“I Can’t Believe That There’s No Hope”

Ian Jones on Boys from the Blackstuff

First published March 2000

To do justice to a series that has been so lauded, referenced and recontextualised since its first transmission (1982) should not be a trivial task. It involves disentangling substance from reputation, to simultaneously acknowledge the impact of influence and historical countenance but also judging it on its own terms in an effort to evaluate and commemorate it all over again.

The BBC commissioned writer Alan Bleasdale to expand his one-off play The Blackstuff (1980) into a suite of five individual stories, connected through overarching themes and storylines. Using the same actors and settings, he produced a set of television plays articulating the character, context and significance of a group of Liverpool families facing the trauma of long-term unemployment. The “ensemble” nature of the plays is rendered clear in the opening scene of the very first story, “Jobs For The Boys”. We meet the principle characters in turn as they sign on at the dole office, where the staff appear just as disillusioned and at the mercy of the system as those relying on it for subsistence (Bleasdale thankfully avoiding the terrible cliché of making all social security figures reductive unfeeling bureaucratic clones).

Much of the background and prehistory to the characters is also sketched out during this first play; engaged on illegal building work by Irish contractor Malloy (Shay Gorman), Chrissie (Michael Angelis), Loggo (Alan Igbon) and Snowy (Chris Darwin), together with Dixie (Tom Georgeson) and Yosser (Bernard Hill) all once worked in the construction trade, laying tarmac (the “blackstuff”). All have been out of regular work for years. Their resolute countenance in the face of such unending destitution is in each case an extension of their latent humanism, sociability, and natural humour. This is important: the barbed cynicism and witty epithets each falls back on when often at their lowest is crucial in preventing each of Bleasdale’s plays lapsing into repetitive, ultimately formless browbeating and turgid misery.

In this instance, the bitterly ironic revelation that the gang are actually helping to build a new Benefits Office is juxtaposed with the horrific circumstances in which Snowy, the most politically active of the group (and as such made constant fun of by the others for his parroting of socialist polemic) falls to his death from a building site window trying to escape pursuing dole officers. The camera shows his blood, glinting in the sunlight, flowing down a gutter and into a drain as we hear the officers formally arresting Malloy.

Yosser makes a brief but explosive appearance in this episode; the image of a man dressed completely in black striding purposefully towards us, staring fanatically ahead of him, his three children trailing behind, is an unforgettable introduction. He is a man so desperate for work, yet equally as desperate to show himself, his kids and everyone that he is a father and proud of it, that his children have to accompany him everywhere. Though only on screen for a couple of scenes, the impression he leaves, and the visceral reaction of the others to his behaviour, marks him out as something unique amongst the other regulars.

The subsequent plays concentrate mostly on the fortunes of one character, with the others making brief cameos (helping cement the feeling of continuity and the notion of an “ensemble” cast). “Moonlighter”, the second play, focuses on Dixie and his efforts to appear in control of both his family, in particular his wife Freda (Eileen O’Brien) and his eldest son Kevin (excellently played by the writer’s son, Gary Bleasdale), and employment, engaging in illegal work as a security guard down the docks. In a marvellously studied performance of a protracted descent into despair, Georgeson depicts Dixie as a violent and unpredictable husband, but also a desperately scared and meek worker, caught up above his head in illicit smuggling and bribery: He finds a (brief) release by reconciling his reward from the latter (money to keep quiet) with the former (handing it to Kevin to leave home).

It is in this episode that we begin to see the machinations of those higher up in the social services bureaucracy, their attempts to combat benefit fraud and the tactics they deploy to, in this case, reduce Dixie’s wife to a whimpering wreck. This distinction between the plotting superiors and their hapless foot soldiers (the dole clerks) is more explicit in the third play, “Shop Thy Neighbour” which, although essentially a character study of Chrissie and his often farcical, yet always strained marriage to Angie (Julie Walters), reveals far more of the workings of the Benefit Office and the sorts of personalities housed within.

