In from the cold: Alan Bleasdale on his return to television after a decade in the wilderness
He proved himself the finest TV writer of his generation. So why has it taken more than a decade for Liverpool's finest, Alan Bleasdale, to make his way back to our screens?
Sunday 12 December 2010
Can we talk," I ask Alan Bleasdale, "about your time in the wilderness?" "Time in the wilderness?" the playwright repeats. "Hasn't that phrase become exclusively associated with Jesus Christ?" "Until now. "Whatever you do," Bleasdale laughs, "don't put those two words into my mouth."
While he's probably wise to discourage biblical comparisons with the recent hiatus in his career, the fact remains that next month's production of The Sinking of the Laconia will be the first new drama to have been seen from Bleasdale – a man some of us still regard as our greatest living television writer – in 11 years, and his first for the BBC in a quarter of a century.
As you approach Alan Bleasdale's study, you pass two wardrobe-sized filing cabinets, each of which contains three-dozen box-files full of unproduced scripts. As their contents might suggest, his absence from the screen has not been voluntary. The grey metal cabinets stand in a basement ' room here in the former priory in Liverpool, where Bleasdale and his wife Julie have an apartment. The spacious elegance of this listed building, and the tranquility of its well-manicured grounds, are a reminder of precisely the sort of genteel retirement Bleasdale has been tirelessly striving to avoid.
The consequence of his long exile is that Bleasdale, 64, now tends to be remembered for two epic television series. Boys from the Blackstuff (1982), his seminal five-part story of a group of construction workers' struggle against the first wave of mass unemployment precipitated by Margaret Thatcher's regime, was, through its wit, fury and deranged humour, the most damaging and timeless artistic rebuke delivered to a British government in the modern era. It captivated the nation to a degree that, in the age of multiple channels, no drama is ever likely to achieve again. Boys from the Blackstuff introduced the considerable talents of an extraordinarily gifted group of protégés who would be Bleasdale's loyal co-conspirators in the years to come: Julie Walters, Michael Angelis, Drew Schofield, David Ross and Alan Igbon among them.
GBH, his seven-part, 10-and-a-half-hour drama produced in 1991 by Channel 4, took his writing to another level in terms of imagination, subtlety and scale. While it is traditionally summarised as a drama about the pernicious influence of political extremism in a Northern town, the depth of characterisation in GBH is such that, had Bleasdale only ever written the scenes between Michael Palin's chronically hypochondriacal character and his Scottish doctor – a comic tour de force that ends episode three – he would have been remembered for ever.
Bravura performances from Palin, Robert Lindsay and Lindsay Duncan, among many others, were complemented by an award-winning score by Elvis Costello, who describes Bleasdale as "the elder brother I never had – my best friend and the one editorial voice to which I would attend and for which I would amend".
GBH was a unique achievement in many ways, not least for the ease with which its early episodes convinced newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Mail that Bleasdale had abandoned the cause of the Labour Party. The repugnant, racist, "hard left" agitators, whose negative portrayal those publications initially applauded with some warmth, were eventually revealed to be Conservative infiltrators working for M15. By that time, for their columnists and headline writers, it was too late.
Boys from the Blackstuff and GBH form the first two parts of a trilogy. The script for the third epic, Running Scared, occupies the whole of one of those filing cabinets. It contains multiple versions: cut, amended and tempered according to the taste of various commissioning editors at the BBC, the corporation that originally commissioned it. But these 38 red box files are as near as you will ever get to seeing it. Running Scared has never been made.
And so it is that, almost 30 years on, Alan Bleasdale's name is still principally associated with Boys from the Blackstuff, which recently finished second to The Sopranos in Channel 4's The 50 Greatest TV Dramas. (Bleasdale's total budget was £730,000; The Sopranos an estimated $5m per episode.) He is still occasionally hailed in the street with cries of "Gissa job", the catchphrase of Bernard Hill, who gave a life-changing performance as the expeditious bricklayer Yosser Hughes.
The other thing that happens to Bleasdale is that he is mistaken for his friend and fellow Liverpudlian Willy Russell, author of Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers and, appropriately enough, The Wrong Boy.
"I was at Euston once," Bleasdale recalls. "This couple came up to me and said, as so many people do, 'Hallo Willy!' I said, 'I am not Willy. I am the other one.' The woman looked at me, and said: 'What other one?'"
It must all get a little wearying.
"If the obituaries only commemorate Alan 'Boys from the Blackstuff' Bleasdale," he says, "I'd be happy with that. I won't care anyway, because I'll be dead."
