Our Friends in the North (Simon Cellan Jones, Pedr James, and Stuart Urban, 1996)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Our Friends in the North.

criterion logoBased on Peter Flannery’s 1982 stage-play, this award-winning BBC mini-series charts the lives of four friends from Newcastle over four decades – Nicky, a radical socialist preoccupied with the class struggle; Tosker, a cocky young man with dreams of celebrity and success; Mary, who struggles with the pressures of marriage and motherhood while pursuing her own professional ambitions; and Geordie, a troubled young man who flees his hometown for London. Over its nine episodes, Our Friends in the North traces the fortunes of an ever-changing England through the break-out performances of Christopher Eccleston, Mark Strong, Gina McKee, and Daniel Craig. The Criterion Collection is proud to present this sprawling milestone in British drama for the first time ever in North America.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Interview with Christopher Eccleston and Gina McKee
  • Retrospective with Peter Flannery, producer Charlie Pattison, executive producer Michael Wearing, and directors Pedr James and Simon Cellan Jones
  • New interviews with Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Mark Strong, and Daniel Craig
  • Visual essay by playwright Michael Eaton
  • Complete soundtrack listing with chart history
  • Precis and color stills of the original first episode
  • TV spots
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by film scholar Marcus Hearn and television scholar Robin Nelson

Based on his 1982 play (starring Jim Broadbent and Roger Allam, running more than 3 hours, and having 34 speaking parts performed by no less than 18 actors), Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North spent more than a decade in BBC developmental purgatory before finally being broadcast between January 15 and March 11, 1996, airing each Monday night at 9 pm. At the time of its broadcast and since, Our Friends in the North has consistently been considered amongst the true masterpieces of British television and has been credited as providing breakthrough roles for its principle performers, Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Mark Strong, and Daniel Craig. Still, the mini-series has had only sporadic home media releases in the UK and is virtually unknown in North America, having never been released on video, DVD, or Blu-ray. As this season of political campaigns comes to a close, MMC! takes this opportunity to suggest this politically conscious mini-series for a wacky “C” and introduce one of the UK’s most epic works of social realism.

Our Friends in the North is made up of nine episodes, each named after the respective year they are set within – “1964,” “1966,” “1967,” “1970,” “1974,” “1979,” “1984,” “1987,” and “1995.” The vast majority of these years coincides with a general election and the series depicts the turbulent socio-political events of these periods. Flannery infamously and unsexily described his massive work as about “post-war social housing policy,” although the series’ eventual producer Charles Pattinson countered the impression of the series as a working class political tirade by calling it “a posh soap.” Both Flannery and Pattinson are in their own ways each correct, as the series tracks UK political history – the radicalization and demise of the left, corruption in the Metropolitan Police, the confluence of organized crime and the porn industry, the neoconservative ascendancy and its attacks on organized labour, the promise of New Labour – all through the interpersonal dramas of four friends from Newcastle. The result is a colossal work, running more than 10 hours with a speaking cast of 160, including more than 3,000 extras, and standing as BBC 2’s most successful weekly drama for years after.

Danny Boyle was originally set to direct the series (bringing Christopher Eccleston to the project with him), but the success of Shallow Grave (1994) led to Boyle’s signing on to direct Trainspotting (1996) and leaving Our Friends in the North. In replacement, Stuart Urban was brought on to direct the first five episodes and Simon Cellan Jones the remaining four, however Urban left the project midway through the third episode over creative differences, leading to Pedr James completing the remainder of Urban’s assignment and reshooting episode one with a new script.

The sheer size of Our Friends in the North, both in terms of its total running time and the vast expanse of recent British history that the miniseries occupies, prevents summarizing it here, but the program generally concerns itself with how its characters and middle England generally struggle with their increasing senses of futility. Nicky Hutchinson (Christopher Eccleston) is the series’ most frustrated and conflicted character, opening OFITN as a young man returning from the American South’s civil rights movement to impatiently devote himself to the political process and to social change in his homeland. To the disappointment of his once activist, now disillusioned father Felix (Peter Vaughan), Nicky abandons school to join the campaign of a charismatic but corrupt local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong). The experience leaves Nicky even more frustrated, causing him to dabble in a militant activist cell before standing as an unsuccessful Labour Party candidate in the 1979 election. He eventually withdraws from active participation in the movement for social change, embarking on a successful career as a socially conscious photographer that provides some modicum of popular admiration. Still, Nicky’s deep need for approval and recognition, masked by his frustration and cynicism, has him self-sabotaging romantic relationships and railing against his father’s dementia for much of the series’ conclusion.

