill dropped in his ministerial lap to push through.

This turns the episode into the most cynical of them all, with two issues arising out of this situation that very seriously test the ability of the viewer to continue to accept Abbott as even the broken reed he is and always has been. The first is Abbott being advised by the ‘expert’ tossed up by Tucker to back-up his volte-face. The man is clearly a c**t and at one point Hugh excuses himself to send an email to Glenn, from Press Secretary Terri Coverley’s computer, to say so. Unfortunately the email goes to a different Glenn Cullen, who’s an eight year old girl. Scandal ensues, and even though Terri cons Hugh into admitting his culpability, she is the one who hads to take responsibility, apologise and bear the brunt of all the opprobrium.

It’s nasty, but that’s as nothing to what follows. Throughout the episode, Abbot has made a genuine thing of his opposition to the bill, supported enthusiastically by Glenn. In front of a Select Committee, having already lied about the number of experts consulted, he is quizzed on just why he has changed his mind by 180 degrees, instantly on hearing the second one. And Abbott brings up Glenn, sat beside him in the chair and stiffening immediately, and sells him down the river, using his son as a talisman for thinking, and perverting Glenn’s views to serve Abbott’s need.

It’s shocking. It’s unforgivable. It strikes so far below the waterline of decency that it is beyond unforgivable. How Abbott’s relationship to Glenn would have been continued in the next outing is impossible to guess but the need never arose. In 2007, Chris Langham was tried and convicted of possessing child pornography, allegedly for research into a character for the second series of Help which, as a consequence, was killed off, never to return. When it came to The Thick of It, a new Minister would be required.

In a wierd way, the show foresaw this. In episode 1, Abbott objects to a particular publicity photo of him, from when he had a moustache, that made him look like ‘a disgraced geography teacher’. And the second episode was also eerily foresighted in that, when Abbott asked what he had to do to get invited on TV, was advised by Glenn to have sex with a pig. Ten years later, the very same allegation was levelled against David Cameron, though strongly denied and never proven.

Boys from the Blackstuff: e02 – Moonlighter


Black

And we haven’t got to the really hard ones yet.

‘Moonlighter’ is the odd one out in Boys from the Blackstuff. It’s Dixie’s story, ‘Dixie’ Dean (Tom Georgeson), the foreman of sorts in Middlesbrough, who got shafted by the con-game, who holds a griudgre sagainst Chrissy, Loggo and the rest what what they’ve done to him, a grudge he won’t release for the rest of his life. Of course his story stands alone: he’s no longer one of the boys. Less than five minutes, that’s all, walking up the street from the docks, passing Goerge Malone’s house, stopping to respect Snowy’s coffin being brought out. A passing but still distant word with two of the boys, grudgrs suspended in respect for the dead. But no more. Never no more.

Dixie’s got a job, a moonlighter, a security guard down the docks, working nights. Of course he’s still signing on. He’s a wife and four kids, all still at home, including Kevin (Gary Bleasedale), who lies in bed all day because there’s nothing else, literally nothing else to do. Dixie’s a working man. He’s an old-fashioned man. The man works to support his family. He’s head of the household. He isn’t violent to his slightly dumb and soft wife, Freda (Eileen O’Hara) but this isn’t what you would call a mutually supportive marriage. But it’s what both of them expect.

Whether it’s right or wrong, the whole thing is based on self-respect. It might be respect for things that deserved to disappear but it’s integral to Dixie. To all the Dixies, all the Chrissies, all the Yossers in that place and that time. It’s integral to all of us. And in that place and that tme, and in this place and this time it’s being treated by everyone as shite. Dixie’s story is that of the security guard who’s expected to sit back whilst five dockers, making it plain that he doesn’t have any say in the matter, rob the ship he’s watching of boots, good, strong working boots, including a pair for Dixie to replace the trainers he’s wearing.

Dixie’s no thief. But he’s no fool, either. He takes the boots. And he turns up the next night, when the big robbery’s taking place, because he’s been made aware of things that will happen if he doesn’t, and not just the loss of his bonus. Calls to his home. Calls to Freda.

