Hope amidst decline: Blackstuff boys then and now

Forty years later, the historic Liverpool drama is still as relevant as ever, argues Sean Coote.

October 1982 saw the screening of ‘George’s Last Ride’, the final episode of Alan Bleasdale’s seminal drama Boys from the Blackstuff. For the first time in several years, I rewatched all five of its episodes recently. Time has not diminished it. Quite the contrary: it is as relevant now as it was then. Maybe even more.

“When you’re driving through the counties, and the only sound you hear is the whirring of your tires, you’ll be driving nice and easy, then a smile will do, but don’t forget the boys who put the old black things on…”

That suggests the much-reimagined Irish folk anthem that kicks off Bleasdale’s 1980 Play for Today The Black Stuff, effectively the pilot for the series that would appear two years later. The clarity of the song and the simplicity of the message endure: pay due attention to those who build and to those who produce.

taking sides

Boys from the Blackstuff is a drama with the clearest of social contexts. In the 10 years since 1972, Liverpool, the great port of the British Empire, had lost 80,000 jobs and its manufacturing sector had shrunk by 50%. By March 1982, unemployment among the city’s economically active residents had reached more than 25%. As a drama depicting the human costs of what then-Chancellor Geoffrey Howe called controlled decline (or a program of economic and social vandalism), it has no serious equal.

When BBC2 screened the show in the autumn of 1982, I was 17 years old and living in a Sussex village. Horsham was a constituency that, 7 months later, would return Tory Sir Peter Hordern to Westminster with a large majority. I had a materially middle-class upbringing, but worked as a platemaker at the local broadsheet weekly. I was a member of the NGA and paid my political subscriptions to Foot’s Labor. The union was the first institution that really took care of me, even when I was at fault. It’s not something I’ve forgotten.

Dennis Potter once described television as a place where the nation talks to itself. It should not be a passive presence, but one to encourage engagement, question, and express concerns that might not otherwise be expressed. This was something that Alan Bleasdale understood clearly. Dramas like Boys from the Blackstuff don’t come around as often as they should, certainly not without a subscription. When they do, the effect is life-affirming.

Without social media, it began as a word-of-mouth spectacle, an episodic window into a Britain my colleagues and I knew existed, but from which geography and circumstance had distanced us. We were encouraged to live in a ‘bubble south’, in which the media narrative portrayed scousers at best as thieves and scroungers, at worst as communist agitators. ‘Reds under the bed’, instead of a proud industrial working class whose culture was being deliberately destroyed. Yet despite the socioeconomic gulf that existed, class consciousness ensured that Boys from the Blackstuff fostered recognition and empathy in those in the South who worked trades, or lived on benefits. Crucially, it was the rarest of things: a TV show with real people on it.

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The illusion of choice

Its tragedies and climactic moments are relentless. In ‘Jobs for the Boys,’ Snowy Malone (Chris Darwin), a man with enough pride in his work to leave a small signature on the walls he has plastered, is killed while trying to escape a raid by snoopers. The tone is set. In ‘Moonlighter,’ ‘Dixie’ Dean (Tom Georgeson) gets a job security at the docks, but is forced to allow a robbery on his watch. He has to balance the possibility of prison and ruin with the threats to himself and his family and the cold economic reality. ‘Freedom of choice’ was a Thatcherian mantra, as if choice were an end in itself. What would you do, he asks the audience. And we’re grateful to be able to defer the answer or just change the channel. That we don’t, he says a lot.

‘Shop Thy Neighbor’ dissects a marriage destroyed by unemployment. Chrissy Todd (Michael Angelis), a former altar boy and propagator of black matter, has lost faith in God as surely as his wife has lost faith in him. “For once in your life, defend yourself…” The jobless snoopers who pursue him are victims of the piece, rats in a cage, consumed by self-hatred for the nature of their actions. We cheer for Chrissy when she finds a five dollar bill on the couch. We implore you to replace the bread she ate with the one intended for her children. We cringe, but understand when she spends it all on scotch and chips.

gis a job…i can do that

All serious artists, regardless of the fields in which they operate, want to be remembered for their indisputable masterpieces. With ‘Yosser’s Story’, Bleasdale surely succeeded. The seeds of the relegation of Yosser Hughes (Bernard Hill) were sown from the pilot, when he was cheated out of his last savings. Here, the state completes the job.

A few hours of drama can claim so many lines that even, forty years later, they remain etched in popular memory. It’s a job. I can do that. I can paint lines..’. That it manages, between horror and misery, to also be deadly funny, is an achievement. To Graham Souness, with a touch of comic madness, Yosser says: You look like me. And Magnum… And in confession: I’m desperate… Call me Dan, implores the priest… I’m desperate, Dan…

Yosser Hughes, in the end, loses everything. His work, his family and his home. But unlike Chrissy, who quietly calms down, Yosser sways, as do his children. It may be the police who deserve the kick here, but when her daughter head-butts the social worker watching her eviction, she does so on behalf of all those who failed (and condescended) for a state who looked away. And this was what most related to the people he knew: Yosser was a man with the will to fight to the end, regardless of the odds and the hopelessness of his position. For such a character to achieve folk hero status in an English town in the heart of the Torys was, looking back, quite a bit.

rooted in class

In ‘George’s Last Ride’, the priest who presides over George Malone’s funeral (Peter Kerrigan) tries to insist on his first name being Patrick, but Chrissy tells him it’s not there. Bleasdale is pointing out that George spent his time on the streets, on picket lines, and in the labor movement. The priest then gets drunk, talks to George even though he now knows him well, and vomits in the backyard. Being unleashed from his class was anathema to the old class fighter, until his last days. Such separation is a luxury that the left cannot afford.

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Looking back at it, four decades later, one thing is clear: its portrayals of class, race, and gender seem less designed, less formally organized as object lessons than much of the recent drama. No one in Boys from the Blackstuff needs to be advertised as working class. They just are, brought to life by a man who was one of them. Chrissy’s wife, Angie (Julie Walters), is a strong woman, raging against a system that destroyed her husband’s masculinity. She is not a simple code, she is not a box to check. Throughout the execution of it, attention is never drawn to the processes of its production. We, the viewers, are never lectured. Cultural engineers do not condescend to us, but invite us to observe.

Then and now

The current political parallels with the landscape of the series are obvious. Conspicuous inequality, an economic elite willing to impoverish millions rather than see its privileges reduced even modestly, power disconnections, a working class monitored, lip-read and demonized when it stands up and dares to organize. And the perennial classic: scapegoating profit recipients in a nation where corporate tax evasion is an art form. And all reported by a docile and complacent media.

We’ve been left with a culture where human value is tied to the brand, policed ​​by social media that relentlessly harass non-conformists, where disagreeing is increasingly out of the question. TV drama, at its best, puts all this nonsense on pause. It gives us time to reflect on something akin to the real world, a world where meaningful choice is increasingly restricted or, worse yet, an unaffordable luxury.

Norman Tebbit described the show as defeatist. Ironically, since it was the defeat of organized labor, he went to such lengths to design. In the end, ‘Tebbit’s Law’ cost me and my fellow NGA members our jobs at the newspaper. arrive on time. But the point is this: at least he felt the need to watch it, as did enough people to get a repeat on BBC1.

As Tony Benn reminded us, there is no such thing as final victory or final defeat, but rather the same battles fought over and over again. Boys From the Blackstuff tells the story of lost battles, but it remains an example of the power of drama, and television specifically, to move and transform, and to present viewers with versions of the world they may not wish to acknowledge, or perhaps do not have. known existed at all.

And that, in the end, has to be a battle won.

Before you leave…

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