Unlike most successful dramatists, Bleasdale has been tireless in his encouragement of younger writers. I have to declare an interest at this point. I got to know him in 1985, since when he has become a close friend who has acted as unpaid script editor on my fiction. I have never previously written about him, but I was in the editing room when he was re-cutting GBH, and I have read most drafts of each of his subsequent projects, filmed and unfilmed.
"The Sinking of the Laconia has been quite a few years in the preparation, hasn't it?"
"Yes. The idea was suggested to me by [the independent production company] Talkback Thames in 2004. I thought it was one of the most extraordinary stories I'd ever heard in my life."
RMS Laconia was requisitioned by the British government as a troop carrier during the Second World War. In September 1942, the ship, which was carrying civilians, wounded Allied soldiers and 1,700 Italian prisoners of war, sank off the coast of West Africa, torpedoed by U-boat U-156, under the command of Werner Hartenstein. When the German captain realised that almost no passenger represented a legitimate target, his response was, as Bleasdale explains, somewhat off-message from the perspective of Nazi HQ.
"Once Hartenstein saw there were women, children and prisoners in the water, he tried to rescue as many as he could, to the bewilderment both of his men and of Admiral Donitz, who orchestrated the U-boat operation. He took as many as could fit into the submarine – far in excess of its permitted capacity – and accommodated another couple of hundred survivors on the deck."
The rest, Bleasdale explains, Hartenstein towed along in a "daisy chain" of lifeboats, behind him. "He draped his submarine with a large red cross and sent out a radio message to the British, promising that if Allied ships wished to rescue these people, he would not open fire. Then, to the chagrin of many at German HQ, he set off to try to deliver them to the safety of Vichy boats."
"The Laconia's crew was mainly from Liverpool, wasn't it?"
"It was, but as far as I was concerned they could equally have been from Glasgow or Portsmouth. The seamen and passengers performed great acts of courage, but the figure that captivated me was Hartenstein, for his defiance and his humanity. Before he could get the passengers to safety, a passing American B-24 disregarded the red cross and lifeboats and bombed the vessel. They missed the submarine but hit several lifeboats, killing many people. At which point Hartenstein got everyone off the boat; he gave them supplies, cut the rope to the lifeboats and dived."
"Didn't the incident prompt the Nazis to issue a specific order forbidding U-boat commanders from rescuing survivors?"
"It did. But Hartenstein did almost exactly the same thing again, only weeks afterwards. He disobeyed instructions and gave them food, water and maps. Even before I heard that, I was pretty sure I wanted to do this story. When I learnt about that second incident, I just knew. A few months later, on 8 March 1943, Werner Hartenstein and all his crew were sunk and killed."
The film has gone through several mutations, not all of which were painless for its author. It has finally been completed as a three hour, two-part co-production between the BBC, Talkback Thames and the German network ARD. The German dialogue is subtitled.
"I must admit," I tell him, "that, in the cinema at least, when I see a phrase like 'Anglo-European co-production' I find myself checking the location of my nearest exit."
"Well, I'm used to writing for actors I know – or believe I know. I'd never met Robert Lindsay before GBH but I sensed there was something dark and glorious that might complement all that natural charm and talent. On this production, I fought for certain actors. Some I got, some I didn't. Thankfully I got Lindsay Duncan, Andrew Buchan and Lenny Wood. The German cast I had no contact with. As it turns out, Hartenstein is played by a man called Ken Duken. He is everything I imagined Hartenstein would be. He gives an absolutely magnificent performance."
As a young man growing up in Huyton, a working-class area on the east side of Liverpool, Bleasdale's main ambition was to become a professional footballer. He was taken on by Liverpool FC as an amateur, but never came close to playing for the first team.
"In the end they told me that, basically, I would never be quite quick enough over the first five yards," he recalls. "It was one of the worst days of my life."
The only child of George, a factory foreman, and Peggy, a shop assistant, Bleasdale had a variety of jobs, including bus conductor, before he settled down as a PE teacher in Huyton. In the course of our conversation, he breaks down only once: when he's describing how Huyton Boys, the youth team he coached (its players included the future England international and distinguished manager Peter Reid) won the English Schoolboys' Trophy.
"Those boys were described by the football correspondent of the Daily Express," Bleasdale recalls, overcome by emotion and struggling to speak, "as the greatest school football team that ever lived. They were just astonishing. And that's probably what I feel proudest of – because I didn't do it for myself."
