Great Expectations

Jack Kibble-White on reaction to Jake’s Progress

First published October 2000

Whilst Bleasdale had been away, at least one thing had changed. When people compared him to the “other bearded Liverpudlian writer”, they no longer meant Willy Russell. Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker shared many of the virtues of Bleasdale’s best work: emotional honesty, believable characters, dramatically unflinching, yet able to support moments of almost slapstick humour. In fact, such was the correlation that even Bleasdale’s “brother he never had” Robert Lindsay had been McGovern’s first choice to assume the role of Fitz. Whilst Bleasdale had been away, Cracker had successfully redefined the boundaries of what popular TV drama could be. So, it was into a surprisingly, healthy television environment that Bleasdale returned with Jake’s Progress.

Broadcast in the autumn of 1995, it shared the schedules with the final series of Cracker and also the beginning of Hollyoaks (which started on 23 October) – the Merseyside invasion of TV must have seemed complete. Six weeks later – whilst critics still openly and unanimously applauded McGovern’s work on Cracker – the reputation of Bleasdale seemed to have fallen under disrepute. Within the billing of the last episode of Jake’s Progress, The Guardian’s TV page asked, “Is anyone still watching?” Expectations clearly had not been met. Half a decade on, Jake is still perceived by many as the first sign of the creative downturn of its author. Does it deserve more?

Bleasdale’s stock was never so high as when he embarked upon Jake’s Progress. His previous work GBH had been universally hailed as a masterpiece, with journals as far afield as the Toronto Sun recognising it as “perhaps the best TV serial ever.” Whereas Boys from the Blackstuff had superbly captured the sense of urban decay of a society enduring the Thatcher revolution; and The Monocled Mutineer had confirmed that many of the themes of oppression raised in Blackstuff retained their relevance in a strikingly different context; GBH operated on a far broader canvas. Beginning as a study of local government corruption, the unfolding drama developed in scope to encompass characters, strategies and tragedies that not been previously explored in Bleasdale’s humanist, personal writing. The underlying strength of GBH though was its ability to encompass a helicopter view of events without losing the emotional connection to the protagonists. Yet, there was more than just thematic and narrative ambition that marked GBH out from its predecessors. In the blood and fury of superior storytelling we hardly seemed to notice that the central characters no longer lived on run down council estates, nor (more importantly) seemed to aspire to any kind of working class authenticity. Tellingly, the never seen, deceased father of Michael Murray was to be the last significant character penned by Bleasdale who cherished the socialist values once so much at the heart of his work.

Jake’s Progress began life as part of the aborted 700-page novel that also spawned GBH. Written specifically for the series’ two leads – Robert Lindsay and Julie Walters, it concerned – according to the Independent’s Thomas Sutcliffe – “what children do to their parents and vice-versa – about the difficult, emotionally bruising experience of trying to build a family, a construction for which the parts arrive piecemeal and for which the instructions are always missing.” The crushing financial reality of the outside world, coupled with two new arrivals (another baby and a mystery girl) into the lives of Jamie and Julie Diadoni formed the basis of what was to be a rigorous analysis into the pressures of the modern family. Perhaps uniquely for a British drama the duration for each episode seemed dependent only upon how long Bleasdale wished them to last. So, Jake’s world was served up to us in 100, 80, 75, 90, 75 and 95 minute portions. Writing in the Sunday Times, AA Gill voiced some discomfiture with this seemingly unprecedented artistic freedom: “Jake’s Progress has a problem, one I associate with success – nobody has dared edit it. Bleasdale is a small-screen god: what he writes is treated as writ. Jake desperately needed some Tristam to say: ‘Alan, baby, lose the first 20 minutes, they’re flabby.’”

