The pit and the pendulum

It's Saturday night, so it must be a tale of stripping miners. By James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
Casting The Bare Necessities was not a straightforward business. After all, how many actors are there capable of playing rock-hard miners with washboard stomachs, Yorkshire accents and the ability to prance around rhythmically - and unashamedly - in the altogether at rampant hen parties?

The Bare Necessities is far from your run-of-the-mill "blues and twos" weekend drama. Writer Ken Blakeson (Coronation Street, September Song) admits that it would have been easier to sell an armed-to-the-teeth six- parter about "murder and mayhem" than a one-off comedy-drama pilot about a group of redundant miners who take up stripping for a living.

The five Yorkshire pitmen discover a bent for taking their clothes off in public after improvising a routine to Gary Glitter's "Leader of the Gang" when the strippers fail to show at their redundancy bash. Before you can say "Chippendales", they are being trained by a choreographer called Sonia (the sparky Caroline Loncq) and are dressing (and undressing) as cowboys at girls' nights out. There, they spend most of their time fighting off rampaging women who want to take bits of their most intimate organs home as souvenirs. (One ex-miner who has become a stripper in real life has seen the programme, and endorsed its authenticity.)

Although Blakeson mines a rich source of humour, his film also contains a serious vein. "What the hell does the working-man do now that the pits, the ship-yards and the car factories are all closed?" the writer wonders. "Not everyone can work a VDU. The miners have been stripped of their livelihood and their sense of community. So in my film, the central image of stripping is turned on its head. They turn their disadvantage to their advantage."

But The Bare Necessities is by no means a manifesto for the more militant elements within the National Union of Mineworkers. It is more an examination of the impact the political has on the personal. "I didn't set out to write a political tract," Blakeson avers, "I leave that to the politicians. I didn't want a lot of union officials and shop talk. It's ITV on a Saturday night, and a lot of people will miss the issues. They'll look at the bare bodies and have a laugh, but maybe they'll also remember that this is what happens when you destroy people's jobs and lives."

Miners have long enjoyed a quasi-mythic status in Britain; think of How Green Was My Valley or Sons and Lovers. Mark Redhead, the producer of The Bare Necessities, reckons that "miners were the shock-troops of the working-class movement and had a well-defined, independent culture. South Wales miners were like singing, chapel-going Roman centurions, and the Durham miners' galas were the flagships of working-class culture in Britain. People admire that. There's something heroic about mining. No wonder those posters in the Soviet Union used to glorify miners."

All the same, Redhead hopes the film has avoided patronising them. "We try to sympathise with the characters," he asserts. "That's an unusual quality in comedy because as metropolitan people, we tend to be sneery. You have to be very disciplined not to take that view in drama."

The Bare Necessities follows in the honourable Auf Wiedersehen Pet tradition of lads-together drama. "It's very British," Redhead says. "Whilst working men have this idea of themselves as plain-speaking, they actually don't talk to each other very frankly at all. That gap between what they say and the truth is either funny or dramatic. The accepted idea is that women are better at being open with each other."

The women certainly emerge with credit from The Bare Necessities. "Previously, in the mining communities, the men were in the driving-seat," Redhead explains. "Now that they don't get those kind of salaries, and the women are earning at least 50 per cent of the bread, the balance has changed quite dramatically. In our film, Sonia is the boss, and that symbolises the turnaround that has happened domestically too."

So The Bare Necessities offers gender and industrial politics - as well as acres of naked flesh. If the ITV Network Centre needs further convincing about whether to make it into a series, it might be interested to learn that it's already had an effect in the most unexpected quarters. One tabloid newspaper is running a Bare Necessities workout.

'The Bare Necessities', Sat 9pm ITV

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