His first stories, about the fictional schoolboy "Scully", drew on his experiences as a young teacher. They were ' broadcast on Radio Merseyside in the early 1970s; a decade later they would form the basis of the television series Scully, starring Drew Schofield as a teenager who, at moments of difficulty in his life, is visited, in visions, by Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish – very much in the way that Eric Cantona would materialise in Ken Loach's Looking for Eric, in 2009.
Bleasdale wrote many of his Scully stories at night, under a mosquito net, on the remote Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) in the Pacific. He moved there with wife, Julie, when their first son Tim was 17 days old and spent three years there, as a teacher. (The couple's daughter Tamana was born on the islands; Jamie, their youngest child, arrived after the family had returned to Britain.)
Once Bleasdale was back on Merseyside, his career developed with the encouragement of the theatre producer Caroline Smith, who gave him his first chance at the Liverpool Playhouse.
"Caroline had heard one of my stories on the radio. I went out for a drink with Willy Russell and I said: 'She's offered me this commission but I don't think I can do it. It's like playing for Tranmere Rovers and being picked for England.' By this time we were in the chip shop at the bottom of our road. Willy turned on me with real passion. He started shouting: 'You've got to fucking do it, you've fucking got to.' So I did. Then Caroline took me to the Contact Theatre in Manchester, as writer in residence, in 1975."
I'm not sure which aspect of his history is to blame – his connection with Liverpool FC, his determination to stay in his native city, or a natural reticence which, in recent years, has verged on reclusiveness – but whichever it is, there's a widely perceived image of Alan Bleasdale that is some way removed from the man himself.
"There is," as Michael Palin told me, "a side of Alan that is bashful, almost shy. He is the most modest of geniuses."
"People think of me as someone who never compromises and generally throws his weight around," he says.
In my experience, I tell the playwright, he wreaks havoc more in the way that some teenage girls unwittingly generate poltergeist activity. Bleasdale is a walking affirmation of the Italian concept of the malocchio: the idea that an individual may be unusually prone to being at the centre of bizarre, frequently unfortunate, coincidences.
"I've only ever been in two car crashes in London," I tell him. "And I've lived there for 20 years. You only go there if you absolutely can't avoid it. But on both of those occasions I was with you."
"I wasn't driving. Those were in cabs."
"And I've only felt once, in my entire life, that I was definitely in the presence of a ghost. That was in your last house."
"Yes, but that wasn't my fault. The ghost of that old woman was there when we arrived. The previous owners had all seen it. And everybody knew about that." (Bleasdale recalls an episode in which the normally imperturbable director Robin Lefevre came down from the guest room asking: "What the fuck have you got up there pal?".)
"Well, I didn't know about it."
"I didn't tell you because we all knew the spirit was benign."
"Then there's the sleepwalking. That incident at the hotel, before the filming of GBH."
"I found myself outside my room, in the corridor, in the middle of the night. I'd just come to, and realised where I was, when I heard the terrible click of my door locking behind me. I peered over the banister by reception and told the night porter I'd locked myself out. He said: 'You're naked, aren't you, Mr Bleasdale?'"
Since then, the playwright adds, "If I'm away from home, I make sure I go to sleep wearing something. For a while I was practically going to bed in a three-piece suit with an overcoat and umbrella."
His acute hypochondria has been well known to friends and family for years: famously, after Bleasdale left a meeting at the Liverpool Playhouse, where someone had mentioned that a smell of burning could be a symptom of a brain tumour, he drove away so distracted that he left the handbrake on. As the resulting smell of smoking tyre intensified, he accelerated vigorously in the hope of getting home to summon medical attention. Finally, in panic, he pulled up on Lime Street and accosted a stranger with the words: "Please help me. I think I am having a brain tumour."
He has been terrified of flying since a traumatic landing, on his return from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1974.
"The plane bounced on the runway. The way I looked at it was, when the crew scream, I scream. Everybody else got over it. I didn't."
Bleasdale did not visit the set of The Sinking of the Laconia in Cape Town, mainly because a suitable nautical route could not be arranged. His views were articulated there by his script editor, Hilary Norrish. "I sometimes have the feeling," Bleasdale says, "that Hilary, who is small in stature but not in courage, has for the past three years dragged a dead man around on her back, and that that dead man was me. The title of script editor does not begin to reflect the support she has given me. She has been astonishing."
"You did sail across the Atlantic, though, didn't you, when you were producing Self Catering [a film by Andrew Cullen in the 1994 series Alan Bleasdale Presents, a showcase for new talent]. I think that's the only time I've seen the QEII as the first item on BBC news."