That we are less able to assume a natural sympathy for a middle-class family living in splendid rural isolation, then a beleaguered couple struggling on a Merseyside estate is probably more of a reflection of our own personal prejudices then any fault on the part of the writer. Perhaps too, this is indicative of the patronising, left wing worthiness that the typical Bleasdale viewer often seems to bring to such dramas, and that the author himself seemed keen to escape. Jake’s Progress sought not to imply blame upon any single institution or ideology, but on the understandable fallacies of the individuals who reside within those societies. In pre-publicity, Bleasdale seemed determined that we should understand that Jake’s Progress was not fodder for a left-wing doctrine. In this light, it becomes immediately apparent why the author chose to play out his drama in a rural, conservative backdrop. Jake’s Progress would contain no explicitly political subtext to counterbalance the human drama (coincidentally, at around the same time McGovern’s work also fled the city and made for the hills – or to be more accurate The Lakes), thus expectant fans were unable to discern much about the subject matter that they could deem as immediately “worthy”. Was Bleasdale selling out, they asked? A contemporary interview finds the author seeking to distance himself from those who would use his work as a clarion for change: “I have no axe to grind” he comments, “no answers to give and I don’t want to change society. I want to reflect it”.

Such was our desire to decode and understand this new work so that we might be receptive to its transmission, that all aspects of the production were of significant interest. Talking about the cast to Andrew Duncan in Radio Times, Bleasdale was positively effusive: “I try to get inside actors, so they can bring out something I know is within them. Often they’re not aware of it themselves. I ‘knew’ Robert Lindsay without ever meeting him, after seeing him in a TV series, and always felt he would be the brother I never had. A lot of writers don’t even like actors, which bewilders me. I have more respect for them than anyone else in this profession. They breathe life into my work.” There was definite reciprocation from the performers as Lindsay described an approach of work from Bleasdale as “the phone call I’ve been waiting for for years”. With episode duration seemingly not an issue, there was an expectation that the characters would be fully formed when they hit our screens. Reports mentioned that earlier drafts of Jake’s Progress had dwelt on Jamie’s failed career as a fourth on the bill rock star. At one time the series was to begin with “him performing at the closing-down party of the mine where he is a surface worker.” Predictably for Jake’s Progress, the political connotations were stripped out and the scene removed. Robert Lindsay – for one – was disappointed: “What I’m getting now from the edit is that Jamie is a bit of a waster” the actor disclosed in The Independent. “I voiced my opinions to both the producer and Alan who’ve been very sympathetic, but in the end the series is about a boy growing up, and that’s right. What it makes me realise is that I’ll never ever be satisfied with the final cut, and when you start reaching that point, it’s time to think about doing something else.” Even the actors appeared to be a little unsettled by Bleasdale’s “new direction”.

So, to the transmission of episode one – and our reception of it. The first episode was broadcast on Thursday 12 October at 9pm, and – as Gill remarked – it did seem somewhat “flabby”. It would seem to be a prerequisite for a human drama that the audience is given an opportunity to formulate an opinion of the individual protagonists prior to the action really getting underway. The emotional investment we make is ultimately critical in determining the satisfaction we are able to derive from the drama. As the story begins, Bleasdale seems keen to focus – in particular – on the relationship between Jamie and Jake. Idyllic scenes unfold showing the pair playing on swings and strolling around the hilly coastline of some unspecified Northern English village. Jamie’s conversations with his son seem designed to amuse only himself, and – by extension – the author. It is here that Jake’s Progress – so quickly – would begin to grate. There is a self-indulgence to Jamie’s patois that is never properly justified. Is Bleasdale trying to prove he can write naturalist dialogue with the best of them?

