Our friends in the north

Newcastle Quayside (Tyne & Wear Museum Archives)
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If you enjoy The Crown, a show with an impressive scope, spanning decades and revealing insights to recent British history, then this is an alternative for you during lockdown. Our Friends in the North may not have had the same budget and gloss, but it is a powerful creation that focuses on ordinary people. A 1996 miniseries, covering the mid-60s to the mid-90s, it masterfully depicts the decay of one community as the North declines and Thatcherism painfully unfolds; a regional epic following four northern friends as they adapt to the shifting times and carve their own different paths. With nine episodes at 70 minutes each, the series explores the social transformation of Britain and how history can hinge on the choices made by ordinary people. Northern people.

The viewer follows four evolving lead actors at the start of four notable careers: Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Daniel Craig and Mark Strong. They impress with their emotional range as they grow from teenagers through middle age. They are supported by a long cast of British and Northern character actors and you will recognise many a face.

Now on Britbox, this programme has rarely been rebroadcast despite its acclaim. It has a strong left-wing streak but depicts both the failings of the intellectual left and materialistic right. It accurately portrays the militancy, division and sleaze that seeped into politics as the post-war consensus broke down. The programme is damning of the whole political system, taking a scalpel into the country’s political organs that offers lessons for today.

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The (primarily) female nudity seems somewhat gratuitous and sexist for modern times, but can be skipped if necessary and doesn’t detract from the series’ underlying theme of female empowerment. Gina McGee’s Bafta-winning, portrayal of Mary elevates the series from an accomplished period piece to a classic. Mary is the ‘gem’ in this dark world, growing and adapting to the times but at a great personal cost. There are some distressing scenes, but you will be glad to keep watching as you experience Mary’s compelling journey. Her strength of character is forged by her compassion, and her hardship is the glue of the show.

Over the length of the series, you will be thrilled with the unanticipated directions it takes, and moved by its sad, historical truths. There is an energy and tension throughout. This nineties gem is worth your time – and is something that my dad, and many others who watched it originally, will be eager to revisit. The perfect programme to spread out and savour when you have a few weeks spare…

This article was first published in Yorkshire Bylines on 12th May 2020

Other articles by Séamus O’Hanlon

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