Our Friends in the North (BBC2)

TV Review

Thomas Sutcliffe
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:44

The BBC engaged in a little bit of spin the other night, broadcasting a long trail for the final episode of Our Friends in the North (BBC2), one garlanded with effulgent critical tags. If this was an attempt to whip up trade it was a curiously belated one - in any case the figures for the series have been consistently high from the beginning - so it seems more likely that it was a bit of trumpet-blowing for the channel, a celebration of safe passage now that the harbour is in sight (one which might usefully concentrate the critics' minds as they limbered up for their valedictory reviews). It wouldn't do any harm either to encourage the audience as they come to some final verdict about a series that constituted Michael Jackson's biggest bet yet on his own commissioning judgement - staking half a year's serials budget on the work of a single writer.

That his ship has come in can hardly be in doubt, whatever one's reservations about the series as a whole. Our Friends in the North confounded the gloomier predictions about its content and proved that there was an audience for political material, provided that it found its way to the screen through lives imagined in emotional detail. The final episode, if anything, confirmed my sense of the whole - that it was at its very best in domestic interiors, catching the awkward pulse of missed opportunities and mistaken principles, at its weakest in its K-Tel version of the political past. Last night the two main political themes of the drama - police corruption and public housing - had gracefully bowed out, allowing Flannery (or his script editors) to concentrate entirely on the delivery of some human resolutions - and on gathering the main characters together for one last reunion.

This was done with some masterful false starts. You wondered whether Flannery would really dare to have the principals come together on Tosker's floating nightclub, for a balloon-festooned night of emotional debt-settling. But he was cannier than that - detaining Mary and Geordie with two separate encounters, scenes that strengthened the idea that failure can be inherited as well as built from scratch. When the four did finally come together it was at a funeral, the most plausible knot for tying frayed friendships together again, and even then it was beautifully handled with an almost silent scene - curious glances exchanged and no one saying what was in every mind - "How did we get here?" There was an equally brave moment earlier, when Nicky's attempt to recuperate something of his relationship with his father ended in incontinence and bitterness. In a lesser drama, you would have been given the cheesy apotheosis you feared you were headed for, the local anaesthetic of wishful thinking. Here, you stayed on the hook, confronted by the intractability of getting old and missing your moment.

It may be that the cuts forced on Flannery's original scheme (he wanted at least three more hours) had borne disproportionately on the politics - compressing those elements into something crudely didactic, excluding the sort of subtleties that he could show elsewhere. Whatever the cause, I doubt that Our Friends in the North will be remembered as a political drama by most of its viewers, or as a brilliant piece of period reconstruction. It will be remembered for an intimate sense of character, powerful enough to make you forgive its faults and stay loyal to the end.

Crime Beat (BBC1) appears designed specifically to cheer up all those people depressed by the last edition of Crimewatch UK. Martyn Lewis presents in a manner which suggests that the only real problem with crime is that criminals get away with it, rather than the fact that they decide it's a good idea in the first place. Last night, he enthused about closed circuit television and indelible fluorescent dyes, as if technology was only a few years away from wrapping up the matter entirely. All this is called crime prevention, but it isn't really - it's just a symptomatic cure.

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