It’s all boiling up inside. Dixie can’t help it, can’t help any of it. There’s the contempt for him down the Dole. Freda’s being investigated, for the heinous crime of shoving leaflets for 3p off Corn Flakes through people’s letter boxes for a pound an hour, three afternoons a week. Just to live on. Worst of all is the contempt, the utter contempt he gets from Aitch (Tony Heygarth), to whom he is the dregs, a nothing, a shite, dragged in off the dole.

You may say how is it possible for such a man, a back street Liverpool hard-living man, a genuine nobody, to be degraded, but Dixie is degraded. He has to watch the robbery. He gets a share of the profits. He comes home early, packs a hold-all. Are you going somewhere, asks the fearful Freda. Out of my mind, Dixie says. But the hold-all is for Kevin, as is all the money from the robbery. To get him out of Liverpool, out of this living death, to somewhere else, anywhere else, where jobs can be had, where lives can be led and not just existed.

Like I say, this isn’t one of the hard ones.

I watch this, forty years on, and it hurts as much as it did then, to see people being treated like this. Why do we sallow this? Why do we do this? What right has anyone, least of all in Government, of which we have a shallow, pretentious joke, to decide that people, our people, are scum and that not only can we treat them like this, but laugh about it too? One day, maybe, but I doubt it, people of an unimaginable future will look back at this and regard it as unthinkable: no-one could have done that. Yeah, right.

Boys from the Blackstuff: e01 – Jobs for the Boys


Black

This is not going to be an easy ride. Already, just one episode has shook me up, leaving me wanting the scream with rage and frustration and cry at the way this country treats those people who they don’t think are important. This legendary series is all but forty years old, but the real disgrace is to look at it and to understand that nothing has changed. It’s still like this. Why do we allow this to happen?

Boys from the Blackstuff was commissioned in the wake of Alan Bleasedale’s highly-regarded one-off play about a group of Liverpool working men who come a cropper, losing jobs and life-savings trying to pull a fast one, doing a ‘foreigner’ whilst on a road-laying job in Middlesbrough. It was to be a five-part fifty minute series, each episode focussing upon a different member of the original crew, and what their life wasa, in Thatcher’s Recession, in Liverpool, a city discarded, without a job. It was a social record as much as a TV series, and for once in my life, in 1982, I sensed it in advance and I videoed it, to keep, unseen. Never was I so right. I can remember sitting there, watching it, just remember watching it, waves of pain emanating from every moment of screen-time.

The oddity is that four of the series’ five episodes were written by Bleasedale before Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in 1979, but the series has been acclaimed – and justly so – as an indictment of her Britain.

Watching episode 1 again, I was struck by how polarising it could have been seen to be. The episode reunites the whole Blackstuff cast, though Dixie (Tom Georgeson), Kevin (Gary Bleasedale) and George (Peter Kerrigan) only appear in minor roles. Chrissie (Michael Angelis), Loggo (Alan Igbon) and Yosser Hughes (Bernard Hill) have full roles and are joined by Jimmy (Vince Earl) and Snowy Malone, George’s son (Chris Darwin), who were not in the original play.

All five are signing on, unemployed. They haven’t worked since being sacked at the end of the one-off play. But they’re under observation by the ‘sniffers’, the Department of Employment inspectors, who believe, correctly, that they are working for cash-in-hand and claiming full unemployment benefit.

The episode follows them to the site that’s being renovated which, with true Bleasedalian/Scousze irony, is to become a Department of Employment office. Chrissie is driving, picking up Jimmy, Loggo and Snowy, the later a fervent Marxist, Workers’ Revolutionary Party member, who bores everybody’s ears off with his beliefs, about which they all take the piss, though Bleasedale turns this ranting on its head when Snowy, somewhat desperately, compares things today, the every-man-for-himself culture, forcing his three listeners to recognise that he is correct, and in turn forcing Chrissie to articulate the fear, of being married, of having kids, of needing to put food in their mouths.

Chrissie is the central figure, an ordinary, decent, basically honest working man who doesn’t want to be doing this illegally. He puts up with Snowy, a plasterer with his own honest ideal of craft, of doing his work properly, whose ideal is workers doing their best and making things to last, like the hundred year old tiles on the stairs, immaculate and beautiful, built to last, not like the crappy bannister rail screwed into them.

