FILM / From out of the cold: Blackpool: gale-force winds, no lights, and the man himself is ill. But, reports Martin Kelner, Alan Bleasdale Presents might just work

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The Independent Culture
The coldest place on earth is outside the Slots-O-Fun amusement arcade on Blackpool seafront on a February afternoon. That is how it feels, at least, to the film crew huddled around the catering caravan warming themselves over polystyrene cups of coffee, while the sky turns more thunderous by the minute, and a lone sodden Kentucky Fried Chicken carton dances crazily past in the gale-force winds.

The scene to be shot, God help us, is of a young couple in an open- topped sports car driving along the front, caught up in the romance of the twinkling lights of Blackpool. But nothing is twinkling in Blackpool. The storm shows no sign of ending, the tide is at its highest for six years, shops are tightly shuttered. On an afternoon for which the phrase 'wind chill factor' might have been invented, the mere idea of the shot is, of course, madness. But then there would seem to be an element of folly about this whole project.

The film is Blood on the Dole, one of four 90-minute dramas which will form the centrepiece of Channel 4's autumn schedule. All four films, which cost around pounds 1m each, are by writers who have never written for TV before. In the case of Blood on the Dole, the final one to be shot, the director, Pip Broughton, is also new to TV and the four young leads have little more than an episode or two of Brookside and half a dozen school plays between them. Since risk and prime-time TV tend to be mutually exclusive these days, the first question that leaps to mind is, how come we are here at all, giving Michael Grade's money to shopkeepers to open shops, and to the boss of Blackpool Tower to switch on his lights?

The answer lies in the name of the producer, Alan Bleasdale. After Boys From the Blackstuff and GBH, if anyone in TV could be described as bankable it is Bleasdale. So when Grade asked the writer what he wanted to do next and received the surprising answer that he wanted to discover new voices and produce them for TV, Alan Bleasdale Presents was written into the schedules with barely a second thought.

'He has been extraordinarily generous with his time and talents,' says Peter Ansorge, Channel 4's head of series and serials. 'This is not a series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents to which he just lends his name. Alan has given up his own work for nearly two years to bring this project to fruition, and has been intimately involved every step of the way. His involvement is very important because he didn't just want to give new writers a chance, he wanted to give them a bit of a profile as well.

'In the days when there was just the BBC and ITV, a new writer doing a Play For Today or Armchair Theatre would be given some sort of build-up, and be scheduled where he might attract a huge audience. Now, where there is new writing on TV it tends to be unevenly scheduled, and there is an air of worthiness about it. Alan's name will ensure these writers get the kind of attention something like GBH got. These are original voices which I don't think we would have discovered in any other way.'

Bleasdale read around 2,000 scripts before deciding on the four we will see in the autumn: Requiem Apache, about a getaway driver who retires to Suffolk to look after his baby; Self Catering, in which five air-crash survivors assume the identity of film stars; Pleasure, a black comedy set in France; and the one being shot in Blackpool, Jim Morris's Blood on the Dole, a poetic play about the hopes and disappointments of four Merseyside school- leavers.

He has hardly missed a day of the four months filming, even making it to the British Virgin Islands for Self Catering despite his cheerfully confessed fear of transport of any kind. 'I went to the Caribbean by liner, track, and loveboat,' says Bleasdale, 'a 26-day round trip for a shoot that lasted 22 days.' But a bout of flu keeps him from Blackpool. Nothing, he says, to do with the 'legendary hypochondria' mentioned in one newspaper profile. 'Even hypochondriacs vomit sometimes,' is his Yosser-like response to that suggestion.

Despite his non-appearance, though, he still contributes. The sports car scene is replaced by a walk along the pier which will make a virtue of the savage weather. 'Ryan's Daughter all over again,' says assistant director Trevor Gittings. 'David Lean waited three months for this weather. We've got it, so let's make the most of it.' Because twinkly light dialogue must now become crashing wave dialogue, Bleasdale is dragged from his sick-bed for a seven-minute phone- in re-write. 'To be honest,' he says, 'I just fed off an earlier scene of Jim's in the Welsh countryside, because I am an entirely different sort of writer. He's a poet and I'm not. That's the point. I was not looking for Bleasdale clones.'

So determined was Bleasdale to discover new and original voices, he approached people who had never written a line of dialogue in their life. 'There were writers I just knew could do something for me. Previous experience was irrelevant. Andy Cullen for instance, who has written Self Catering, is only 26, but the script he came up with was brilliant. It's these five people who land on a desert island after a plane crash and turn into film stars. They get off the plane worrying about their make-up, and there's this superb line: 'Let me through. I'm a beautician.' As soon as I read that I knew we had to make it.'

Blood on the Dole was spotted by Bleasdale back in 1981 when he saw it at the Liverpool Playhouse, directed by Pip Broughton, who is now making the TV film. 'It was the best night out I have ever had in the theatre. I went back to see it four times. It was almost a film already - very short scenes and very visual. I've been trying to encourage other producers to make it for the past 10 years, so obviously when the opportunity arose this had to be one of the films.'

Much of the undoubted excitement surrounding the film centres on the performances of the four youngsters in the central roles. They were chosen by casting director John Hubbard whose work in casting The Commitments has earned him a reputation as an uncanmy spotter of fresh, young talent. 'It's a combination of instinct and simply meeting lots of people,' says John. 'Unless I have met everybody who wants to be met I feel I have not done my job. I advertised in the papers, went on the radio, went round all the schools, and eventually saw more than 800 people for those four parts. I record everybody I meet, review the tapes in the evening, and then we call up the best for a workshop. I was pretty sure about Suzanne Maddock and Rachel Caldwell for the lead roles.' Bleasdale is less equivocal: 'John's a genius. Suzanne and Rachel are two girls you'd never find in a million years. The camera adores them.'

For Maddock herself, who now has some catching up to do at Wirral Metropolitan College where she is doing her A-Levels, the part meant she could finally come clean to her parents about her ambition to be an actress. 'It's not the kind of thing you like to tell your parents in case they laugh at you. But now they are going round telling everybody. The money is quite a bit more than I expected as well. They told me it was low budget but it seems OK to me.'

Maddock, like Pip Broughton and Jim Morris, is fulsome in her praise for Bleasdale as encourager and enabler. Even allowing for luvvie-speak, it is clear Bleasdale has created an atmosphere on set which, if repeated in homes throughout Britain this autumn, would mean a palpable hit.

This enthusiasm even survives the prospect of the next day's filming - another cold seaside scene, illegal cockling on the beach at Southport. The forecast is for snow.

'Blood on the Dole' will be screened by C 4 this Autumn.

(Photograph omitted)