The self-indulgence continues, as we become privy to a barrage of Jamie and Julie’s private jokes. We are aware that Bleasdale has grown to know these characters intimately, but we have not yet been able to form our own opinion. The uneasiness that this induces is similar to that of overhearing a couple referring to each other by private nicknames in a public environment. Unless we know them well, it is extremely unsettling. The Guardian quantified this discomfiture very eloquently on the day after transmission: “There’s an early scene … where a couple lie in bed laughing like drains at their own jokes. For a few moments it’s a rare pleasure to see such relaxed, naturalistic acting. ‘We don’t make Africas anymore,’ says Jamie … Julie looks blank. ‘It’s been a long time since we rip-roared rampant and stained the sheets and made a map of Africa,’ he explains. ‘We made a map of Bermuda a couple of weeks ago,’ she laughs. ‘The first time we made a map of Newfoundland.’ Your heart sinks; they’re going to name every landmass in the world before the scene is over. But just when you think this self indulgent vulgarity is Alan Bleasdale falling in love with his own humour, you realise that the fact the couple are talking this gag into the ground is a dramatic device to shift your sympathies. Their son, Jake, wanders into the bedroom to find his dad’s bottom peeping from under the duvet. ‘What are you doing dad?’ ‘I’m sorry I can’t stop at the moment. I’m in search of a rain forest,’ Jamie tells his son, but the quip is for his wife – alienating both son and viewers. Jake storms back to his bedroom, furious at being excluded from their world, and our sympathies are firmly with him.” Forgiving as this reviewer might be, it is difficult not to conclude that the subtext of this scene, as described here, may have been only in the interpretation of the reviewer, as opposed to planned intent.

Despite the leisurely pace, episode one concludes ensuring that all the key components of the drama are in place. Julie becomes pregnant as a result of Jamie’s “equatic explorations”; the uneasy relationship between Jamie and Grace Halliwell (Dorothy Tutin) has been sketched in as little more then a caricature of the beloved Northern comics’ mother-in-law/son-in-law relationship; the mysterious introduction of Jamie’s future lover – Kate (Amanda Mealing); and of course – the driving force behind the drama: the palm reading are all – in one way or another – set up. For those who would choose to think ill of Jake’s Progress, it is easy to identify Monica’s (friend of Julie – played by Lindsay Duncan) doomed prediction of Jamie’s future (“You will have an affair, just before you die”) as a blatant, rather clumsy attempt to provide a dramatic backbone to the meandering story. The proclamation is shown to have an almost immediate and deep impact on Jamie, yet Jake’s Progress‘ greatest downfall is perhaps its failure to make us understand exactly why this should be so. Once again, it is as if Bleasdale has forgotten that we have no previous acquaintance with the Diadonis. Such dramatic imbalances are unusual for Bleasdale, but not uncommon for Jake’s Progress. Having accused Bleasdale of time wasting, AA Gill has some more derogatory observations to make: “Finally, and this is a serious criticism, if a writer projects a truly shocking image into my drawing room then he’d better have a damn good dramatic excuse. We saw Jake trying very graphically to hang himself outside a kitchen window while, inside, his father was on the phone hearing about the birth of his new son. Life starting and life ebbing away. It was a horrifyingly well directed and performed little vignette, but it was totally out of kilter … and far worse, dramatically bogus.” The conclusion would seem to be that Bleasdale is shoehorning events into the narrative in order to allow him to tell the story he wants.

Episode one concludes just scant minutes after this scene with a teasingly playful moment in which Jake fantasises about luring his new baby brother over a cliff to plummet to certain death. Barclay Wright’s performance is extraordinary for a child of his age, yet whilst he seems able to imbue Jake with the requisite unquestioning love for his father that the script calls for, his attempts at revealing the inner machinations of the boy leave him somewhat reminiscent of Macauly Culkin – ensuring that episode one concludes on an emotionally phoney note. Whilst generally effusive, the press’ reaction hints at mounting confusion and attempts to compensate for what appears to be shortcomings on the part of the writer. Thomas Sutcliffe concludes his review in The Independent by pondering “It’s still not possible to say how Gothic this is going to get … It may turn out to be about innate wickedness after all”. Whilst Gill (again) complains that “we’re never told why or how Jake is so disturbed”. Unable yet to discern his motive, episode one stands as a first real challenge to our preconceptions of what a “good Bleasdale drama” should actually be. The dramatic economies and recognisable battlefields of Blackstuff and GBH are conspicuous by their absence. More disorientating though, these early indications suggest that the comparatively luxuriant settings of Jake’s Progress are matched by an indulgence in the scripts that is uncharacteristic and disappointing from an author who – just four years earlier – wrote the best TV drama ever.