No, Chrissie still wants respect, and he wants his own respect for himself. That’s why he walks off the job when the contractor, Malloy, won’t take him on legal, even for less money. Then Loggo and Jimmy keep him waiting essential moments too long…

But, before I get to the finale, there is Yosser. Yosser the hardcase, Yosser the nutcase, Yosser the fatal combination of arrogance and insecurity. He marches up to the site, his three kids trailing behind (played by Bleasedale’s three children), claims to be a brickie and starts constructing a wall. He’s not a brickie. He’s crap at it. Everyone can see that but Yosser won’t listen. His actions, his part, is comical. Except it’s not. There’s no part of Yosser’s story that is in the least bit comical. You look at Bernard Hill, his scouser moustache, his tight, pale face, his unblinking eyes. Yes, he’s a nobody, a yobbo, a nothing, but he’s a human being careering down a long, dark tunnel whose end is agony.

Yosser’s sacked, even though he’s unemployed. He’s gone. Chrissie would have done but for having been kept behind. All day the sniffers have been shadowing the gang and now they raid the site, like Army Marines raiding a terrorist compound, except for the guns (this is apparently unexaggerated, actual DoE tactics). Chrissie, Loggo, Jimmy and Malloy try to run but are all captured. Snowy’s on the top floor. He tries to run but every avenue is blocked. He goes to abseil out of a window, but he’s tied his rope to that crappy, unworkmanlike bannister and it breaks, and he falls and he’s killed. Dead, his head hit on the pavement below, the blood pouring from it like an oil spill. Chrissie’s fight has ended. He knows Snowy. He knows George. He tells Jimmy to run, he didn’t know Snowy and anyway he’s dead. Jimmy gets away, slowing to a walk, hidng his face behind a pot plant, freeze frame on the fear in his eyes.

Everything I am and always have been which, despite thirty years as a Solicitor and a member of the middle-class, comes from growing up in a two-up-two-down East Manchester terraced house, puts me on the side of these people. Others will look at it and, with the callousness inherent to the right who believe that there are pre-ordained levels of society and this is right and good because they have to have people to look down on, will see it differently. They were liars, they were cheats, they were trying to get something they weren’t entitled to, they got what they deserved, especially the lefty one, no loss, and at the end of the day who gives a shit about scousers?

It was like that in 1982, it’s still like that in 2021 and we actually had a Labour Government for thirteen years in betwen and it none of it changed. Which is why today and the next four weeks will not be an easy ride. Oh, no.

Preston Front: s03 e07 – Jeanetta’s Mariujana


Preston

Hardly had the closing theme music, the vocal version of The Milltown Brothers’ ‘Here I Stand’ died down on the last episode than I was at my little home computer, an Apple Mac Classic II-40, typing out a letter to Tim Firth, care of the BBC, pleading with him not to let Preston Front end, keep it going somehow, if the BBC won’t renew it then write books. I was so sorry to see it go. And he was kind enough to write back, telling me it was his decision to end it where it did. It was the same old argument that’s nearly always right: it’s better to end when people still want more than to drag on until they’re telling you to go.

Re-watching the last episode, I know he was right. Stories like this never end, the people carry on, you just drift away from them. This episode constructed a natural end for the phase of life amongst the men and women of the Roker Bridge TA, removing some of them from Central Lancashire for good. Without them, it just wouldn’t be the same.

Firth chose to build the last episode around two primary matters that produced an unfortunate clash: Dawn and Eric’s wedding and Kirsty and Jeanetta’s departure for California. The one was an utter nightmare – well, both were, in their separate ways – as Dawn’s disapproving, social climbing, twats of parents took over the wedding, making a very poor best of Eric (and his mates) having to be part of it for the chance to have it covered by Lancashire Living. Oh dear God, but for anyone ordinary, and normal, it was a nightmare. All the gang in morning suits, wing-collars, striped trousers and mauve-grey cravats (Ally in a quite abbreviated skirt made up for a lot of that). Any last atom or two of sympathy we might reluctantly have retained for the Lomax parents was shredded when it came to their attitude to Eric’s Dad, the silent, shell-shocked ex-soldier: at that point you’d have held them upside down in the River Ribble at Preston for a month.