The waspish, matronly head of the dole section Miss Sutcliffe (Jean Boht) is here contrasted with the unrepentant, coercive Assistant Manager (David Fleeshman), together with other disillusioned and slightly unstable personnel. The way the fate of so many unemployed people’s lives has become such a trivial game, with as much significance as watering the office plants, is hammered home frequently; yet surreally, Miss Sutcliffe’s mother is shown to be a crazed octogenarian with a penchant for pretending she’s killed herself; and all the while, Chrissie’s ability to articulate his feelings and emotions is in conflict with Angie’s less pronounced but more physical distress: “I’ve had enough of that ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry,’” she pleads, “this stupid sodding city’s full of it. Why don’t you cry, why don’t you scream, why don’t you fight back?” Their mutual anger collides in a climax involving the shooting of a herd of pet geese, the tragic and the comic going hand in hand.

The fourth play, “Yosser’s Story”, is in part a resolution of the ideological and thematic concerns Bleasdale has developed from the beginning – a resolution into fatality and a stripping away of a man’s work, his wife, his friends, his money, his children and ultimately his home. In an audacious mix of high farce, absurdity and acute tragedy, including an encounter with Graeme Souness, Yosser ricochets from one extreme – staid, pointed calm single-mindedness – to the other – explosions of physical violence and vocal anger – in an effort to cling onto his kids and his dignity. Bernard Hill’s performance is astonishing. The scene where police arrive to oversee the forced removal of Yosser’s children from his care is one of the most harrowing, moving and overwhelming moments in British television drama history. No superlative is really too lavish when trying to do justice to this hour long play.

The final episode, “George’s Last Ride”, is almost an extended epilogue, a what-happened-next to each of the characters, revolving around the last few days in the life of Snowy’s father George Mallone. Dying from some long-term illness, we follow George as he passes judgement on his life, Liverpool, the Labour movement, his friends, principles, memories and family. Superbly played by Peter Kerrigan, his is the character who acts as the series’ prism – through which all the key themes and ideas are most presciently filtered and delineated. His final, extended soliloquy on his life as a dock worker and trade unionist, delivered whilst being wheeled round the deserted crumbling Victoria and Albert Docks, is Bleasdale’s state-of-the-nation address: “They say that memories live longer than dreams. But my dreams, those dreams of long ago, they still give me hope and faith in my class. I can’t believe that there’s no hope.” Significantly, on its completion, once his points are made, George dies.

Everyone returns for his funeral, all characters assembling for the typically tragicomic send-off (including a drunk vicar and George’s widow “falling” into his grave by mistake). With nowhere else to go – literally – the play ends with a nightmarish visit to the local pub full of utterly insane, “colourful” local characters, united in their destitution and their desire to escape into the opiate of alcohol. It is too much for Chrissie and, on realising it is not just George who has died but “what he stood for – that’s dead an’ all, isn’t it …?” he wanders off with Loggo and Yosser in tow, down past the ruined wrecks of giant factories – moving to avoid staying still. Bleasdale ends with this denunciation not just of monetarist politics, but of far-left revolutionary ideologies as well – a theme he would return to in the spectacular GBH (1991).

With an earthy authenticity thanks to it being shot on videotape and superb direction by Philip Saville, Boys from the Blackstuff remains utterly contemporary – not least because the streets of South Liverpool, of Toxteth, Dingle and Aigburth where most of the characters live, have hardly changed in 20 years; the aesthetic of urban decay and structural disintegration is as painfully undisguised and ongoing now as it was when the plays were first filmed. Just as the ghastly inhumanity of the economic systems let loose on Britain in the early 1980s continues to be reinforced today, so the same victims, the same faces and names, tread the same paths to the Benefit Office. Watching the plays now reminds you of the inescapable fact that, in Liverpool at least, nothing has changed, nothing whatsoever. For that alone, we should give thanks that these plays exist and mark that appreciation as regularly, vociferously and emotionally as often as possible.