Nicky’s childhood friend Geordie Peacock (Daniel Craig) has the roughest time of OFITN‘s quartet of characters. He flees his abusive father, an unwanted pregnancy, and Newcastle for London, quickly becoming the right hand to underworld porn kingpin Benny Barrett (Malcolm McDowell). Geordie rides high before becoming a fall guy for Barrett and serving time in prison, becoming a homeless derelict, serving more time, and then drifting into the series’ conclusion struggling to pull the pieces of his life together. It is through the Peacock portion of OFITN that the series tracks the systemic corruption of the Metropolitan Police and the battle to root out and finally exorcise it from the institution.

Tosker Cox (Mark Strong) stands as the film’s least likeable, most craven figure, being a self-centred poster child of the 1980s “Me” generation. After coming to terms with a failed dream of celebrity and a menial 9-to-5 job that vanishes due to geopolitical embargoes, Tosker builds a modest fortune with an investment from Benny Barrett, then turns to shady careers as a slum lord and a predatory mortgage lender emboldened by his freemason connections. With the help of his second wife, Tosker eventually straightens out, returning to his pub roots to open a night club in Newcastle and finding some peace of mind.

Between these men challenged by their ambitions and frustrated by their circumstances is Mary Soulsby (Gina McKee). Mary’s on-again, off-again relationship with Nicky and her marriage-of-necessity with Tosker casts her as an often suffering martyr, but she is also OFITN‘s most admirably successful figure. She remains active in the local Labour Party, attains her law degree, becomes a city councillor, and then a Member of Parliament. She consistently acts for the greater good, being able to appreciate the minor, practical achievements that are won over the commercial ease represented by Tosker and the revolutionary expectations held by Nicky. Certainly Mary’s life is not without its share of tribulations, but her character carries on with astounding dignity compared to the trio men that surround her and it’s in relation to her that the faithful efforts of representative politics and the legislative process are expressed.

At the heart of OFITN are the sickly high-rises built as public housing that quickly fell into disrepair and became riddled with mould and mildew. Nicky and Austin Donohue are instrumental in building the Willow Lane council flats that Mary and Tosker live in until they becomes uninhabitable (and which Nicky will eventually assume as a squat). Willow Lane becomes emblematic of the idealism, the corruption, and the pervasive indignity average Brits experienced through the era. This story is torn from Newcastle’s history and refers to real-life figures like councillor T. Dan Smith and architect John Poulson who aimed to clear the city’s slums and instead spread a web of corruption and bribes covered up by Home Secretary Reginald Maulding, the self-serving protector of the Met and represented in OFITN as one Lord Seabrook.

Our Friends in the North is obviously memorable for its expansive scale, its continuation of Britain’s social realist tradition, and its political awareness framing its frothy melodrama, but the series is also known for its spot-on soundtrack. The closing song for the series, “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis, stands out, slotted into the film as simply a catchy track from the band’s 1995 album but going to #1 on the British charts just a week before OFITN‘s final episode aired. The mini-series also features a plethora of excellent performances that includes Vaughan, Armstrong, McDowell, Freda Dowie as Nicky’s mum Florie, David Bradley as Labour Party stalwart Eddie Wells, Louise Salter as Geordie’s secret lover, Daniel Casey as Tosker and Mary’s angry son Anthony, Tracey Wilkinson as Tosker’s second wife Elaine, Saskia Wickham as Tory politician Claudia Seabrook, and David Schofield, Donald Sumpter, Danny Webb, Peter Jeffrey, Granville Saxton, Chris Walker, Andrew Grainger, and others as various officers in the Metropolitan Police.

our-friends-in-the-northThe Criterion Collection tends delve into TV only when it has an auteur director associated with it, but Our Friends in the North is such a celebrated, landmark work of British television and its principal cast members have developed such a strong presence in film and popular culture since the series originally aired (James Bond, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) that a wacky “C” seems justifiable. And with the program nearly unseen in North America, a hard media release by the Collection would fill a significant gap. We’re most fond of this cover treatment used for a UK DVD edition of OFITN. In addition to employing a more abstract approach typically preferred by Criterion, it utilizes the mosaic design that appears in the series’ opening credits and depicts Tyne Bridge, a landmark of Newcastle that frequently appears in the program.

Credits: We’ve ported over all the special features included on the original UK DVD edition of OFITN – the Eccleston and McKee interview, the 40-minute retrospective round table, the soundtrack listing, the original first episode review, Marcus Hearn’s liner notes. We’ve added further interviews, a visual essay by Michael Eaton, and an essay by Robin Nelson. Nelson was chosen to provide an essay on the film given his extensive consideration of OFITN in books like TV Drama in Transition: Forms, Values and Cultural Change and Frames and Fictions on Television: The Politics of Identity within Drama. Michael Eaton was selected to provide a visual essay given his superb monograph on the show for the BFI’s TV Classics series. Eaton ably reviews the series in its entirety, unpacking its historical connections and even offering a reading of the program as an arrangement of Catholic iconography.

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