The wedding clashed with Kirsty’s departure. Hodge couldn’t be in two places at once so the farewell had to take place at Roker Bridge Garden Centre, with Hodge trying to say goodbye to the little girl that likes him almost as much as My Little Pony, who doesn’t know he’s her Dad, and to whom he’s giving a big bag of seeds, to scatter in the garden of her new home so that even in California she will have Lancashire to remember.

Except that up pops Heron Man from episode 1 of series 1, as stupid, rude and selfish as anyone possibly could be, to destroy that goodbye, forever.

Throw in such things as Spock trying to shed his reputation as Paint Drying Teacher and Ally the new mechanic at Diesel’s garage and Eric, in a bout of unwise sympathy, inviting Polson to the wedding, Polson who’s going back to Durham, re-joining the regulars but losing his stripe because they’ve only got slots for Corporals, not Sergeants, and it’s building up. To where, after the ceremony and the Lomax parents’ overbearing offensiveness getting too much, Eric directs the white Rolls’ carrying the happy couple and their mates to the airport. It’s his day and he’s going to see that his best mate gets to say goodbye to that little girl after all.

It’s a perfect, if non-combative illustration, of Eric Disley, the soldier. Because the snotty, sneery posh guests at the Reception are tittering at ‘pond-life’, at which point Polson, who’s been drinking wine in pint-glasses, gets up on the table, agrees with all and sundry that Eric is, indeed, a twat, a loser and an idiot. But he’s the son of a soldier and he is a soldier which means that no matter what shit is going on, he will without thinking see to those around him, and that makes him sio far above everybody else here that they literally cannot see him.

And Pete Polson, poison goblin of the first water, having redeemed himself in our eyes in one glorious moment, steps down from the table and marches off, singing, as Colin Disley, ex-Sergeant, rises to his feet toi follow him and, speaking for the first time in our years, shouts in disused tones, “Buy that bugger a drink!”

Meanwhile, back at the airport, Hodge does catch up with Kirsty. She, her Mum and Declan are just being arrested. Have you any hand luggage to declare? they asked. Yes, pipes up little madam, a big bag of grass… Hodge manages to convince the Police that it is, literally and no more than grass, but it still has to stay behind: America is paranoid about introducing crop diseases and they won’t let it in. At least Hodge gets his goodbye, painful as it is. Jeanetta sympathises. Once upon a time she told him that just because he has a daughter, it doesn’t make him a father. But Hodge has made himself a father, and the next time he wears posh clobber like the stuff he has on, it may very well be to give someoine away on her wedding day.

Rundle’s gone. Kirsty and Jeanetta are gone. Polson’s gone. The mix is changed and can’t be restored. The bridal party can’t be arsed facing the music today so they hold their reception at Wang’s, Wang who sings soul at the tables, who is a cult hero among the students for insulting them. And a fight starts in the street, eagerly seized on by a passing photographer, eager for something real: he’s from Lancashire Living

So it goes and so it went, with poignancy being brandished like a bayonet fixed on the end of a soldier’s rifle. And I’d still have killed for a fourth series.

Sunday Watch: Open All Hours s01 e02-03 – A Mattress on Wheels/A Nice Cosy Little Disease


Open All Hours

And I used to love Open All Hours.

Of course tastes change. I used to love Last of the Summer Wine until, one day, it passed that invisible line between gentle exaggeration and surreality. Roy Clarke was a very skilful writer of half hour sitcoms, with a Northern sensibility to his sense of humour that fitted in perfectly with mine, but I suppose it’s yet one more example of the Law of Diminishing Returns: exaggeration must always outdo itself next time, until suddenly you realise you’ve travelled the equivalent of Land’s End to John O’Groats and you’ve nowhere left to go without walking on water.

And then there’s the Reginald Perrin effect. I wrote about this at some length here, but to summarise, watching the third series exposed the structure of the comedy, that it was a thing of catchphrases, and the moment I realised that, the insight travelled backwards to undermine my enjoyment of the good, and very good stuff before it. And since the last time I watched Open All Hours, we have had the miserable, witless, necrophiliac Still Open All Hours, my opinion of which I made plain here. Still Open soured me, by its blatant attempt to recreate the original, whilst ignoring the thirty year lapse in time and any changes between, and like Reggie Perrin, it exposed the bones of theworkings too clearly, and I think that’s gone backwards too.

