It should be said that Bleasdale has never been one of those writers who churn 'em out for the sake of doing so. His television career to date has comprised only 11 dramas, starting with The Black Stuff in 1980, a powerful drama about a gang of tarmac layers whose plan to make a bit of money on the side ends with them losing their jobs. He's best known for the series that arose from that, Boys from the Black Stuff (1982), which followed the men as they struggled to cope with long-term unemployment. One episode in particular, "Yosser's Story", in which the gang's most troubled character, Yosser Hughes (Bernard Hill), slowly loses everything he cares for - his pride, his home, his children - is still seen as a benchmark in television drama. It won Hill a Bafta, and Yosser's trademark lines - "Gisser job", "I can do that" - became national catchphrases.
Several succeeding dramas were well received - in particular 1991's GBH, starring Robert Lindsay as a crooked politician and Michael Palin as the put-upon schoolteacher with whom he crosses swords; and 1995's Jake's Progress, again starring Lindsay as a failed pop star having trouble adjusting to middle age, married life and fatherhood (with Julie Walters as his harrassed wife and Barclay Wright as their troubled son Jake). But none since Boys from the Black Stuff, arguably, has gripped the nation in quite the same way. And recently you could have been forgiven the impression that he's retreated from television altogether at a time when others, such as Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies and Andrew Davies, have been winning all the plaudits
Last week Bleasdale emerged from the shadows to talk about his work, his beliefs, his long silence and what his plans are. The occasion is not to mark any new work, but the release of three of his dramas on DVD: GBH, Jake's Progress and Melissa. We meet on a day of brilliant sunshine at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool - the city in which he's lived for most of his life and where many of his dramas are set - and which he describes as being "like an old overcoat" to him. The sun doesn't shine on us for long, though; we decamp to a table in the basement café, where Bleasdale lights up the first of several cigarettes. A considerate chap, he obviously doesn't want to blow too much smoke in my direction, asking me more than once if I mind and occasionally guiltily hiding the cigarette behind a convenient floral arrangement. As it turns out, he's quite nervous. This is the first print interview he's given this century, he says..
"I've hidden away. I've only come out of the darkened room for good friends or good causes. I prefer it that way." Though he seems to be seen by certain sections of the media as a troublemaking leftie, this is undeserved, he says: "I'd do almost anything for a quiet life."
Good causes include the war on Iraq, which he brings up almost as soon as we've sat down and against which he marched in 2003. It was, he says, the very first march he's ever been on. He got vocal about it, too. "I was quoted as saying that it was the wrong war, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, with the wrong enemy and the wrong ally. That quote got picked up and used all round the world - but not with my name attached to it." The quote, in fact, was nicked by none other than John Kerry, who threw it at George Bush in one of the US presidential debates. This amuses him. "It's very difficult because you want to jump up and say, 'I said that!' But actually what I said was more important than who said it."
For a man who insists he doesn't want to seem like he's standing on a soapbox, he warms easily to his theme. "I've thought for a long, long time that we were entering the age of fundamentalism. We have a cowboy fundamentalist in the White House, a Christian fundamentalist in Downing Street and we have lunatic terrorist Muslim fundamentalists who want to meet 77 virgins. It's a huge political crisis in the lives of all of us this century, and our children, and our children's children."
Is Tony Blair really a fundamentalist, I ask? "Well I'm not an expert but you only have to look into the mad eyes that he has! ... There is an argument that he might be certifiable ... There's a great line that was on bumper stickers in America during the last presidential election, saying, 'A village in Texas has lost its idiot.' How can you stand alongside him and Cheney and the other fundamentalists? You've got to have some kind of obsessive feeling that you're right and the world is wrong. I've never been sure that I'm right, except maybe about football." (Liverpool FC, in case you were wondering. And he doesn't go to matches any more, because he hates violence.)
Bleasdale hasn't always been political, he says. It was only when he first had children himself that he became "angry about the world". And yet he says that what he did inherit from his parents was a concern for morality and human decency, a disgust for "man's inhumanity to man" and a suspicion of the drive for power and control - all themes in his work. An only child, he was born in 1946 in Liverpool to Catholic parents. His father, he says, was loving, but "a very hard man. My father had the reputation of never throwing the first punch but always throwing the last... He never raised his hand to me. He never had to. He only had to raise his eyebrow". (His description, incidentally, is, almost word for word, the way Michael Palin's character, Jim Nelson, describes his father in GBH).
His mother, Bleasdale says, was "very insecure and completely lacking in confidence" (unlike his own wife, Julia, to whom he has been married since 1970, and with whom he has had three children, now 35, 32 and 30). His mother also suffered from crippling phobias (again, like Nelson), something that she passed on to her son, who refused to step on to an aeroplane for 30 years until this year, when his youngest son announced that he was getting married, in the US. "When he told me on the phone I broke down in tears of joy and then called him every fucking bastard under the sun because I knew I had to conquer the two great fears I have, of flying and dying." Tears well up in his eyes while he's talking about it, and he admits, reluctantly, that he cries easily: "I have to carry a handkerchief." (The flight was touch and go; in the end, hypnotherapy and two stiff vodka and tonics got him through.)
He started writing professionally the day after his third child was born, giving up his career as a teacher of English and PE, and almost at once he had great success. "I did have a walkover. My first stage play was accepted, my first television play was accepted, my first novel was accepted." Does he feel, though, that once he moved away from the subject of working-class culture that people accepted his work less readily? "I know that the obituaries will be about Alan Boys from the Black Stuff Bleasdale, and to be honest with you, I don't care. I don't care that people will forget some half-hour play that I did at Hampstead. If that's what people insist on remembering me for, then it may well be that that's what touched the nation."
