Shiny Shelf

Our Friends In The North DVD

By Matthew Badham on 11 October 2010

Doctor Who and James Bond: Year OneWhat’s the point of television? Well, the idiot box (as my late pa often used to refer to it) is obviously there to entertain us. Of course, it’s also been used for educative purposes and for propaganda at times, with the line sometimes blurring between the two.

‘Our Friends in the North’ (OFITN) is certainly entertaining and, to me, its educative value is clear. As well as being first-class drama, it’s a stunning piece of fictive social history that charts the lives of four friends and their extended networks from 1964 until 1995 (taking in such events as the birth of Thatcherism, the Miners’ Strike and police corruption in the Met along the way).  Whether it’s also slightly propagandist is harder for me to say objectively, as I suspect that the writer, Peter Flannery, shares my broadly left-of-centre political instincts (although I’m not certain of this).

‘OFITN’ is notable for various reasons. For a start, it showcases four actors (Daniel Craig, Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Christopher Eccleston) that have since become recognised as some of the best and brightest talents in this country’s acting firmament. Each gives a mesmerising performance, devoid of ego (this is a true ensemble piece).

It’s Daniel Craig for me, however, that steals the show as Geordie, a hapless innocent who try as he might just can’t seem to crack this life business. His story is heartbreaking; everyone has known a Geordie, a poor unfortunate who always seems to be in just the wrong place at the wrong time…

The four leads are complemented by sublime acting from the rest of the cast, with the only slightly dud note coming from Malcolm McDowell (it’s not a bad effort by any means, just not up there with the rest of the acting and it feels a little like stunt casting). Freda Dowie and Peter Vaughan are especially good value for money and their portrayal of Nicky’s (Eccleston’s) slightly repressed, hard-working parents is pitch perfect. Still, it feels slightly mean-spirited to pick them out of a programme packed with actors who, no matter how small their roles, give their all.

But the acting is not the only notable aspect of ‘OFITN’. The serial’s ambition and scope is also highly laudable, both in terms of its length, nine episodes of just over an hour each, and its content; there are no easy answers to the various political and personal dilemmas that the characters face and not everyone gets a happy ending, by any means.

However, it is this scope, in chronological terms, that results in the only real weakness of ‘OFITN’. It’s a weakness that becomes apparent in the later episodes as Strong, McKee, Eccleston and Craig are asked to portray versions of their characters that are now in their fifties.

The audience’s ability to suspend disbelief is stretched slightly at this point, as there is only so much that a few grey hairs and a fake potbelly can do to successfully age someone. This is only a slight niggle though and it’s to the actors’ collective credit that the power of their performances transcends this minor credibility gap…

‘OFITN’ is passionate, powerful stuff and comes with a fascinating booklet written by Marcus Hearn that delves into the troubled history of the production (it was originally a stage play mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980 and spent over a decade in development hell).

To my mind, every house should have a copy of this DVD (and every library and, indeed, every school).

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By Matthew Badham

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