When BBC 2's unmissable nine-part drama Our Friends in the North ended in 1996, this newspaper concluded that "Monday night's ninth and final episode of Our Friends in the North has left many people bereft. The serial captivated much of the country, sketching a panoramic view of life in Britain from the Sixties to the Nineties ...at once sweeping and intimate, both moving and angry, simultaneously historical and contemporary ..." Now, 11 years on, Newcastle's ambitious theatre company, Northern Stage, is bringing Our Friends back home and back to life.
Long before it came to the small screen, Jarrow-born Peter Flannery's epic story of four friends from the North-East was a stage-play. "When I was in my late twenties," says Flannery, "and resident writer with the RSC in London, I began to think of a play which might concern itself with the growing cynicism of my parents' generation about our political life. The research and execution of Our Friends began my own long journey towards the almost pitch-black scepticism with which I now observe our political culture. "
Struck by how little faith people had in political change as a tool for improvement, and by how often he heard the word "corruption" bandied about, Flannery contacted T Dan Smith. Smith had been leader of Newcastle City Council in the 1980s, a man whose charisma and vision of the city as "the Brasilia of the North", on a par with Milan, was known by his opponents as "the Mouth of the Tyne". Having spun a web of corruption that nearly toppled a government, Smith was trapped over the Poulson affair in which contracts for the erection of cheap high-rise housing of inferior quality were locked into bribery on a scale that saw Smith put behind bars for six years. Smith's comment to the questing playwright was encouraging: "There is a play here of Shakespearean proportions." Flannery knew he was right.
He had recently watched the RSC's cycle of history plays and felt that he could write a big play, "an English chronicle play, epic and encompassing in its examination of Britain, dealing with corruption in local and national government and in parts of the police force. It was an uncomfortable, if thrilling, journey for me as I slowly had my eyes opened to the levels of deception at work in our institutions – and to their astonishing ability to cover up their misdemeanours."
The result was an extraordinary, wide-angled view of 17 years of history, told through the life-stories of four friends, beginning with the election of Harold Wilson in 1964 and ending, in the stage version, with the arrival at No 10 Downing Street of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Peopled by over 40 characters, it ranged over three locations, Newcastle, London and what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Exploring the nature of corruption and abuse of power, Our Friends is scathing in its attack on the inadequate social housing of the Sixties brought in by Newcastle councillors, the bribery of London police force by Soho thugs, and the UK Government's sale of oil to sanction-imposed Rhodesia after its declaration of independence. The settings switch from the House of Commons to the banks of the River Tyne, to Scotland Yard, up high-rise blocks of flats and down to seedy porn shops. Whispered deals and murky rumours convey the probably correct impression that scarcely anyone's hands are completely clean.
After successful runs in 1982 at The Other Place in Stratford and The Pit at the Barbican, Our Friends was put on for just four nights in what is now Studio 2 of Northern Stage. (By coincidence the company's original building, Newcastle University Theatre, formed part of the culture-conscious Smith's vision for a vibrant Newcastle.) Jim Broadbent took the role of Austin Donohue, the corrupt councillor bribed by a cash-hungry architect and some locals claim that Smith, on whom the character was based, and who died in 1993, attended one of the Newcastle performances.
The BBC's dramatisation, which Flannery brought more up to date by incorporating material on the miners' strike, was scarcely trouble-free. One lawyer advised changing the location from Britain to a fictional Albion, and the Rhodesia section was cut altogether (it will be included by Northern Stage) perhaps because Mandela had recently become South Africa's president and because Mugabe hadn't yet sullied his own reputation. But despite the serial's popularity – and the subsequent prominence of two of the quartet of friends, Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig, as Dr Who and James Bond, respectively – Our Friends has never been reunited with the theatre.
According to the director Erica Wyman, the idea of a new production came about three years ago when Flannery began to see parallels between the Sixties and the Noughties, with another cash-for-honours scandal, and the war in iraq engulfing Blair's Labour government. "For three generations who have lived through socialist hopes and defeats and the rise of spin and the collapse of political faith, I hope that this will encourage questions as to how much has really changed in our society and how many people are still corrupted by the taste of power. Of course, much has changed in the past quarter-of-a-century in the North-East; there's been a massive increase in wealth and aspiration, but we are still facing devastating poverty and rocketing housing prices, while corruption at all levels of government is back in the news. So Peter's play seems painfully relevant."
As well as putting Friends back in touch with its stage roots, the production has brought together no fewer than 11 native Geordie actors. The doubling and tripling of roles means that many different voices, in addition to authentic regional accents, are required. For no apparent reason, almost all the characters from the Met Police have adopted thick Scottish accents. Northern Stage has assembled a strong cast, especially in the crucial roles of the four friends whose television interpretations seem indelible: Dominic "Nicky" Hutchinson (played on TV by Eccleston), Mary Soulsby (taken on television by Peterlee-born Gina McKee, George "Geordie" Peacock (Craig) and Terry "Tosker" Cox (Mark Strong). Joe Renton plays Nicky, caught up in local government wheeling and dealing, North-Easterner Craig Conway is Geordie, who is seduced by the bright lights of London but falls prey to the sleazy world of drugs and gangsters, and Neil Armstrong (Fraser in Byker Grove is Tosker, failed rock band frontman, married to Mary (Newcastle-based Sonia Beinroth). The Donohue/Smith role (played on TV by Alun Armstrong) is taken by Neil Phillips.
To maximise the visual effect of presenting Our Friends on Northern Stage's vast acting space, and in keeping with the play's gritty realism, the designer Soutra Gilmour has created a pivoting black box set resembling a shipping container and conveying a dark, industrial feel. To reflect the play's 46 scenes and 30-odd locations, its features include sliding panels, stairs to balconies and a pole for the strip-club. "There are a lot of suits," according to Gilmour, and with 12 males playing multiple roles over two decades, that may seem obvious. But Gilmour also recognises the need to use costume to mark the different "tribes", the sharp dressers of the Soho underworld, and the four main characters from Newcastle.
Flannery has reimagined both the beginning and the end of the play for 2007 and a new audience, too young perhaps to share Wyman's recollection of watching the TV version in London. She remembers identifying with the North/South aspect of the story, "There was something really honest about it," she says. Wyman also believes that it was ground-breaking, paving the way for subsequent television series such as This Life which she regards as a kind of Our Friends in the South. Taking it back into the theatre, however, will be a real indicator of how well the original drama has stood the test of time.
29 September to 20 October, Northern Stage, Newcastle (0191-230 5151); 23 to 27 October (except 26), Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (01484 430 528); 30 October to 3 November, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield (0114-249 6000); Spring 2008: Durham, Oxford, Salford and Guildford
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