But he thinks that GBH and Jake's Progress also had an effect because he received so many letters about them from people who'd been through similar problems. "Jake's Progress could have been a kitchen sink drama set on a sink estate. I didn't want to write about that, I wanted to write about people that you'd never expect to be in the situation they're in, who've done well for themselves and then it all falls apart on them."
So why the seven-year silence? "It's a difficult issue to explain," he says, with some thought, "in that for the last few years events occurred that you either think, that's bad luck or bad planning or, in your darkest hour, that people aren't accepting the work as readily as they did in the previous 25 years... or I can't write any more, and I don't believe that's true." It turns out that he's been working very hard: "I've probably worked harder in the last seven years than I've ever worked before."
There are two film scripts in the pipeline: one he's not allowed to describe to me, and the other is an adaptation of Matthew Kneale'sEnglish Passengers, which an Australian production company wants to make. "They can't get anyone to put up the $65m to make it [because] it's a period piece. There's no bodice-ripping, it's about men in torture and anguish and difficult situations." The other script is a television drama for the BBC about the Laconia, a ship that was sunk in the South Atlantic in 1942 carrying more than 2,700 people, most of whom died under attack from torpedoes, bombs and sharks.
There are other projects, though, that haven't seen the light of day and will probably never do so. He wrote an adaptation of Thackeray'sBarry Lyndon, commissioned by the BBC, but that was scuppered by staff changes at the top and a glut of period-drama scripts. ("I don't think it's lost but it's definitely on the shelf.") And there was a drama he wrote for the BBC, which was meant to be screened in 2001, called Running Scared. "Boys from the Black Stuff came out in 1981, GBH in 1991, and what I wanted to do was examine, every 10 years, where I thought the pulse of the country was." It was a six-part drama about people on the ledge of a multi-storey block of flats, "some of them out of desperation, some by accident, one for suicide".
But then ITV asked him to adapt Oliver Twist, and Dickens, he says, was one of the biggest influences on his life: so he agreed, and when he came back to Running Scared there had been more staff changes at the BBC, and he was asked to make some alterations with which he couldn't agree. The debate was perfectly polite, he says: "There were no screaming matches, no fights, no running to the newspapers. It was all done with remarkable civility. But in the end I said I couldn't do it. And so it never got made. It was probably the biggest heartbreak of my so-called professional life."
Men in torture and anguish? People on the ledge? I suggest that desperation is one of the themes of his work. "It does attract me," Bleasdale says. " I think if you're alone in the darkened room, you're bringing up everything out of yourself, an exorcism of your darkest worries and your darkest fears, but luckily I've got an instinct for black comedy: that combination of madness and comedy is what an awful lot of people understand." Two of the works that he read early on in his life, and that had a shattering impact on him, were King Lear and Joseph Heller's Catch-22, he says. And that makes sense: Yosser, in his own small way, owes something to King Lear, striding palely across the blasted concrete wilderness with a red gleam in his eye. "I actually think he [Yosser] becomes the better as a man the madder he gets," Bleasdale says. "He's dramatically very attractive, but you wouldn't want him in the same room as you. You'd want to catch the early bus home." And the depiction of the insanity of war in Catch-22 has some influence, he agrees, on the madness of the social security system the men have to put up with in Boys from the Black Stuff - no wonder Yosser takes up headbutting anyone in range, including himself.
The Black Stuff, the original one-off on which Boys from the Black Stuff was based, was a huge success when it was first aired, but when he wrote the series the BBC1 controller rejected it for two years running. The Monocled Mutineer was likewise rejected for three years running before it was screened in 1986. Is this sort of frustration the kind of thing that's given him sympathy for struggling men? "You spend an awful lot of time in a darkened room. And yet the only time I really feel in command of myself is when I am in that darkened room, because there's very few things I can do. I'm not very good at the practicalities of life - filling in forms, or changing lightbulbs. I'm not sure I even understand how the wheel works."
If all this sounds a tad grim, he never makes it sound despairing. Far from it. There's a robustness about him: he laughs loudly and often. He also comes across as possessing that positive quality that he insists is all-important: decency. And he's generous in what he says about fellow writers, a class of beings he insists he would never publicly criticise because he knows how hard it can be. Andrew Davies, for instance, whom I mention as a far more prolific writer. "Andrew has cloned himself!" Bleasdale shouts, triumphantly, rather as if it was his doing. "I have the highest regard for Andrew, and considerable envy, because he has the ability to keep going and keep going and keep going. Things take longer for me." He also thinks Paul Abbott's Shameless was "remarkable".
Not everything on TV strikes him as good, it has to be said. He clearly dislikes Big Brother, saying it reminds him of nothing so much as when parents took their children out for the day to the local freak show for entertainment. And he admits he didn't much like The Office when it started - "Everyone else was raving about it, but I couldn't get the joke, because I thought it was about the stripping down of dignity, and I thought it was ugly. It was only in the second series that I got the joke."
But he's not into slinging mud in public (well, except at those who he sees as abusing positions of power - and that's different.) Neither does Bleasdale play the celebrity game: appearing on talk shows, getting his face about, seeking attention generally - it doesn't interest him. Which is, perhaps, as much the reason for the seven-year gap as anything. I find myself hoping that his latest work on English Passengers or the sinking of the Laconia works out. He clearly does too, joking enthusiastically that he's "becoming the man who writes about boats!" He kindly buys us both a drink, and then he leaves. Back out into the brilliant sunshine. Back to his wife and the football match on TV this evening. And that darkened room. m
The Alan Bleasdale DVD Collection, including 'GBH', 'Jake's Progress' and 'Melissa', is available from 12 JuneReuse content