"The ship was hit by a hurricane. People were airlifted off. It came close to capsizing."
"As I recall, there was not much relief on the last train back to Liverpool, after you'd docked in Southampton."
"Well, that happened because I was so tired. I woke up on the train. I thought I had died and gone to hell. All the lights were off. I was being shunted into the sidings. I opened the window and leaned out just as we went into the, er..."
"Yes. So I'm covered in industrial foam. I start shouting through the window. And these two railway workers said 'Jump. We'll catch you.' One of them was so drunk that he missed me. I was lying on the ground, bleeding. I looked up. One of them said: 'I love your work. But, you know, where do you get your ideas from?'"
Many of his phobias found themselves into Jim Nelson, Michael Palin's character in GBH: they include a fear of motorways and road bridges, which have made life a little tricky on his side of the Mersey.
"I have a very good route to Manchester. I use the B and C roads. I can get there in an hour. It can be quicker than the motorway."
The fragilities and complexity of Bleasdale's character, and a sense that he is in touch, knowingly or not, with some other reality, have been central to all his best work.
"I've always felt that your gift as a writer," I tell him, "is related to the way that you live your life; in that sort of heightened emotional state most people only experience when they are recently bereaved, or in love."
"Maybe," Bleasdale says, in a tone of some irony, "I am always in love."
"What's that phrase – 'a skin too few'."
"Other people have said that."
In terms of the work, it would all have been so much easier for Alan Bleasdale if he'd come from Paris or Barcelona. At its best, his instinct for the surreal, in terms of dialogue, plot and character is not altogether unlike the work of writers like Bertrand Blier, Luis Buñuel or even, staying with the B's, Samuel Beckett. But Bleasdale's reputation, in the minds of many, has remained that of a Northern playwright who might reasonably be expected to stick to what he knows and not stray too far into left field.
The producer Roland Joffé, who made The Killing Fields, took him to Moscow and Prague in 1988, with a view to making a film about perestroika. Richard Dreyfuss proposed a Chicago-based adaptation of Bleasdale's television play The Muscle Market (one of the most brilliant things he has ever done, with bravura performances from Peter Postlethwaite and Alison Steadman, it was originally intended as part of Boys from the Blackstuff, then produced separately and broadcast in 1981). Neither of these international projects was realised. Had they been, Bleasdale might have been less constrained by the label of "gritty Liverpool playwright".
This perception has hardly been an asset to him, in an age when broadcasters have become less focused on innovative drama (in his early days Bleasdale had the great good fortune to work with bold, legendary producers such as David Rose, Michael Wearing and Peter Ansorge) and more concerned with making programmes that will sell across Middle America.
"It perhaps bears repeating," Elvis Costello told me, "that he has the keenest ear in the language for the comedy and absurdity of both petty and misguided authority and human resilience in the face of it. He is also unsentimental in finding the necessary sympathy for damaged individuals who otherwise display all the unlovable vanities of power, or for those who cannot face their own weaknesses."
In 2001, Bleasdale produced an outline for his version of Henry VIII, with Ray Winstone in the title role, for ITV. (The job was eventually given to Peter Morgan, who would go on to write hugely popular dramas such as The Queen.) Bleasdale's opening scene had Henry VIII in hell, with the devil, played by Nigel Hawthorne, at his side.
"I loved the idea of Ray Winstone," he says, "so long as everybody around him was also a rough-ass. Including Anne Boleyn. But ITV wanted Henry VIII to be much more of ' a hero; almost a saint. I saw him as a total bastard who had his wives beheaded and had the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands. I liked the idea of heaven and hell, even though I don't personally believe in them; I thought we could do a lot with that."
One of the letters he received in response, from ITV, suggested, bizarrely, that the idea of Henry VIII as a subject was "already ambitious". It asserted that "people" wanted such dramas to be "straight" and "more or less in chronological order". Their audience, the message continued (in a phrase which condescendingly assumes that "people" could never grasp the work of Christopher Marlowe, among many others) "know that the devil does not take concrete form".
Not long after Bleasdale had left that project, I got into conversation on the subject with a stranger at a drinks party in west London.
"And now," I told him, "they'll bring in somebody who'll write something they can flog in Topeka and Spokane."
"That'll be me," he said. "My name's Peter Morgan."
