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The Independent Culture
"I can see now, 31 years later, we were all about to make decisions that would change our lives for ever." Thus Nicky Hutchinson, his voice weary with retrospection, talking over the image of his youthful self, freshly returned to Sixties Newcastle from civil-rights marching in the Deep South. Enough portent and promise there, I would have thought, to push most viewers at least a little way into Our Friends in the North (BBC2), Peter Flannery's epic of political and emotional corruption. A more cautious customer might note that, as pregnant with drama as that sounds, the same remark would be true of virtually any 19-year-old born since the war - but by the time that occurs to you, there's a good chance that the specific urgencies of the plot will have begun to do their work.

And urgency is hardly in short sup-ply here. Nicky is a passionate idealist, impatient for change and infuriated by his father's cynicism about political rhetoric. Mary, his girlfriend, is a little less intense - preoccupied with her new university course and Nicky's distracted affections. Nicky's friend Geordie dreams of starting a rock band with Tosker, the most cheerfully feckless of the group, both of whom also bump up against Nicky's aroused social conscience. The BBC has bet pounds 7m of its money (your money, in other words) that we'll want to follow the course of their lives over the next three decades, absorbing along the way a disenchanted biography of post-war Britain.

Their horse is hardly home and dry yet. To begin with, innocent intensity is a difficult thing to display on screen because its colours run so easily, bleeding over into the script. Is it the characters that are naive, you wonder more than once, or merely the writing? "I don't want to write any more essays about working-class history - I want to go on living it," says Nicky, moodily flicking shingle at the North Sea. Of course, young people do dramatise their own lives and they often do it badly, but you would feel more confident with such cliched self-absorption if Flannery's script offered more in the way of perspective - some sense that an ordinary life was interfering with the idealised one. Too much of his dialogue rushes to get down to the business of grand themes - it has no time to waste in small talk, which is a pity because his small talk - glimpsed here in some domestic scenes - is warm and persuasive, filling out the characters with a refreshing indirection.

There are also lines that have the detached feel of having survived through one too many redraft. "You want to change the world and you can't even change your socks," shouts Mary at Nicky (back on that handy shingle again), but the glibness of the remark fits neither the circumstances nor the character. It strikes you as unfair, at the very least - America was a lot further away in 1964 than it is now. To have reached it, and participated in the civil rights movement is hardly evidence of armchair radicalism. The first episode ended with a single momentous syllable. Nicky's decisive "yes!", the moment when he turns his back on his degree and accepts the offer of a job from Austin Donohue, local Labour power-broker and a man who cuts the corners in which moral qualms traditionally accumulate. This is a fatal assent, you feel, but a bold conclusion to an uneven introduction. If the succeeding episodes can live up to that moment, the bet may be winnable yet.

I watched Horizon (BBC2) out of an impure curiosity. Was it possible to make a programme which might sketch out the weird geography of higher mathematics for an ordinary viewer? The answer was no, but Simon Singh's elegant programme about Andrew Wiles, a British mathematician who proved Fermat's Last Theorem, was oddly compelling even so. It was an account of mental passion and heroism, in which the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture lead to Horizontal Iwesawa, Galois representations, and the Flach-Kolyvagin method. And the light of understanding glimmered not once.

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