I’ve only watched two episodes, instead of the traditional three, because that’s all I could stand in a single sitting. And what I’ve watched has been less a sitcom than a structure that repeats each week. Let me take you through that formula.

We open in daylight, outside the shop. Arkwright is stood outside in the sunshine, taking in the day and musing about selling things. Ronnie Barker’s name comes up. Then he calls for Granville. David Jason appears in the shop doorway, mugging and grinning, before going back inside. He’s only there to show his face, in isolation, and get his screen credit, and it’s the same sequence in both episodes.

Then we cut inside and it’s dark. Most of the episode is two-handed dialogue between Barker and Jason, mainly focussing on Arkwright’s money-grasping obsessions or Granville’s naive, romantic fascination with a life with women in it, or actually just a life at all. Granville wants a woman, even though she’d have to show him everything about what to do with her. Arkwright also wants a woman, in his case Nurse Gladys Emmanuel who lives opposite (Lynda Baron). Now, Arkwright knows what to do with a woman and he’s ready, willing and able to do all of it, except spend money on her. She treats him with amusement, as the picture postcard luster and buffoon he is, though she will give him some time, every now and then, which indicates two things to me. One is that she can’t be arsed about sex, kissing and cuddling, and the other is that if she’s prepared to allow Arkwright a little licence every now and then, the rest of the other unattached males in Doncaster must be pretty poor stuff.

That’s the basic, overall theme. An episode then consists of one basic idea , pursued at irregular intervals and interspersed with as many sketches involving different customers, walk-on-and-offs, as Clarke needs to spin out the episode to thirty minutes transmission. In ‘A Mattress on Wheels’, the central notion is that Granville, fed up of doing deliveries and trying to court passing ladies on an old-fashioned shop bicycle, tries to tempt Arkwright into buying a shop van, in which a mattress can be spread on the floor, and which will get Gladys Emmanuel to go out with him. The jokes then are all about Arkwright trying to do it on the extremely cheap. ‘A Nice Cosy Little Disease’ is essentially the same story, except that this time, seeing how solicitous the Nurse is of Granville falling and hurting his leg, he tries to come up with some plausible disease that will have her being equally solicitous of him, in his bedroom.

The only thing I can say about this latter episode is to complement Clarke on his professional skill at binding an episode together. Two minor running gags in the episode are about Granville’s frustration at his black, heavy, lace-up shop boots and what they do to his i,mage, leading him to decide to buy a pair of suede shoes, and how Arkwright can sell a box of biscuits he’s inadvertently crushed. And the finale is that, when leading Nurse Gladys upstairs to Arkwright’s bedroom, Granville slips and falls down them, leading her to run him to Outpatients. Granville’s fallen because he slipped in his new suede shoes, and Arkwright passes the crushed biscuits off to him to eat whilst waiting.

Episodes then end at night, with Arkwright, after dark, bringing the pavement display in and muses in a monologue about the events of the day.

Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a formula or a structure. If it’s strong enough, and interesting enough, it can serve as the basis for good, funny writings in between its fixed points. And British Seventies sitcoms were very often the home to very good writing which, in its time, I’d have classed Open All Hours. But the writing has to be very good when it comes to doing the same thing every week. There has to be enough flexibility to hang different things on the scaffolding. Last of the Summer Wine was essentislly the same episode every week: three middle-aged unemployed men representing different social classes have to find ways to occupy themselves, but that allowed for the possibility of tremendous variation. I’m now looking at Open All Hours and finding that that doesn’t.

It’s saddening.

Preston Front: s03 e06 – Diesel’s Ostrich


Preston

Of course there was comedy. Throw a live and pretty aggressive ostrich into a country home full of antiques, stomping down pretty corridors and imprisoning two consenting pairs of adults – even if one of them is encumbered by an eight year old girl – and you’ve got comedy. Chuck in Lloydy at his most Lloydy-esque, alternating between pure Lloydy dumbness and an amazingly astute naive perception and all the ingredients were there, and I laughed as I always do.