If there is an adjective that describes Bleasdale and his work least well, it would be "orthodox", and if there's one common problem to the scripts or outlines he has produced over his career, it's that none of them is orthodox. They are works of pure instinct and imagination which take risks in an age where, to quote the late Budd Schulberg, author of On the Waterfront, who knew and admired the English playwright's work, and used the following phrase with specific reference to Bleasdale: "The money does not trust the talent."
"Alan's writing," Michael Palin told me, "has power, strength and scale. He rejects the easy options and goes for something that will drain him, exhaust him and ultimately produce something that actors rarely get: a rich, full, five-course meal of a part. This is why he is a great writer: because he thinks big, takes risks, and is intensely committed to whatever he writes."
Boys from the Blackstuff, as Bleasdale recalls, was repeatedly rejected. "Michael Wearing tried again and again with BBC1. In some desperation he went to the controller of BBC2, Brian Wenham. Wenham asked him one question: 'Do you think it might be any good?' Michael said, 'Yes. I think it might be.' Wenham said, 'Off you go.' He trusted us, and he let us all get on with it. And that is something that, 30 years later, you desperately yearn for."
Yearn as we might, we will never see the lost works from this past decade: his sublime cinema adaptation of Matthew Kneale's novel English Passengers, his TV script for Barry Lyndon, or his TV adaptation – long-mooted, now abandoned – of Treasure Island.
"You know what your enemies say, don't you?" I ask Bleasdale. "I was talking to one recently. He told me: 'Alan got too powerful in the 1990s. He was over-indulged by Michael Grade at Channel 4. Now he's paying the price.'"
"Michael Grade was bliss to work for. And he wasn't easy. But he was straightforward and honest."
The piece they generally pick on is Melissa, a four-part adaptation of a Frances Durbridge thriller. "That got some pretty unkind reviews, didn't it?"
"I was writing about Thatcher's children 15 years on. I thought I had a genuine political statement to make. But if I had to answer these people you're talking about, I'd say this. If I'd done something like Michael Cimino did with Heaven's Gate [the Western, starring Kris Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert, is generally considered to have bankrupted United Artists], if I had financially ruined a corporation, I could understand people being somewhat nervous about approaching me. But the last thing anyone will have seen by me was Oliver Twist , which won awards for ITV, got huge audiences and was deemed to be successful."
"The BBC undermined that production, didn't they?"
"No. I wouldn't go that far. Andrew Davies is the doyen of writers who can turn historical novels into remarkable television; the BBC put his version of... what was it..."
"Wives and Daughters?"
"Right. Up against Oliver Twist, in the same slot. When it went out, the BBC had 10 million, ITV had 10 million, and Channel 4 put on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which had three-and-a-half million. So on one Sunday night there were 23-and-a-half million people in this country watching three programmes. I know figures of that kind may never be achieved again, except by The X-Factor. But I also know how good Oliver Twist was. Not because I wrote the script, but because we had a tremendous cast [including Robert Lindsay as Fagin, Andy Serkis, in his first major role, as Bill Sikes and a very young Keira Knightley] a great director in Renny Rye, and that unsung hero Keith Thompson, to produce. It was a team effort and nobody involved was anything less than 100 per cent up for it, and brilliant."
When he was offered Oliver Twist, Bleasdale was hard at work completing Running Scared for the BBC. He asked the corporation for a nine-month sabbatical, "because I'd always loved Dickens, and I thought that chance might never come again".
Running Scared was conceived as "a look at the way we live now, which is to say with great despair, and regret. And as many laughs as we can get." Postponing its production was, he concedes, not one of the wiser decisions he has ever made. "There's a quote from the screenwriter William Goldman about what can happen to a writer in Hollywood," he says, "and it can certainly happen here. He said it's vital to know which studio executive is going to get fired, 'Because when he is fired, those projects he has accepted become anathema to his successors and you can forget about the piece ever happening.'"
When Running Scared was commissioned, he says, "I had a very good relationship with the head of drama and with the head of channel. While I was away doing Oliver Twist, they left. And once I came back, things were different."
Running Scared, whose script was originally commissioned as six one-and-a-half hour episodes, was essentially the backstory of the same troubled residents of a Liverpool tower block who had appeared in his theatre play On the Ledge, staged, to glowing reviews, at the National Theatre in 1994. There is nothing in either script to suggest that Bleasdale's inspirational touch had deserted him.
On the Ledge, for instance, opens with the following conversation between two youths, one of whom is dangling the other by his ankles, over the edge of an upper-floor balcony, where he is painting the words ANACHRY RULES [sic] on the concrete wall below.