But this week, with the end of the series peeking round the corner there was yet more of the pain of human existence, of things working themselves through for good or ill with the inevitability of, well, life, and its amazing ability to fuck with us.

Threre was no place this week for soon-to-be-ex-Sergeant Polson or the commission-resigned former-Lieutenant Rundle, but there was a space for the internally collapsed Mr Wang, who never wanted to run a restaurant and who is now wandering the Roman Holiday, almost permanently drunk and insulting his customers, leaving Eric as his pillar of stability. Until, that is, he overhears Ally mentioning to Spock that Dawn has gone off for the weekend with his ex-mate Hodge. It’s the old, old story and Eric explodes and races off in the Noodle Van.

And indeed it’s true. Except it’s not true that way. Jeanetta and Declan are married, and are moving to accomodate his new job. Firth hides where that’s to be until the back half of the episode, when Hodge is admitting to Mel his feelings about his ‘god-daughter’, who’s going to Manchester. Aw-hey, marra, it’s not like you’ll never see her again. No, this is the Manchester that’s ninety miles up the Pacific coast of America from San Francisco, and yes, he probably won’t see her again.

It’s a last weekend, Hodge and Kirsty, with Dawn to look after any ‘female’ issues. Two friends, both at odds with the same mate. Hodge can make it up with Eric but won’t, Dawn wants nothing more out of the whole of her life and can’t.

Where does the ostrich – whose name is Sandra, incidentally – come in? Well, as the tirtle suggests, she’s Diesy’s. An investment opportunity, the profit on the eggs. Except that Diesy’s been visiting Sandra, feeding her grain by hand, and when the company falls out with the farmer and proposes to move her to Belgium, Diesy steals her, with the aid and collusion of Lloydy (who else?) and that walking disaster, Mel. They stick her in the shed at Jeanetta’s place.

It gets complicated here, but Hodge has planned the perfect last weekend for himself and his daughter and instead of Dawn he ends up with Mel, iconoclastic, uncaring, unthinking Mel, fucking the whole thing up. Until it twigs in her head that she is messing things up by encouraging Kirsty to ignore Hodge and not do what he says.

Caroline Catz has already turned up to breakfast in a shortie dressing gown and now, just when Eric arrives, spoiling for a fight, she’s wandering around in one of Hodge’s t-shirts and nowt else (nice legs). It’s all to do with painting Lloydy’s van, you see. This is where Sandra breaks loose. Hodge, who is bare-chested because he hasn’t brought more than the one t-shirt scrambles intohis bedroom with Kirsty and Mel, whilst Dawn drags Eric into her bedroom. They’re all trapped until Lloydy saves the day with the most unlikely fake ostrich you could ever mention.

Hodge is hurting, badly. It’s all going wrong. But Mel, finally demonstrating an understanding of something more than booze and fags, sets out to smooth the turbulent waters she’s created, and begins an easing process that draws her and him together as two scruffy, damaged adults who are starting to see something more than bodies in each other.

Meanwhile, in bedroom number 2, Dawn is facing Eric’s jealousy with her own agonies. He thinks she’s there to shag Hodge. She’s demanding he show the evidence that Hodge’s things are in this room, pulling out empty drawers, throwing them on the floor, her voice cracking, preferring to face the ostrich than his suspicion. It ends where it has to end, in bed, slaking passion and relief, and with Dawn pointing out that Eric’s inability to wire plugs is no barrier to their marrying.

We’re nearly there. Things are binding up. Issues are resolving. Eric asks Hodge to be his best man. Lloydy philosophises that Sandra is Diesy’s substitute for his loopy little brother Lennie, who’s converted to Islam and is now working on a kibbutz (don’t think about that one too closely). Hodge’s trying to get Kirsty to keep the ostrich a secret from her mother. To do so, he has to swear something with her, as Kirsty has done with her best friend Rebecca. It involves a secret hand gesture and the words ‘You and me. Forever’. Hodge stumbles over these but braves up and says them. From outside, Jeanetta sees her daughter and the man who is the little girl’s unlikely but utterly devoted father together. She’s already having qualms about separating them. She turns to the Estate Agent and takes the house off the market. They’re not moving.

And that leaves one.