Upside-down character: "What's it really like down south?"
Upright: "I don't know. I wasn't there long enough. I was only down there six months... (Very thoughtfully)... before the bastards got me... bastard Cockney police... bastard Cockney courtroom... bastard Cockney jury... bastard Cockney barristers... bastard Cockney judge –"
Upside-down: "The judge was a Cockney?"
Upright (Oblivious)... Bastard Cockney detention centre ... bastard Cockney police escort up the bastard Cockney M1... bastard nine months in Wakefield gaol... bastard Edwina Currie..."
Upside-down: "I know. What? Edwina Currie?"
Upright: "It's all her fault, her and that bastard Peter Sissons and all the other bastards on bastard Question Time... because of them, the bastard I was robbin' turned his bastard telly off."
Upside-down: "Do you blame him?"
Upright: "Came in the bastard back kitchen, didn't he, the Cockney bastard, and bastard well caught me... bastard black eye... bastard broken nose... bastard frostbite..."
Upright: "It's no fun being locked in a fucking chest freezer, you know... I'll never forget lyin' there on the floor with his foot on my throat while he's emptying it out, screaming: 'Die, y'Scouse bastard!' fucking frozen sprouts and tubs of ice-cream bouncing all around me... and then, fuck off, into his freezer. The police had to wait till I was defrosted before they could interview me..."
Bleasdale made it a condition of this conversation that he would not publicly criticise individual executives. Others are somewhat less circumspect.
"It is an indictment of the timid standard of television drama that Running Scared, the third part of what might otherwise have been regarded as a trilogy of masterworks, still waits to be produced or even published," Elvis Costello says. "It had something very bleak to say about the way we were living under the Blair Experiment and would be positively poignant to view as we witness the further, cynical division of society by this current shower of shites. It has been galling to see his work, over many years, undervalued, mistreated or dismissed in favour of trite decorative dramas, exercises in nostalgia or ritual humiliation, and shouty programmes about motor cars."
Once a year, in a room above the Ivy restaurant, there's a private party hosted by Alan Bleasdale. It's attended by actors he's close to, including Julie Walters, Robert Lindsay, Amanda Mealing, Michael Palin, Lindsay Duncan, Helen Worth and Andy Serkis, as well as Bleasdale's producers, Keith and Dawn Thompson, and his family. Originally conceived as a one-off celebration of a good colleague's 60th birthday, it has continued for 11 years and has been known to carry on until dawn. In recent years, there has been an unspoken question in the minds of many of the guests: where is the work? '
At next year's gathering, which happens in late February, as well as having a recent production to discuss, guests will be able to talk about his drama using a grammatical form that has been horribly absent from the conversation in recent years: the future tense. Bleasdale will be discussing his new work in progress: I Was a Bad Man Once, a piece loosely based on a section of Running Scared.
"I just can't wait," Julie Walters told me, "to see him back where he belongs. I don't believe that there is another writer who captures humanity's madness like Alan, in such a seriously touching, painfully funny way. His absence from television has left a yawning gap."
Drama, I suggest to the playwright, "remains, as it always was, about conflict. When you consider the central themes you addressed in Running Scared – despair, spiritual impoverishment and the disintegration of the left in favour
of a soulless conservative consensus – not much has changed, has it?"
"It's got worse," says Bleasdale. "I believe that what is going to happen in this country over the next couple of years is going to be beyond imagining. I think there will be a last straw that simply breaks people."
"You mean economic collapse? A catastrophic run on the pound?"
"I have no idea what form it will take. I just sense that it will be truly dreadful."
"And yet now, looking at senior political figures, it's hard to find somebody to hate, isn't it?"
"Yes. I think that Nick Clegg will suffer tremendously, because somewhere in there, buried very deep, there is the semblance of a beating heart. But he is fucked and he knows it. The moment I saw him standing next to Cameron, I thought: 'You've had it, pal.'"
Bleasdale will continue as he always has: writing from Liverpool, for his actors and his public and not, he insists, for his own reputation. "All I ever wanted was to be good. Not to do good. But to be good. At something. To be a really good footballer. Or a really great teacher. And then, when I started writing, I wanted to be the best writer I could be. In the same way that so many people are trying their best, but they are never going to have their picture taken by The Independent on Sunday. And I think that this is why I have tended to hide away. Because I never wanted to be famous. All I wanted..." Bleasdale hesitates. "All I wanted was to do something well."
'The Sinking of the Laconia' will air in two parts on BBC2 in the new year
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